Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Old Bohemian Bones: The Burger Love Continues with Ray Kroc

Ray Kroc, or "Old Bohemian Bones" as I and I alone call him, sure created a fine mess. That's one thing you could call McDonald's, "a fine mess." Like, "fine" as in "really swell," and which "really swell" means that sure it's a mess in certain respects but it's good at being one. It does what it does "really swell," to quote myself. Ray Kroc, the man with the plan, was super psyched about McDonald's, though, but don't take my word for it -- read his autobiography "Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald's" by Kroc with Robert Anderson (whoever that is -- I mean, besides his ghost writer). Kroc speaks of his enthusiasm for the restaurant chain on practically every page and in glowing terms usually reserved for one's offspring. He found a surrogate family in McDonald's, realized as closely to his idea of perfection as a family could be. He'll have you questioning (to an extent) whether that's such a bad thing by the time you've finished his autobiography, too.

Ray Kroc's last name, Kroc, is fun to write I think, so you'll be seeing more of it than you'd normally see of other names, for example -- Kroc, Kroc, Krocitty, Kroc, Kroc, Kraroo.

Let me start this thing off by saying that Ray Kroc does not seem to be as bad as the image in my head of "Captains of Industry." And when I refer to "Captains of Industry," I'm thinking of the 19th century classics like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and George Pullman -- all of whom can be cited at one point or another for the callousness with which they treated their labor in pursuit of certain great ends. There is a cutthroat mentality that all these men share. Daniel Day Lewis' scheming oil tycoon Daniel Plainview of "There Will Be Blood" is an adequate embodiment of this dark side. He is the misanthropic shadow of their collective character and the indefatigable yearnings that defined it. And I think in that dark side there are similarities to be drawn between Kroc and the Captains of Industry.

These were men enamored by a fantastic vision of what the sum of their designs could equal, Kroc very much included. Kroc's biography is oddly candid in this way, including details that don't shy away from his great propensity to get what he wanted no matter the costs and those who'd get in the way be damned (Josh Ozersky writes in "The Hamburger" Kroc once said of his rivals, "If they were drowning, I'd put a hose in their mouth." Words I can imagine being spoken by Daniel Plainview, as well), and his penchant for heated outbursts directed against those who under his employ had in their own right failed to live up to his expectations. Kroc was the man with a vision. The McDonalds brothers revolutionized the food service industry, but Mr. Kroc was the one who made it salable to the American people and beyond, being in the right place at the right time (not far from an aspect of the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers") and making full use of his years of accrued business experience, as Kroc himself says:
People have marveled at the fact that I didn't start McDonald's until I was fifty-two years old, and then I became a success overnight. But I was just like a lot of show business personalities who work away quietly at their craft for years, and then, suddenly, they get the right break and make it big. I was an overnight success all right, but thirty years is a long, long night.
Kroc seized the moment and history has rewarded him handsomely for it, but what has been the ultimate cost? Was Kroc's vision inevitable, and had he not been the one to carpe diem wouldn't someone else have? Certainly there were other models very relatable to McDonald's (I'm thinking Burger King, Big Boy, Jack in the Box and Burger Chef) that were coming into existence at essentially the same time. But McDonald's had the most invasive and sound business model, which prevented it from being absorbed by larger food distribution conglomerates, as was the fate of all the others. It's hard to say if anyone would have seized the opportunity quite as Ray Kroc had, with the noted financial wizardry of Harry Sonneborn, who is considered by many to be as essential to McDonald's growth and viability as Kroc had been.

Kroc championed the entrepreneurial spirit his system evoked, and the evidence of McDonald's success suggests this is very much the case, but the system as systems seem to inevitably promise has become ossified. It is a perversion of whatever noble free market dream had served as its impetus. Is it easy to sit and ridicule the McDonaldization of American and, concurrently, global culture, to lament its growing homogeneity? Yes, it is -- but I can't make myself comfortable with the fact that sameness predominates where local character once stood, and the disconcerting possibility that this combine might kill the creative spirit that, in some ways, begat it.

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