The McDonald family moved from Manchester, New Hampshire to Hollywood in the late 1930s, where brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald began working as set movers and handymen at Motion-Picture studios. In 1937, their father Patrick McDonald opened “The Airdrome”, a food stand, on Huntington Drive (Route 66) near the Monrovia Airport in Monrovia, California with Hot dogs being one of the first item sold. Hamburgers were later added to the menu at a cost of ten cents with all-you-can-drink orange juice at five cents. In 1940, Maurice and Richard (“Mac” and “Dick”) moved the entire building 40 miles (64 km) east, to West 19th and 1398 North E Streets in San Bernardino, California. The restaurant was renamed “McDonald’s Bar-B-Que” and had twenty-five menu items, mostly barbecue.
In October 1948, after the McDonald brothers realized that most of their profits came from selling hamburgers, they closed down their successful carhop drive-in to establish a streamlined system with a simple menu which consisted of only hamburgers, cheeseburgers, potato chips, coffee, soft drinks, and apple pie. After the first year, potato chips and pie were swapped out for french fries and milkshakes. The carhops were eliminated, making the new restaurant a self-service operation. Richard and Maurice took great care in setting up their kitchen like an assembly line to ensure maximum efficiency. The restaurant’s name was changed again, this time to simply “McDonald’s,” and reopened on December 12, 1948.
In 1952, the brothers decided they needed an entirely new building in order to achieve two goals: further efficiency improvements, and a more eye-catching appearance. They collected recommendations for an architect and interviewed at least four, finally choosing Stanley Clark Meston, an architect practicing in nearby Fontana. The brothers and Meston worked together closely in the design of their new building. They achieved the extra efficiencies they needed by, among other things, drawing the actual measurements of every piece of equipment in chalk on a tennis court behind the McDonald house (with Meston’s assistant Charles Fish). The new restaurant’s design achieved a high level of noticeability thanks to gleaming surfaces of red and white ceramic tile, stainless steel, brightly colored sheet metal, and glass; pulsing red, white, yellow, and green neon; and last but not least, two 25-foot yellow sheet-metal arches trimmed in neon, called “golden arches” even at the design stage. A third, smaller arch sign at the roadside hosted a pudgy character in a chef’s hat, known as Speedee, striding across the top, trimmed in animated neon. Further marketing techniques were implemented to change McDonald’s from formerly a sit down restaurant to a fast food chain, they used such things as turning off the heating to prevent people wanting to stay so long, fixed and angled seating so the customer would sit over their food promoting them to eat faster, spreading the seats further apart so being less of a socialble place to dine in, and giving their customers branded cone shaped cups forcing them to hold their drink whilst eating which would speed up the eating process. Many other companies followed McDonald’s strategies to turn their own restaurants into fast food establishments including Burger King, White Castle and Subway.
In late 1953, with only a rendering of Meston’s design in hand, the brothers began seeking franchisees. Their first franchisee was Neil Fox, a distributor for General Petroleum Corporation. Fox’s stand, the first with Meston’s golden arches design, opened in May 1953 at 4050 North Central Avenue at Indian School Road in Phoenix, Arizona. Their second franchisee was the team of Fox’s brother-in-law Roger Williams and Burdette “Bud” Landon, both of whom also worked for General Petroleum. Williams and Landon opened their stand on 18 August 1953 at 10207 Lakewood Boulevard in Downey, California. Today the Downey stand has the distinction of being the oldest surviving McDonald’s restaurant. The Downey stand was never required to comply with the McDonald’s Corporation’s remodeling and updating requests over the years because it was franchised not by the McDonald’s Corporation, but by the McDonald brothers themselves to Williams and Landon. (Recognizing its historic and nostalgic value, in 1990 the McDonald’s Corporation acquired the stand and rehabilitated it to a modern but nearly original condition, and then built an adjacent museum and gift shop to commemorate the site.)
In 1954, Ray Kroc, a seller of Prince Castle brand Multimixer milkshake machines, learned that the McDonald brothers were using eight of his machines in their San Bernardino restaurant. His curiosity was piqued, and he went to San Bernardino to take a look at the McDonalds’ restaurant. He was joined by good friend Charles Lewis who had suggested to Kroc several improvements to the McDonald’s burger recipe.
Believing the McDonalds’ formula was a ticket to success, Kroc suggested they franchise their restaurants throughout the country. The brothers were skeptical, however, that the self-service approach could succeed in colder, rainier climates; furthermore, their thriving business in San Bernardino, and franchises already operating or planned, made them reluctant to risk a national venture. Kroc offered to take the major responsibility for setting up the new franchises elsewhere. He returned to his home outside of Chicago with rights to set up McDonald’s restaurants throughout the country, except in a handful of territories in California and Arizona already licensed by the McDonald brothers. The brothers were to receive one-half of one percent of gross sales. Kroc’s first McDonald’s restaurant opened on April 15, 1955, at 400 North Lee Street in Des Plaines, Illinois, near Chicago. The Des Plaines interior and exterior was painted by master painter Eugene Wright, who owned Wright’s Decorating Service. Eugene was asked to come up with a color scheme and he chose yellow and white, with dark brown and red being secondary trim colors. Those colors would go on to become the colors of all McDonald’s franchises. (The Des Plaines location was demolished in 1984 after many remodels.) Kroc incorporated his company as McDonald’s Systems, Inc., which he would later rename McDonald’s Corporation.
Once the Des Plaines restaurant had become operational, Kroc sought franchisees for his McDonald’s chain. The first snag came quickly. In 1956 he discovered that the McDonald brothers had licensed the franchise rights for Cook County, Illinois to the Frejlach Ice Cream Company. Kroc was incensed that the McDonalds had not informed him of this arrangement. He purchased the rights back for $25,000, five times what the Frejlacks had originally paid, and pressed forward. McDonald’s grew slowly for its first three years. By 1958, there were 34 restaurants. In 1959, however, Kroc opened 68 new restaurants, bringing the total to 102 locations.