“I was 52 years old. I had diabetes and incipient arthritis. I had lost my gall bladder and most of my thyroid gland in earlier campaigns,” Ray Kroc wrote in Grinding It Out, his 1977 autobiography and a seminal document on 20th-century American capitalism. “But I was convinced that the best was ahead of me.”
Kroc would go on to famously mastermind the franchising system, turning McDonald’s from a San Bernardino sapling into an American roadside staple and, eventually, the world’s most-recognizable brand. The Golden Arches now glimmer in thousands of cities in 100 countries on six continents and Kroc’s mantras, triumphs, and war stories are of legend in American business schools and boardrooms. More than 30 years after his death in 1984, Kroc’s exploits are still faithfully repackaged by sales gurus on LinkedIn, self-declared leadership experts, and aspirant marketeers. Though time has dulled his fame, by most contemporaneous accounts, Kroc was a hero. Esquire named Kroc to a list of 50 people who contributed to American life in the 20th century, placing him in a category of visionaries, alongside the likes of Abraham Maslow, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1998, TIME listed Kroc one of the 100 most important people of the entire 20th century in an entry written by the famed chef Jacques Pépin.
What Kroc understood was that McDonald’s reflected quintessential American qualities—affordability, efficiency, familiarity, and a lack of pretension—that would enable it to become a public institution. And so it did, forging an industry and inspiring hundreds of knockoffs along the way. One company estimate from the mid-1990s boasted that one out of every eight Americans had worked for McDonald’s at some point in his or her life. Beyond mere employment, the company has launched the careers of countless franchisees, including some women and minorities, whom Kroc helped turn from small-time entrepreneurs into millionaires. Today, the company claims that more than 80 percent of its franchises “are owned and operated by independent local business men and women.” Indeed, some of McDonald’s best and most enduring ideas, such as the Egg McMuffin and the Big Mac, were developed by franchisees themselves. “I would say that we're a company where more people have come up through the ranks and become successful than maybe any other company in maybe the world,” one McDonald’s owner-operator told me in 2014. Ray Kroc was not only held up as the embodiment of the American Dream, but a purveyor of it as well.
To some, the contours of this American Dream now sound as quaint and outdated as the styrofoam McDonald’s clam shell containers that sit on display in the National Museum of American History. Wages stagnated, income inequality exploded, and those shifts at McDonald’s, once rhapsodized as the first jobs for enterprising teenagers, became low-wage, part-time realities for adults. (The average age of an American fast-food worker is now 29.) For some, McDonald’s and its fast-food ilk no longer emblematize innovation or ingenuity, or the meat-and-potatoes charm of ascendent America. Instead, fast food has become an easy (and, at times, overly simplistic) symbol for a United States that’s out of shape, financially enfeebled, and ailed by a broken food system. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a swell of national pride at the image of thousands of Muscovites lining up in Pushkin Square—as they did 27 years ago this week—to inaugurate the very first McDonald’s in an unraveling Soviet Union.
It’s not surprising then that Kroc’s feats are less joyously chronicled in The Founder, an unflattering biopic about the 52-year-old future burger baron at the start of his long-delayed ascent. The film begins with Kroc (Michael Keaton) riding around the Midwest fruitlessly trying to sell multimixer milkshake machines, as if haunted by a voice whispering “coffee’s for closers.” After catching wind of the unusual success of a California hamburger stand, Kroc seeks out Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) at their modest operation near the western end of Route 66. It’s here that the vision that so many bestow upon Kroc’s legacy asserts itself. In San Bernardino, Kroc encounters an outfit that’s revolutionary in its appeal and efficiency—a family-friendly joint with no carhops, no dishware or utensils, and an assembly-line kitchen that dispenses a few items quickly and cheaply. Kroc cajoles the brothers into letting him franchise their restaurants nationally and, using control of franchise real estate as a cudgel, later muscles them out of their own business for $2.7 million.
Simmering grievances against the fast-food industry don’t entirely explain why the story of Ray Kroc merits relevance in 2017. The Founder also bears some strong resemblances to recent industry-themed movies—Steve Jobs, The Social Network—that have not only sought to chronicle the histories of hugely influential companies and gesture at their far-reaching impacts, but also gawk doubtfully at the manias of their creators. As a title, The Founder is a provocation: After all, the McDonald brothers created McDonald’s and, like the Winklevii of an earlier era, their roles have been mostly written out of the history.
Another potential and potent reason for its newsworthiness has to do with an additional theme that connects Kroc to the present day: the arrival of a hectoring, fast-food-loving salesman into the highest seat of power. “However decent the director’s original intentions, The Founder emerges as the first Trumpist film of the new era,” wrote The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane in his review. Another entry from Flavorpill is entitled “I Dare You to Watch ‘The Founder’ Without Thinking About Trump.” That The Founder’s release date switched twice before it was finally slated for wide release on Inauguration Day only fuels this theory.
For its part, The Founder could also be accused of dropping a few breadcrumbs that might generate connections between Kroc and Trump. Early in the film, Kroc ends a long day on the road in a motel room where he sits with a tumbler of Early Times whiskey and listens to an audio recording of a fictional book called “The Power of the Positive” by a fictional author named Dr. Clarence Floyd Nelson. The book is a very unsubtle homage to “The Power Of Positive Thinking,” a self-help manifesto that spent several years on bestseller lists following its release in 1952 and, as Gwenda Blair at Politico noted last year, was a fixture in the Trump household. The book’s author, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, even officiated Trump’s wedding to his first wife Ivana.
And though Kroc could be both self-aware and self-lacerating, it’s easy to imagine that the two thrice-married billionaires would certainly share affinities, including political philosophies. “It’s true that it would be hard to start a business like McDonald’s today, with all the interference you’d get from the government and the unions,” Kroc told People in 1975. More than 40 years later, these remarks don’t drift far from the tenor of comments made by Trump on the campaign trail or statements given by Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee to the lead the Department of Labor, who currently serves as the CEO of Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s burger chains.
Kroc’s tale of individual triumph is tightly wrapped within a context of collective destiny. Millions yearn for Kroc’s America even as many others despise what it has wrought. McDonald’s may not be a perfect token for a divided country, the shredded faith in its institutions, how it’s changed, or what truth its can-do ethos still offers, but it’s not a bad place to stop for lunch along the way.