Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
How many people know a thing about the founder of McDonald’s? We’ll be the first to admit that until recently, we hadn’t given the chain’s backstory very much thought.
Then Netflix dropped 2016 hit movie The Founder on its platform, and suddenly it’s literally all we can think about…
The film, starring the likes of Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman and John Caroll Lynch, tells the story of the two McDonald’s brothers and an opportunistic milkshake salesman named Ray Kroc – and it reveals a rather bleak turn of events led to the global franchise we know and love today.
You can watch the trailer below:
So, what happened in The Founder movie?
It goes without saying that there are spoilers ahead, so read them at your peril.
The Founder movie saw a down-and-out salesman Ray Kroc blown away by the ‘speedy-system’ at Dick (Richard) and Mac (Maurice) McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California, after they ordered eight milkshake machines from him.
Keen to get a piece of the pie, he persuaded them to franchise their idea, which threw the concept of a drive-in on its head and focused on high quality food and scrupulously consistent results, which kept customers coming back again and again.
After a failed attempt at franchising in the past, the brothers were nervous, but the founders of McDonald’s entered into a contract with Kroc, putting him in charge of the operation, on the condition they could keep control of everything that went on inside the restaurants.
Ray Kroc then went about franchising McDonald’s – first to wealthy friends and then to middle class go-getters who were invested in the idea, and had an equal go-getting attitude to him.
And as franchises begun to pop up, his head grew a little bigger, too. Before long, Ray Kroc was telling people he was the creator of McDonald’s, conducting business meetings with ‘associate’ Fred Turner, who was actually a burger cook at the chain’s Des Plaines restaurant.
The big issue for Ray Kroc was that his franchisees were doing better out of the deal than him, and he was struggling to break even.
The McDonald’s brothers refused to renegotiate the contract to give him a bigger slice of the pie, and were reluctant to implement any money saving ideas, like powdered milkshakes, because they affected the quality of their offering.
It’s at this point that things started to turn ugly. Ray Kroc met Harry Sonneborn, a financial consultant, who suggests his business should be in providing real estate to the franchisees, ensuring he not only has money coming in but power over the franchisees and the McDonald’s founders.
Before long, a new company, Franchise Realty Corporation was born, investors were involved and Ray Kroc was rolling out McDonald’s restaurants without the brothers’ approval (and even distributing powdered milkshakes despite not technically being allowed).
He then renamed the company McDonald’s Corporation (again, without asking the brothers) and requested buying the McDonald brothers out, which sent Mac into diabetic shock.
Eventually, Ray Kroc and the brothers agreed on a $2.7 million (£2.1m) chunk of money. He let them keep their restaurant in San Bernardino and shook on 1 percent royalties annually (which he later didn’t honour).
One of the most depressing scenes in the movie showed the McDonald’s brothers removing their name from their restaurant after Ray Kroc lays claim to it. He later tells Dick his main interest in their name, and how it made the restaurant sound like a hearty, family endeavour.
Pretty savage, right?
How true is The Founder movie?
Obviously, as is always the case with movies based on real life, there are some elements that have been added for embellishment, but the majority of The Founder movie actually happened.
Here are a few of the movie’s pivotal moments and how accurate they were:
Ray Kroc’s character
The movie paints Ray Kroc to be… well, a bit of an awful guy. Nobody can speak for his true character, but what the movie does get right is that he’s tenacious and a go getter.
The Founder movie’s portrayal of Ray Kroc as someone who was struggling to make ends meet was definitely a true reflection of where he was when he met the McDonald’s brothers in 1954 – he was indeed a milkshake mixer salesman who was down on his luck.
But it also correctly framed him as someone with business instinct.
He told TIME magazine in 1973: “When I got [to the McDonald’s], I saw more people waiting in line than I had ever seen at any drive-in. I said to myself, ‘Son of a bitch, these guys have got something. How about if I open some of these places?'”
Can’t argue he was right about that, can you?
Whilst the movie depicts Ray Kroc driving down to California the day he got the milkshake order, the reality is he hopped on a plane and visited the brothers the next day, according to History vs Hollywood.
Ray Kroc wasn’t the first to franchise McDonald’s
One of the biggest points to note is that, whilst Ray Kroc certainly catapulted McDonald’s to the global franchise it is today, the McDonald’s brothers had already begun franchising their eatery when they met him. They even had a previous franchise manager Bill Tansey, who had quit due to ill health.
There’s a brief reference to the fact they had already tried and failed franchising in The Founder movie, but in actual fact the brothers are said to have had six locations by 1954, when they met Ray Kroc, according to Money.
To say that Kroc was the one to make franchising successful would certainly be true, but he wasn’t responsible for the initial idea.
Ray Kroc didn’t come up with the Golden Arches
In the The Founder movie, we see Ray Kroc brainstorm McDonald’s Golden Arches as an iconic brand identifier.
However, Business Insider states these were actually created by had architect Stanley Clark Meston before they even met Ray Kroc, back in 1952.
Ray Kroc did claim McDonald’s as his own
One of the most absurd moments of The Founder movie was when Ray Kroc started claiming McDonald’s as his own idea in business meetings.
But this actually did happen. In fact, Kroc’s own biography dubs him the founder of McDonald’s and states that his first franchise in Des Plaines, Ill. was the first restaurant the chain opened.
Whilst it is true this was the first McDonald’s as we know it, it erases the McDonald’s brothers and the restaurant that inspired Ray Kroc from the story.
McDonald’s caused issues in Ray Kroc’s marriage
Like the The Founder represents, Ray Kroc did have issues in his marriage with his wife Edith (Laura Dern), and this was in part to do with the Golden Arches.
The businessman is said to have spent so much time working that he wasn’t at home much, like we see in the movie.
We learn in Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s that he and his wife did indeed divorce in 1961, when he shelled out to buy the McDonald’s brothers’ stake in their company.
He also had a daughter called Marylin, which the film doesn’t depict.
Ray Kroc did meet piano player Joan Smith at a restaurant
The Founder depicts Joan Smith and Ray Kroc’s meeting as a moment of distraction during a business meeting, when Ray Kroc spots Joan playing piano.
This much is true, although in the movie, Ray Kroc is meeting Joan’s husband (who is portrayed to be the restaurant owner), whilst IRL, the restaurant’s owner was called Jim Zien and he was not Joan’s husband.
Her husband, Rollie Smith, did end up managing the location Jim Zein set up, according to Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s, so his involvement with Ray Kroc wasn’t completely fabricated.
Ray Kroc had another wife after his divorce, before Joan Smith
As for Ray Kroc’s relationship with Joan Smith? They did end up together, like the movie represents.
However, following his divorce from Edith, he actually married someone called Jane Dobbins Green before he and Joan Smith tied the knot.
They divorced in 1968 and he married Joan the following year, after years of her kids trying to convince her not to.
Ray Kroc really did go back on a handshake deal with the McDonald brothers
It was heartbreaking when The Founder saw Ray Kroc shake hands with the McDonald’s brothers and assure them they’d get 0.5 percent royalties, but refuse to put it in writing.
The duo ended up getting nothing, though he notes in his book: “If they had played their cards right, that 0.5 percent would have made them unbelievably wealthy.”
History vs Hollywood says their royalties would have been worth $15 million (£12m) a year by 1977 and $305 million (£240m) a year 2012.
McDonald’s restaurants were actually true-to-life
Whatever you want to question about the plot, one thing that was very spot on was the depiction of the McDonald’s restaurants.
That’s because the movie had to get McDonald’s permission to include branding and restaurant designs, according to the New York Times.
Maccies said the movie could use their iconography as long as it they portrayed the company accurately, and production designer Michael Corenblith went to great lengths to do this, using “old photographs, blueprints and other archival material” as inspiration for the set.
He is even said to have made trips to McDonald’s restaurants to measure them so he could get sizing exactly right.
The end result was two lifesize McDonald’s restaurants which look strikingly similar to how they did when the movie depicts.
So, there you have it.
What was people’s reaction to The Founder movie on Netflix?
The Founder has provoked quite a reaction since landing on Netflix, with many people criticising Ray Kroc and stating they feel sorry for the McDonald brothers – arguably the real founders of McDonald’s.
Whilst another penned: “Learned that Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds is a man who cares about business more than being human. Not really an inspiring story #thefounder.”
At the time of the movie’s release many had similar sentiments, with one writing: “#TheFounder verdict: extremely well acted, great commentary on the ruthlessness of big business, utterly heartbreaking storyline.”
“I just watched “The Founder” and I’ve never hated a guy as much as I hate Ray Kroc. I can never really understand how can a person be so selfish and self-indulgent. It’s so sad to know what happened to the McDonald brothers after giving up the franchise. #TheFounder #McDonalds,” someone else tweeted.
There were some who gave Kroc more credit, though.
One wrote: “I don’t watch much tv if any, but I’m re-watching The Founder, the story of Ray Kroc and how he turned a single stand alone McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino into a global empire. Very inspirational!!!”
Still unsure what to think? Check the movie out on Netflix for yourself!
Featured image: Getty/ The Weinstein Company/ Everett