The image on this page represents the first McDonald’s franchise opened by Ray Kroc in Des Plaines, Illinois, outside of Chicago, on April, 15, 1955. His store was not the first ever McDonald’s restaurant, mind you. It wasn’t even the first McDonald’s franchise, it’s just the first one opened by the guy who went on to make McDonald’s the international juggernaut it is today.
The photo here is not the actual McDonald’s which stood on this spot. It’s in much too good a shape for that. The original store was torn down in 1984, but McDonald’s kept the site and eventually constructed this accurate replica there, which is now a museum and doesn’t actually serve any burgers, let alone for 15 cents a piece. A modern McDonald’s was opened right across the street.
This image is public domain. It is part of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive of the Library of Congress, who has stipulated that all of her photos be public domain. The date is was taken is not precisely known, but it would have been some time after 1984 and before 2006. You are free to re-use this image, although be aware that it contains a brand (McDonald’s), and therefore certain uses may be improper. Although citation is not required for public domain images, you can credit the image: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Be aware that the other photos on this page, are not public domain, but are published in the Creative Commons, by the rights-holders indicated in the captions.
The first Ray Kroc restaurant site now operates as a museum, with McDonald’s memorabilia, video and multimedia displays, and even a replica of Kroc’s office. The museum is located at 400 Lee st. in Des Plaines, Illinois and it open from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM, Monday through Friday.
The First McDonald’s
The first McDonald’s restaurants were actually opened by Richard and Maurice McDonald (Mac and Dick). They had moved from New Hampshire to Los Angeles in 1930, trying to break into the movie business. They did work as set builders at Columbia Film Studios but this, apparently was not a dream come true. So, they left and used the money they had saved to open a theater in Pasadena, which didn’t do very well. They then opened a hot dog stand using a the new and trendy drive-in concept, with three car-hops. In 1940, they opened a larger hamburger and barbecue chicken store, with twenty car-hops. They soon found that they were selling mostly hamburgers, so they 86’d the chicken. They eventually grew tired of the constant problems and expenses of this business model, so they closed shop and re-vamped the entire operation.
The brothers got rid of the car-hops and the drive-in concept, and focused on volume and speed, with larger grills and specialized cooking stations in an assembly-line process: one person to grill a hamburger, one to dress and wrap it, one to make milkshakes, one for fries, and another manning the counter. In 1948, they re-opened with a simplified menu that focused on burgers and cheeseburgers, disposable everything, and absolutely NO substitutions. They called it their “Speedee Service System.” Fast food as we know it was born.
It was Ray Kroc, however, who created the McDonald’s franchise system as we know it today. Although the brothers were geniuses, at least if you were on the right side of the paycheck, and they had sold some rights around piecemeal and had made some steps toward franchising, it is hard to say whether there would be a McDonald’s around every corner if Kroc had not become involved. It has been claimed that they were unambitious, and were content with remaining a local operation, and even that they were surprised when their first franchise owner used the McDonald’s name!
How Did Ray Kroc Become Involved in McDonald’s?
Ray Kroc actually owned the company that made the Multimixer shake machines the McDonalds were using in their restaurant. In fact, they had purchased eight of them. That was a lot of Multimixers, so Kroc decided to go and see what was going on.
When he visited the restaurant in San Bernadino, he was amazed at what he saw: Lines of people flowing out the door, waiting in line for hamburgers. Kroc saw that the efficiency and profit of the system could be applied successfully to many restaurants. It is often said that the brothers, at first did not want to meet with him. According to some sources, he secured a meeting with the help of Bert Murray of Murray’s Restaurant Supply Co., who did business with the McDonald Brothers. Since Kroc himself was supplying them, it is hard to say how much truth there is in this. Many people like to claim to have had a hand in huge success stories, and it can be difficult to ascertain what is truth and what is exaggeration. Nevertheless, Kroc convinced the brothers to enter into a partnership agreement to allow him to sell McDonald’s franchises all over the nation, which the bother’s agreed to so long as all the restaurants adhered to their system.
Ray Kroc sold the first franchise to himself under the “McDonald’s System, Inc.” This first store, opened in Des Plaines, Illinois on April 15, 1955, was meant to be a model for how all McDonald’s franchises would appear and operate, and Kroc hoped it would help attract franchisees. By 1960, there were over 100 franchises.
The original agreement had somewhat tied Kroc’s hands, and did not allow him to change much about the operation, but in 1961, he bought the brothers out for $2.7 million. The building in the picture above is a representation of how the first McDonald’s franchise by Kroc looked.
The design of the golden arches, lit up at night by neon which could be seen from the road at a distance, and would form a letter “M,” is said to have been originally thought up by Richard McDonald, but the actual design was made by architect Stanley Clark Meston, together with his assistant, Charles Fish. No one before had managed to make a building its own advertisement. Everything about McDonald’s was recognizable, which is the very thing that helped it sweep the nation. Now, if you walked into a McDonald’s restaurant anywhere in the country, you new exactly what you were going to get. The brother’s first franchises, which they sold themselves, required that the restaurants use their design and operate under their standards. To be clear, a great deal of what made McDonald’s such a great success was put into place by the brothers.
Was McDonald’s the First Fast-Food Franchise Operation?
Ray Kroc did not invent the fast-food franchise, nor franchising in general. Other restaurants had franchised before 1955. A&W Root Beer stand, Howard Johnson, Dairy Queen, Big Boy, Insta-Burger, which became Burger King, had all begun franchising before Kroc opened up his first store. One thing that Kroc did do, however, was prevent regional franchise operations. Many times, individuals buy the rights to franchise within a certain region, sometimes even an entire state. Kroc forbid this. The problem with regional franchise operations is that they sometimes become too powerful and subvert the standards and interests of the franchising company. Instead, Ray Kroc only sold individual franchises, one at a time. Kroc foresaw one of the biggest stumbling blocks to successful franchising, lack of consistency in all locations.
What is the Oldest McDonald’s?
As stated above, the McDonald brothers has already begun franchising before Ray Kroc partnered with them to take it nationwide. The second franchise they sold was opened by Roger Williams and Bud Landon, the brothers-in-laws and business partner’s of the first franchisee, Neil Fox. It used the original McDonald’s design and, since it was opened under a separate agreement, Kroc’s arrangement had no effect on it. It kept on operating without any governance from McDonald’s Corporation, and still operates today. It is located at 10207 Lakewood Boulevard at Florence Avenue, in Downey, Southern California.
Lest you expect to visit it and get something like the original McDonald’s experience, alas, it is now owned by the McDonald’s Corp. and operated as a modern McDonald’s, although with an attached gift shop and museum.
The original restaurant lacked some of what people came to expect from McDonald’s. Its menu was different, there was no Big Mac, no drive-up window, no indoor seating, and it was never really modernized to McDonald’s standards. Its business declined and McDonalds bought it in 1990. Sales remained low and the building was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The company planned to tear it down and open a modern “retro” design, with some of the features of the old building, similar to the other retro McDonald’s that are popping up all over the nation.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, however, had listed the store on its 1994 Endangered Historic Places list, and McDonald’s received enough pressure to save the restaurant. So, instead of demolishing it they spent two years restoring it so that it could operate as a modern restaurant.
As for the very first McDonald’s, the one that used the Speedee Service System in San Bernadino, all that is left of it is part of the sign, below.