Brothers Mac and Dick McDonald, the true founders of the golden arches, innocently place an order for eight milk shake mixers from Ray Kroc, a sales rep for Prince Castle. Those mixers were special to Ray Kroc since each mixer was designed to make five milkshakes at once. They embodied Kroc’s business philosophy: increase the supply, and the demand will follow. Despite this sound economic theory upon which all his sales pitches were based, Kroc couldn’t make a single sale to the many jukebox blaring 1950’s diners sprinkled across the Midwest. Nobody had the need to make five milkshakes at once, and restauranteurs did not want to risk an investment just to prove Kroc supply and demand theories right or wrong. So when Kroc received an order for eight mixers, he dropped everything and drove halfway across the country to witness the well-oiled machine that was – and still is – a McDonald’s kitchen.
What Ray Kroc witnesses at the first McDonald’s was the epitome of his supply and demand based philosophy. Mac and Dick reinvented the restaurant kitchen to truly make it fast. In a fascinating scene, one I have a special appreciation for having worked in a fast food kitchen for two years, the McDonald’s brothers (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman) use sidewalk chalk to design their dream kitchen to scale. Every square inch must be perfectly utilized to maximize output. Workers had one task and one task only. While someone grilled the burgers, another placed precisely two pickles and a mound of shaved white onion atop a calculated amount of ketchup and mustard. While someone dipped diced potatoes into a Fryer A, another pulled golden French fries out of Fryer B. All this efficiency and focus to bring customers a meal in just 30 seconds.
Witnessing the magic of a 30 second meal and how it delighted customers, Kroc [Michael Keaton] quits his day job as an appliance salesman to pour his life into taking the McDonald’s name to every town in America. By franchising the name and design, he can enable entrepreneurship, pay a royalty to the McDonald brothers, and take a little off the top for his efforts. But as one may expect, that sounds a little too neat and tidy to be the premise of a Hollywood film.
The Founder really shines as a character study of Ray Kroc’s personal demise. Yes, as a business man he made McDonald’s the global success that it is, but the personal sacrifices he makes along the way are tragic, and brilliantly performed by Keaton and Laura Dern, playing Ethel Kroc. Their marriage experiences agonizing fallout as Ray pursues greater success and fame.
From a business perspective, the McDonald’s company is also a fascination of mine. In college I engaged in a three month long study of the company’s financial position and business model and came to one simple conclusion: Ray Kroc’s fascination with increasing supply to prompt an increase in demand is a deeply flawed business model. What business executive may call economies of scale, consumers call quantity of quality. The Academy Award nominated documentaries Super-Size Me and Food, Inc. effectively link economies of scale and other low-price leading business models to a rise in unhealthy food, and McDonalds’ catalytic role in such food production trends.
Kroc’s ambition for profit and power is like the fictional businessman, John Hammond of Jurassic Park, a man entirely focused on “coulda” rather than “shoulda.” At least Hammond – unlike Kroc – allowed his intentions to be challenged through healthy debate with experts. As The Founder unfolds, I recalled Ian Malcom’s monologue from Jurassic Park – the thematic parallels are undeniable:
“If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific economic power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others Mac and Dick had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourself, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now *bangs on table* you’re selling it, you wanna sell it…your scientists franchisees were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The Founder is essentially the Jurassic Park of the food industry. Only much more frightening since obesity has killed over two million people in 2016 alone. Beat that Indominus Rex.
John Lee Hancock’s direction represents a compelling addition to his filmography of real life stories. While his previous hits, The Rookie, The Blind Side, and, to some extent Saving Mr. Banks, conclude with tear jerking moments of triumph and emotional resonance. The Founder concludes with a far more unsettling feeling. Like if you ate a Big Mac®, large fry, and a McFlurry®, and then tried to walk up a flight of stairs too quickly.