Founder, The: Story of Ray Kroc, Played by Michael Keaton

The year is 1954.  Marilyn Monroe has just married Joe DiMaggio; Elvis Presley records “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for Sun Studio in Memphis; film producer Walt Disney is in the final stages of construction on his namesake theme park in Anaheim, California; and young homebuyers are flocking to the planned community of Levittown.

While the country was undergoing a postwar boom, in Illinois, 52-year-old businessman Ray Kroc is trying to make a living as a traveling salesman for Prince Castle Sales, whose main product is the five-spindle Multimixer used for making milkshakes at the popular drive-in restaurants that Americans are enjoying during this booming post-war period.

Ray struggles to make sales on his daily travels across the Midwest, as his dutiful longtime wife Ethel holds down the fort back at their home near Chicago.  While she has tried to provide Ray with support over the years, the tempo of his restless business life and pie in the sky ventures has her patience wearing thin.

When Ray hears that one particular drive-in restaurant way out west in San Bernardino, California has ordered six of his Multimixers, it immediately captures his attention.  What restaurant could possibly need to make 30 milkshakes at once?  So he sets out for California to meet with Dick and Mac McDonald, the purveyors of their eponymous popular hamburger stand, McDonald’s.  When he sees their remarkable operation, lights go off in Ray’s head.  He is certain that the brothers’ radical concept – assembly-line style food preparation and pared-down but highquality menu – has the potential to explode across the country, dotting every main street from coast to coast like a courthouse or a church.

Prior to their career as restaurateurs, the McDonald brothers worked in Hollywood driving trucks for Columbia Pictures during the Depression.  But when they discovered the potential for profits by being their own boss in the food service industry, they left and opened a hot dog stand in Arcadia.  That spawned their first McDonald’s, which they set up in nearby San Bernardino, where their 27-item menu included every food imaginable.  Trying to save money through efficiency, the brothers created a revolutionary approach they called the Speedee System.  The typical drive-in menu at the time was a sprawling affair, so the McDonald brothers pared it down into just the few items that most people were buying: hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks.  And this would be at a walk-up restaurant, not a drive-in. And finally, in their custom streamlined kitchen, the food preparation became a highly synchronized dance of speed and efficiency.

  At first the McDonald brothers hire Ray to be their franchising agent. Upon seeing Dick McDonald’s design of the unique golden arches exterior, Kroc insisted that every location should feature the iconic flourish, which stood out to passersby like a glowing halo. The golden arches were like a Pop Art beacon and instantly became a symbol as recognizable and ubiquitous as a bottle of Coca-Cola or can of Campbell’s Soup.

Back in Chicago, Ray begins recruiting scores of franchisees to open their very own McDonald’s.  In short time, Ray Kroc had opened 13 restaurants in and around Chicago and the Midwest with grand plans for expansion on both coasts and across the country.

After years of toil, things are finally going well for the middle-aged entrepreneur.  He meets a young and attractive kindred spirit in Joan Smith – the wife of one of his new franchisees – it soon spells trouble at home. And although the franchising operations are successful, Ray is under personal financial pressure because of his small cut. He’s also impatient over the slow rate of expansion, and frustrated by the stringent restrictions the McDonald brothers have placed on the design and basic operation of the restaurants.  Ray has a vision of global domination for McDonald’s and does not want the two small-town hamburger guys slowing him down.

That’s when Ray meets Harry Sonneborn, a financial whiz who offers him cogent advice: if Ray would think of McDonald’s as a real estate business rather than just a burger business, he may be able to sever his ties with the McDonald brothers and profit beyond his wildest dreams.  Harry’s idea is simple: Ray would buy the land for future McDonald’s sites and then franchisees would lease it from him.  That cut out the McDonald brothers since their rights only extended inside the walls of the restaurants and gave Ray a steady revenue stream.

Ray puts Harry’s clever and successful idea into action earning the bulk of the profits and leaving the McDonald brothers behind.  In 1961 Ray buys out the brothers’ stake in the McDonald’s and becomes its owner, president and CEO, and goes on to build the fast-food empire that makes him a legend in his own time.