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Kroc, ever the instigator, started thinking about building McDonald's stores all over the U.S.--each of them equipped with eight multimixers whirring away, spinning off a steady stream of cash. The following day he pitched the idea of opening several restaurants to the brothers. They asked, "Who could we get to open them for us?" Kroc was ready: "Well, what about me?"
The would-be Great War veteran would grow rich serving the children of World War II vets. His confidence in what he had seen was unshakable. As he noted later, "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, but I was convinced that the best was ahead of me." He was even more convinced than the McDonalds and eventually cajoled them into selling out to him in 1961 for a paltry $2.7 million.
He was now free to run the business his own way, but he never changed the fundamental format that had been devised by the brothers. Kroc added his own wrinkles, certainly. He was a demon for cleanliness. From the overall appearance, to the parking lot, to the kitchen floor, to the uniforms, cleanliness was foremost and essential. "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean," was one of his favorite axioms. He was dead on, of course. The first impression you get from a restaurant, through the eyes and nose, is often what determines whether you'll go back. By 1963 more than 1 billion hamburgers had been sold, a statistic that was displayed on a neon sign in front of each restaurant. That same year, the 500th McDonald's restaurant opened and the famous clown, Ronald McDonald, made his debut. He soon became known to children throughout the country, and kids were critical in determining where the family ate. According to John Mariani in his remarkable book America Eats Out, "Within six years of airing his first national TV ad in 1965, the Ronald McDonald clown character was familiar to 96% of American children, far more than knew the name of the President of the United States." Being a baby-boom company, McDonald's has found maturity a bit difficult. Its food today is as consistent as ever. But Americans are different, much surer of their tastes. They no longer need the security McDonald's provides. So the same assets that had made the restaurants so great started to turn against the company, especially after Kroc died in 1984. People looked at uniformity as boring, insipid and controlling, the Golden Arches as a symbol of junk-food pollution. Franchisees began to feel increasingly alienated from top management, especially in its aggressive expansion policies.
Ironically, no adjustments are needed outside the U.S. With restaurants in more than 114 countries, McDonald's still represents Americana. When I return to France, my niece's children, who are wild about what they call "Macdo," clamor to go there. It has a somewhat snobbish appeal for the young, who are enamored of the American life-style.
Still, it's likely Ray Kroc would have moved on to something else if he had found a better idea. Even after McDonald's was well established, Kroc still tried, often with dismal results, to move forward with upscale hamburger restaurants, German-tavern restaurants, pie shops and even theme parks, like Disneyland. He always had a keen sense of the power of novelty and a strong belief in himself and his vision.