Ray Kroc and the McDonald’s Story

A Look at the Legend Behind the Golden Arches

There isn’t a more recognized franchise brand than McDonald’s or a more legendary franchisor than Ray Kroc. The passionate mastermind behind the Golden Arches can take credit for the burger franchise’s early expansion, but contrary to the title of his 2016 biopic, “The Founder,” Kroc was not the founder.  

Kroc is known for his intense passion for the McDonald’s brand, and it all started from the moment he discovered the revolutionary fast-food restaurant as a traveling salesman. In 1954, Kroc visited the original McDonald’s location in San Bernardino, Calif., to sell multimixers (blenders with multiple spindles) to Dick and Maurice McDonald to increase their milkshake production. After learning that the company was looking for a franchise agent, Kroc was determined to make the McDonald’s brand ubiquitous across the country.

Little did Kroc know that the McDonald’s franchise would eventually grow to thousands of locations around the world and feed millions of people daily. So what is the story behind Ray Kroc? Here, we dive into the life and legacy of the man who called himself the founder of the McDonald’s franchise.  

Kroc’s Early Years

Kroc was born in Oak Park, Ill., on October 5, 1902, to Czech-American parents, Rose Mary and Alois Kroc. His early entrepreneurial adventures included a lemonade stand in front of his parents’ house.

He also had a strong sense of service to others. At 15, Kroc lied about his age to become a Red Cross ambulance driver during WWI, but ultimately never went overseas. Following the war, Kroc worked as a real estate salesman, a jazz pianist, and a salesman for the Lily-Tulip Cup Co. He became interested in the franchising industry after meeting the McDonald brothers.

McDonald’s and Franchising

Ray Kroc, McDonald's burger
Ray Kroc wasn’t the original founder of McDonald’s, but his innovation and business-savvy helped the company become what it is today. 

McDonald’s was so efficient and replicable that Kroc knew it was perfect for franchising. He was especially impressed by the McDonald brothers’ “Speedee Service System,” which was based on volume, lower prices, and speed to ensure that customers didn’t have to wait for their food. The McDonald brothers, who already franchised the business and appreciated Kroc’s enthusiasm, gave Kroc a 10-year master franchise agreement to open and franchise their restaurants throughout the U.S.

Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955, under a new business venture, McDonald’s System, Inc., which was a predecessor to the McDonald’s Corporation. Kroc ramped up the brand’s franchise numbers and founded the Franchise Realty Corporation, which handled the company’s real estate deals. Harry Sonneborn, the McDonald’s Corporation’s first CEO and president, helped Kroc understand the importance of real estate and devised the strategy of owning land and leasing it to the franchisees.  

Some of the McDonald’s franchise’s most popular items, such as the Filet-O-Fish, Big Mac, and Egg McMuffin, were created due to the franchise expansion credited to Kroc’s Franchise Realty Corporation. But, Kroc didn’t get to where he was by being timid — or easy to work with.

Kroc’s Tumultuous Personal Life

Kroc was a bit of a “workaholic” and perfectionist, which caused him to have some personal troubles. As depicted in “The Founder” film, Kroc was difficult to work with and constantly complained about how dirty the restaurants were.

Kroc’s dedication to the business also strained his marriages. His first wife, Ethel Fleming, didn’t approve of his decision to sell milkshake machines or his obsession with the McDonald’s franchise. Their marriage ended in 1961 when Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers’ $2.7 million stake in the company. Kroc’s second marriage, which was to Jane Dobbins Green, also ended in divorce. Kroc’s third and final marriage was with Joan Mansfield Smith, the ex-wife of one of his franchisees, Rowland Smith. Kroc’s union with Joan lasted until his death in 1984. His difficult personality paired with his relentless need to succeed was a style all its own.

Kroc-Style

“Kroc-style” business tactics involved him acting like the founder of McDonald’s when he was not. Using this abrasive tactic, Kroc could be credited with a lot of the McDonald’s franchise systems’ efficiency. For example, he introduced large-scale mass production to the service industry when he introduced strict codes of conduct and ethics to the company.

Kroc was also responsible for the creation of the franchise’s training program in 1961, which was later called Hamburger University. He launched it in the basement of the McDonald’s franchise restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Ill. With this program, franchisees were taught how to properly run a McDonald’s restaurant using new storing, cooking, and serving methods. Franchisees also learned about the “three-legged stool” business model, which balances the interests of business operators, employees, and suppliers. A great training program attracts entrepreneurs to franchising. 

Kroc also wanted his franchisees to be passionate about the business and is credited with saying, “If you work just for money, you’ll never make it. But, if you love what you’re doing and you always put the customer first, success will be yours.” 

If you work just for money, you’ll never make it. But, if you love what you’re doing and you always put the customer first, success will be yours.

Kroc’s Legacy

Until his death, Kroc never really stopped working for the Golden Arches. Through its ups and downs, McDonald’s has maintained the Golden Arches standard of franchising, and Kroc had a big role in that. Like many other franchise founders, Kroc never gave up on his dreams and didn’t let hard times get him down. Kroc also didn’t become successful until later in life, similar to the KFC franchise’s founder, Colonel Harland Sanders. Other burger franchises like Burger King may have sprung up as a result of McDonald’s, but no other franchise has been quite able to achieve the level of success of the Golden Arches.  

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Haley Cafarella is a passionate journalist and content developer. In her role as content and marketing specialist for IFPG, she creates original content for the franchise broker network's ongoing initiatives and writes articles for FranchiseWire.com.
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