“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.