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Book Review : How Fast Food Industry Has Gobbled Up America

January 29, 1987|ELIZABETH BAILEY | Bailey, formerly a business reporter for Newsweek magazine , writes frequently on business from New York. and

McDonald's: Behind the Arches by John F. Love (Bantam: $19.95)

What could be more simple than a French fry? More basic than a hamburger? In "McDonald's: Behind the Arches," author John F. Love shows the time, money and NASA-like ingenuity that went into developing these two staples of the McDonald's menu.

The French fry cost $3 million to perfect and, during the research phase, involved McDonald's trouble-shooters visiting franchisees armed with a hydrometer, a floating instrument measuring the solid content of potatoes. The hamburger, while starting out as a natural, underwent a complicated, and costly, metamorphosis when it was determined that frozen meat patties would be easier to cook as well as more predictable in their supply.

When Ray Kroc, a distributor of malted milk shake mixers, first visited the McDonald brothers' Southern California drive-in in 1954, America's love for fast food was still in the infatuation stage. The Southern California landscape was dotted with drive-in restaurants delivering an assorted variety of quick and cheap food, but the quality was spotty and the clientele mostly teen-agers. A&W root beer stands and Dairy Queen's soft ice cream outlets hinted at the possibility of franchising fast food, but neither developed a full menu. Kroc's genius was in recognizing that the McDonald brothers' formula for speedy service and spotless cleanliness could be transported across the country into every small town and large city.

Kroc, like the best entrepreneurs this country has produced, was a believer. Love refers frequently to Kroc's "missionary zeal," and that is probably an apt description of Kroc's drive to motivate employees, bankers and consumers to believe in the 15-cent hamburger (that price stuck for nearly two decades). Like most successful entrepreneurs, Kroc also rode a social wave. In this case, it was a wave away from the dinner table and into drive-ins and later fast-food restaurants.

Big Bite of Money

Americans now eat one out of every three meals out of the home. McDonald's, while it cannot be credited with creating the consumer demand for eating out, has certainly capitalized on it--17% of all restaurant dollars are paid out under the golden arches.

While Kroc's zeal provided the momentum for McDonald's fast-food forward roll, Love is careful to point out that it was the financial acumen of Harry Sonneborn that provided the earnings that made it all possible. Sonneborn repeatedly referred to McDonald's as a "real estate operation," not a hamburger business. It was his early insistence on buying leases and then sub-leasing, at a mark-up, to franchisees that provided the money that Kroc spent on perfecting the French fry and serving the operation as a whole. Later, McDonald's began buying property as well, so that in 1982, the fast-food chain surpassed Sears as the world's largest owner of retail real estate.

It took Love, a 14-year veteran Businessweek reporter, 4 1/2 years to write "McDonald's," and that time, along with the 300 interviews conducted with those close to the company, show in this minutely detailed account of the beginning and running of America's fourth largest retailer. Minutiae, while testifying to Love's ability as a reporter, does slow down the pace of what is a story about America and its eating habits as much as it is about one company. America's rush to fast food is predicated, but not explored. As a company biography, however, "McDonald's: Behind the Arches" is an authoritative look that does not miss one potato peel.

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