“The Founder”


            It's an ironic title, because technically, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) wasn't The Founder of McDonald's.  In 1954, Ray Kroc was a 52-year-old traveling salesman, having a rough go of selling milk shake machines to owners of drive-in hamburger joints.  He kept telling the owners that having a fast supply would push the demand higher, but he's shown here enduring a lot of doors slammed in his face.  And then a compensatory swig of his flask in his car afterwards.  Followed by the obligatory evening phone call to his long-suffering (first) wife Ethel (Laura Dern), where he continues to tell her that there's a lot of potential out there.  As if he's trying to convince himself.  Not the kind of guy you would have pegged to become a multibillionaire.  But he was amazed when he learned that a hamburger joint in San Bernadino, California had ordered six of those milk-shake machines.  And he's so curious about this restaurant that he drives all the way from Illinois to see for himself.  And what he finds there astounds him even more.

            It seems that two brothers, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) had developed a fast, efficient way to cook hamburgers, by making them all precisely the same.  No custom orders.  No chicken or hot dogs, either.  Just crank 'em out as rapidly as possible.   Then instead of car hops taking individual orders (often on roller skates), let the people stand in line at the window.  And eat out of paper wrappings and styrofoam cups.  No trays, no dishes. Ray Kroc stood in a long line, but was amazed at how fast the service was.  Eat your burger outside on a bench or inside your car.  Throw your own trash away.  Simple, efficient, cheap, and quick.  Ray Kroc wanted a piece of that action, so he quickly contracted with the McDonald brothers to expand.  They'd tried it before, they said, but were concerned about quality control in other locations.  Ray Kroc set out to sell franchises, but soon learned that individual owners were, indeed, hard to control.  He also wasn't making very much money at it, until he was given some critical advice:  don't sell the franchises, lease them, and make the quality control a condition of the lease.

            Now the franchises were starting to spread, and Ray Kroc was starting to really make some money, for the first time in his life.  And he liked the feeling.  Tired of continually sparring with the McDonald brothers over new innovations (like powdered ice cream, later evolving into “softserve”), he eventually just bought them out (Dick's health problems probably a motivating factor, though even the terms of the buyout deal were disputed afterwards.)  The original McDonald brothers were now prevented from using their own name, and their attempt at re-vamping their original San Bernadino location failed, because, well, it wasn't McDonald's.  Not the way the American public had now come to expect.  With the original brothers now out of the picture, Ray Kroc began presenting himself as “The Founder,” because in his mind, he was the one who parlayed the idea into a commercial success.  He also ditched his (second, though the movie doesn't even mention her) wife for the wife of a franchisee, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini).  So he's a hard person to like, the way he's presented here, but you have to admire his ambition, and his perseverance, and his business savvy.

            Michael Keaton is very convincing in this role of the veteran salesman with the fire in his belly, who was not at all afraid to take a risk for a product he believed in (even mortgaging his own home).  Ray Kroc died in 1984, with more millions than he and Joan could even spend, so they set up a charitable foundation that donated a lot to various causes.  But the real legacy of Ray Kroc is of the milk-shake machine salesman who was unafraid to recruit a bible salesman or a fry cook to help him build his hamburger empire, because he recognized drive and ambition in others as readily as he embraced it for himself.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Have you ever tried being in sales?  How did that work out for you?

2)                  What do you like about McDonald's restaurants now?  What don't you like?

3)                  When have you spotted a great idea that worked even better than you thought it might?


Dr.  Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association