'The Founder' tells real story about how McDonald's became a global fast food chain

The McDonald's empire is a $110 billion giant - loved by burger fans, loathed by nutritionists - and feeds 1 per cent of the world's population everyday.

Like Starbucks or Nike, it's a brand that's become synonymous with mass commercialisation, often at the expense of quality and integrity.

But the global fast food chain, which operates 34,480 restaurants in 119 countries, actually started out in 1954 as a single hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, California.

McDonald's started out totally different to how we know it now.
McDonald's started out totally different to how we know it now.

A new film out this week chronicles the rise of McDonald's from this family-run burger joint to the international behemoth it is today.

The Founder stars Michael Keaton (Batman, Spotlight, Birdman) as Ray Kroc, a self-described "52-year-old over-the-hill milkshake maker salesman" who turned the brand into a national franchise, pushing original owners Maurice and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Parks & Recreation's Nick Offerman) completely out of the business.

Actor Michael Keaton. Photo / AP
Actor Michael Keaton. Photo / AP

Written by Robert Seigel (The Wrestler) and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr Banks), the film is already generating Oscar buzz.

While Kroc is widely credited as the founder of McDonald's, the McDonald brothers actually came up with the basic formula for fast food as we know it.

The film's creators hope the movie will correct the historical record. "Like most people, I wrongly thought that Ray Kroc founded McDonald's," Seigel said. "I had no idea that there were these two brothers. I assumed McDonald's was a made up name," he said.

In the 1950s, drive-through diners were all the rage. You ordered your food in your car, it was delivered on a tray and you ate it off a china plate with silverware. Disposable packaging just wasn't around yet.

The original owners of McDonald's were ultimately pushed out of the franchise by Kroc.
The original owners of McDonald's were ultimately pushed out of the franchise by Kroc.

But the first McDonald's restaurant changed all that. Customers got out of their cars, walked up to the service window and ordered off a tightly-edited menu, serving just hamburgers, fries, soft drinks and milkshakes. Within seconds, your neatly packaged meal was presented in paper bag, with your drink in a paper cup. It was an instant hit.

Both brothers were content with their one outrageously successful restaurant, until Kroc came along. A flailing salesman waiting for his next big thing, he saw franchising potential in McDonald's.

The brothers wanted to keep operations small to retain quality control, but reluctantly agreed to go into business with Kroc.

"McDonald's can become the new American church," Keaton's character tells the brothers
Kroc expands too quickly and starts making changes Mac and Dick aren't happy with. Eventually, Kroc buys them both out for $US 2.7 million and appoints himself the founder of the new McDonald's Corporation.

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who made McDonald's as we know it today.
Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who made McDonald's as we know it today.

Siegel's script is not kind to Kroc. "I think he's kind of an asshole," he said.

Kroc comes across as a money-hungry leech who is more interested in expansion for expansion's sake, rather than preserving the integrity of the brand.

"But in his defence," Seigel said, "I would say he is not unlike just about every other business mogul. You read any biography of a titan of business or industry, like Steve Jobs or Henry Ford, and usually they're sons of bitches. To bend the world to your will and to achieve to some extent - I guess it's a chicken and an egg thing. You need those qualities in order to succeed. Do you think Steve Jobs could have done what he did without being a prick?"

What does he think the brothers would think of McDonald's Corporation today? (Maurice died in 1971, too early to see his idea become an international sensation, and Dick died in 1998).

McDonald's changed the nature of Drive-Ins.
McDonald's changed the nature of Drive-Ins.

"The easy answer is that they would be horrified, but I'm not so sure. I think it would be a lot more complicated than that," Seigel said.

"It's not like they didn't want to get big, they just didn't want to get huge. I think they would have said their dream was to have 10 to 15 restaurants. Back then, that would have been an enormous chain.

"They didn't have chains on the scale that there are now. It's not like these guys were small-minded or small thinkers. It's just that he [Kroc] was thinking on a scale that no one thought of. It just didn't exist."

McDonald's revolutionised the fast food industry, but few know the story behind its rise.
McDonald's revolutionised the fast food industry, but few know the story behind its rise.

Siegel says the famous American burger chain In-N-Out, which caused a huge fuss when it launched a pop-up in Sydney earlier this year, is the closest thing to what the McDonald brothers would have wanted.

In-N-Out has 305 stores across California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Oregon and the company refuses to expand further east. Like the brothers, they're obsessed with maintaining quality control.

"At In-N-Out Burger, we make all of our hamburger patties ourselves and deliver them fresh to all of our restaurants with our own delivery vehicles," In-N-Out vice president of planning and development Carl Van Fleet told Business Insider.

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"Nothing is ever frozen. Our new restaurant locations are limited by the distance we can travel from our patty-making facilities and distribution centres."

"It's always been a privately owned company and the burgers are incredible," Seigel said. "It's not that corporate, industrial supersize me thing.

"They're voted best fast food burger and they kind of embody the spirit of what the McDonald's brother would have wanted to become. Let's make a really good product and be a beloved brand."'

The filmmakers own the life rights to the McDonald brothers and the movie has the blessing of their loved ones.

"We screened the movie for their family and I was told they really, really liked it which means a lot to me," Siegel said.

Ray Kroc feeds into the public appetite for morally ambiguous characters - he's neither a good guy or a bad guy.
Ray Kroc feeds into the public appetite for morally ambiguous characters - he's neither a good guy or a bad guy.

Kroc, who died in 1984, may have been less happy with his portrayal. But Seigel argues audiences are growing tired of the cliched "triumphant story of an underdog" and are more interested in exploring "morally ambiguous" characters.

"By the end you either hate [Kroc], or don't know what to think of him. I think Michael [Keaton] did a really good job of walking that line between the underdog and the monster," he said.

"I hope some people walk out of the movie theatre not knowing how to feel. I like movies that have a certain amount of moral ambiguity to them. For me, those are the best kind of movies."

The Founder is released in cinemas from Thursday.

- news.com.au

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