'Founder' movie offers shadowy view of McDonald's past

Chicago Tribune
January 07. 2017 7:56PM
McDonald's founder Ray Kroc is the subject of "The Founder," a coming film starring Michael Keaton. (Daniel McFadden/The Weinstein Company)

CHICAGO - Ray Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald's restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines in 1955. More than six decades and 36,000 restaurants later, moviegoers will get a chance to see a dramatized version of the burger giant's beginning, and a portrayal of a complicated, driven salesman-turned-self-proclaimed founder.

"The Founder," set to be released nationwide Jan. 20, stars Michael Keaton as Kroc, the man widely considered McDonald's creator.

McDonald's tells the story of Kroc as a symbol of the American dream: a man who worked hard for everything he had, with an eagle eye for quality and hyperfocus on efficiency and execution. But the film touches on questionable methods Kroc used to gain control of the company.

The filmmakers characterize Kroc, who died in 1984, at times as a power-hungry, unscrupulous salesman desperate to expand the McDonald's brand, according to the film's trailer and publicity materials.

The film's wide U.S. release comes at a critical moment for McDonald's. The company, under CEO Steve Easterbrook, is two years into an ambitious repositioning that has included the introduction of all-day breakfast, a new McPick 2 value menu, and the removal of antibiotics from chicken and preservatives from McNuggets. Next up is one of the most significant changes ever in the look and experience of eating at its restaurants - the introduction of kiosk ordering and Bluetooth-enabled table service - updates that will take shape just as a film is released that casts a shadow on the burger behemoth's beginnings.

Kroc, a Chicago-area native, was a 52-year-old milkshake machine salesman when he first encountered McDonald's, opened by two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, in California. (The McDonald brothers were New Hampshire natives.)

Amazed by the efficiency of the operation and speed of service, Kroc inked a deal with the brothers to open a franchise in Des Plaines in 1955. Other openings followed and within just three years, McDonald's had sold 100 million hamburgers. Within eight years, it had 500 restaurants. Today it has 14,000 U.S. locations and 22,000 more around the globe.

The details of the company's first years are disputed. In a number of interviews over the years, the McDonald brothers and their descendants said Kroc swindled them, eventually squeezing them out of the business.

In his 1977 autobiography "Grinding it Out," Kroc wrote that the pair were difficult to deal with and battled his efforts to expand the business from the start.

"They were obtuse, they were utterly indifferent to the fact that I was putting every cent I had and all I could borrow into this project," Kroc wrote of one frustrating early restaurant construction. In 1961, Kroc paid the brothers $2.7 million for the rights to the McDonald's name.

"Ray has a vision of global domination for McDonald's and does not want the two small-town hamburger guys slowing him down," the filmmakers say in their plot outline. Keaton is getting Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Kroc. The actor was nominated for his leading role in 2014's "Birdman" but has never won an Oscar.

McDonald's declined to discuss the movie and its potential impact. The Weinstein Company, the film's production company, didn't return requests for comment.

McDonald's has seen popular culture take aim at its image before. The 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" led to significant changes not just under the Golden Arches but throughout the fast-food industry. At McDonald's, "super-sized" fries and drinks went away and the company's "Go Active" campaign promoting healthy eating and exercise was ushered in.

Most experts believe a dramatization of McDonald's founder, even an unflattering portrayal, won't dent the company the way "Super Size Me" did, although some say the film may further polarize consumers who already had a negative perception of the corporation's power and influence.

Moran Cerf, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said "The Founder" echoes recent high-profile biopics in the way it highlights a driven entrepreneur, and the dark side of that drive.

"Is (Ray Kroc) the good guy because McDonald's is one of the biggest employers in the country, or a bad guy because they have such super control of society?" Cerf said. "You could say that about Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs."

Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, was the main character in the film "The Social Network" and Steve Jobs was portrayed most recently in an eponymous film starring Michael Fassbender as the Apple founder.

With 36,000 restaurants globally, McDonald's has unrivaled influence on culture and eating habits around the world. It has three times the sales of its closest rival, Subway.

"I can't think of many companies who are more of a mirror image of us," Cerf said. "It has become a symbol of American values all over the world."

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