This August, a movie recounting the controversial origins of McDonald’s hits theaters. A crucial part of that story started in Arizona.

Mac Daddy

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: History Issue: August 2016
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Judging by the previews,, the new film The Founder portrays McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc as a McMachiavellian Hamburglar who convinces the McDonald brothers to franchise their restaurant, then rips off their concept and makes a killing. “Franchise the damn thing,” says Michael Keaton as the cocky Kroc. “McDonald’s can be the new American church, and it ain’t just open on Sundays, boys.”

What the movie may or may not mention is that years before Kroc super-sized the fast-food chain, the very first McDonald’s franchise – and the first to feature the original Golden Arches – opened here in Phoenix.

The story of McDonald’s is inseparable from the story of America as it rocketed from the Great Depression to the Space Age. In the ’20s and ’30s, legions of jobless Easterners and Midwesterners flocked to the sunny, promising Pacific Coast. Among them were New Hampshire brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald (aspiring filmmakers better known as Mac and Dick), who journeyed to Tinseltown with stars in their eyes.

Like many Hollywood hopefuls, they had to fall back on Plan B: the restaurant biz. In 1940, Mac and Dick debuted McDonald’s Famous Bar-B-Q in San Bernardino, Calif. It was a classic of the new Age of the Automobile: Carhops in skirts and majorette boots sashayed between as many as 125 parked cars, serving plates of slow-roasted ribs. 

But eventually, rifling through their receipts, the brothers discovered that 80 percent of their customers’ orders were hamburgers. They also noticed their carhops and cooks were slow, turnover was ruinously high, and teenagers were constantly stealing the silverware. Time and money were leaking away like ketchup down the side of a burger. 

“Customers weren’t demanding it, but our intuition told us that they would like speed,” says Dick McDonald in McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, by John F. Love. “Everything was moving faster. The supermarkets and dime stores had already converted to self-service, and it was obvious the future of drive-ins was self-service.”

So in 1948, the brothers shut their doors for a few months and reengineered the restaurant. Inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly line production, they launched the Speedee Service System. “Grill men,” “fry men,” “shake men,” “dressers” and “countermen” each had just one duty. (The new restaurant employed only men – perhaps, Love speculates, because female carhops attracted flirtatious crowds that slowed down service.)  

Working with craftsmen, the brothers developed machines that formed patties and squirted mustard, a lazy Susan for dressing 24 buns at a time, and “heat bars” to warm pre-prepared food. With these innovations, they maximized speed and volume while paying the fewest people the littlest amount possible and charging about half the price. Customers loved it. 

Soon the McDonald brothers decided they needed a modern building befitting this contemporary concept. They met with California architect Stanley Clark Meston. Dick brought a sketch of an unusual design featuring a yellow half-circle on either side of the building. The architect was skeptical of these “Golden Arches.” According to the book Googie Redux, by architectural critic Alan Hess, Meston said to himself, “Do I dare? Is this going to turn out to be some kind of flaky thing, or is this really going to work?… Finally I said, ‘No, this’ll work.’”

With their eye-catching blueprint in hand, the brothers sought franchisees. The first to step up was Phoenician Neil Fox of General Petroleum Corporation. Fox called his colleagues Roger Williams and Bud Landon and told them they could make $20,000 to $100,000. “For a hamburger stand?” Landon scoffed. “Now I know you’re going crazy.” 

Nevertheless, the trio bought the franchise license for $1,000. None of the gasoline businessmen had restaurant experience, so they trained for a few weeks in the San Bernardino McDonald’s. Then in May 1953, they opened the first franchise at Central Avenue and Indian School Road in Phoenix.

Mac and Dick assumed Fox would name the restaurant Fox’s, according to McDonald’s: Behind the Arches. When Fox said he was calling it McDonald’s, Dick responded, “What the hell for? McDonald’s means nothing in Phoenix.” That would soon change, and because of Fox’s decision, all subsequent franchises were called McDonald’s.

History McNuggets

Arizona is home to two more McDonald’s firsts. 

In January 1975, the chain’s first drive-thru opened in Sierra Vista.
Soldiers at nearby Fort Huachuca were forbidden from wearing
their fatigues in civilian locations, and it was a hassle to have to go
home, change clothes, then comeback to McDonald’s for Big Macs.
“So,” Marshall Trimble says, “the enterprising manager of the local
McDonald’s knocked a hole in his wall, put in a window, and presto:
the first drive-thru for the franchise.” 

And in 1993, Sedona opened a McDonald’s that became the chain’s
first – and still only – location without the Golden Arches (pictured).
Instead, the franchise sports turquoise arches, designed to blend
into the landscape and architecture, in accordance with local
restrictions. 

The Phoenix McDonald’s was the first to employ Meston’s sleek design and the Golden Arches. (The San Bernardino original was redesigned later that year.) Surprisingly, the arches were not conceived to resemble an “M.” That idea came about five years later, Alan Hess writes in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Rather, the flashy parabolas were the product of a time before widespread TV commercials. Back then, roadside businesses’ architecture had to serve as billboards that caught the eye and instantly conveyed the culture à la mode.

The distinctive design of the Valley’s first fast-food burger joint did just that, according to Hess’ sweepingly romantic description: “Its echo of daring structural forms evoked in the public mind a century of progressive engineering celebrated in high art and popular design… Gleaming surfaces of red and white ceramic tile, stainless steel, brightly colored sheet metal, and glass implied cleanliness and machine-made precision… Night or day, they presented a forceful image of ultramodernity.”

To children of the ’50s, McDonald’s meant independence. Kids could march up to the counter with a fistful of coins and order their own meal. One of those kids was Marshall Trimble, now Arizona’s Official State Historian. “I was playing American Legion baseball,” he says, “and we’d stop [at McDonald’s] each evening after our ball games. Hamburgers cost 15 cents and cheeseburgers 19 cents.”

In the early 1960s, the building was torn down. Today, a Yoshi’s fast-food restaurant stands on the same spot. 

The McDonald’s company endured similar upheavals. Captivated by the restaurants’ speedy service and sales figures, milkshake mixer salesman Ray Kroc bought the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s method, then the real estate on which every franchise stood, then the company itself. The San Bernardino flagship wasn’t part of the deal, but without the rights to their own name, the McDonald brothers were forced to rename the restaurant. Shrewdly, Kroc – who perpetuated a myth that he’d started the restaurant empire – opened a nearby McDonald’s and drove the San Bernardino location out of business.

In recent years, McDonald’s has seen its earnings plummet by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. It’s even resorted to selling kale and refashioning the Hamburglar as a hipster – all signs of a new culture à la mode.