How One Ruthless Salesman Built The Ultimate Fast Food Empire

McDonald’s didn’t become the biggest name in fast food for no reason, but the burger chain has seen more than its share of controversy during its rise to the top. Its unhealthy food has been the subject of documentaries and exposés for years, and even rock icon Mark Knopfler wrote a scathing song about the Golden Arches’ history, but the real story behind how Ray Kroc capitalized on the global franchise is even nastier than a Happy Meal ingredient list.

It was 1954, and salesman Ray Kroc had just received a peculiar order. A couple of guys out in San Bernardino wanted to buy eight top-tier milkshake-mixing machines from him. Nobody was doing that; just one of these machines was pricey.

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To need eight of the machines, you’d have to be doing some otherworldly, bang-up milkshake business. Kroc had to see for himself what kind of operation these two brothers were running — so he bought a plane ticket to California. It was a trip that would change his life.


At the time, the 52-year-old Kroc was doing okay as a salesman…but not great. He’d been an ambulance driver during World War I, and during the Great Depression he worked a variety of odd jobs. He’d also played piano in a few bands, been a real estate agent in Florida, and sold paper cups.

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Then, World War II hit, and times got dark. Kroc managed to find work after the war, but he was still working for somebody else, selling mixing equipment for Prince Castle. Even worse, their mixing machines weren’t selling well. Customers wanted newer and less-expensive Hamilton Beach mixers.

Kroc was getting frustrated. He didn’t have his own thing yet, and he was growing older. So when the order came in from California for eight machines that nobody else was buying, he read the writing on the wall, and it spelled out opportunity.

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When the plane landed on the west coast, Kroc set out straight away to meet Dick and Mac McDonald. He had the address of their restaurant, and when he rolled up, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Ronald McDonald

The place was just a little burger joint, but there were more people waiting in the drive-through line than Kroc had ever seen. What’s more, the line seemed to move extremely fast, the employees were friendly and professional, and the atmosphere was fresh and welcoming.


Kroc had to find out how they did it. During those days, American burger joints were known as seedy places where the local punks hung out. They weren’t places you’d want to take your family, but somehow, these two Scottish brothers had captured the family clientele.


As the McDonald brothers showed Kroc around, he realized that the key to their success was in their efficiency and their innovations. All the restaurant’s food was prepared in an assembly line process, and the cuisine was pre-made and kept warm under special heat lamps — a technique the brothers invented.

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Moreover, the design and decor of the restaurant was all carefully planned out to ensure the place looked futuristic. Everything was sanitized, there were no games or cigarette machines on premises, and the building had two eye-catching golden arches on either side, which made it stand out.

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Kroc had been in a thousand kitchens, but this was the best one he’d ever seen. He realized the McDonald brothers had the perfect system, and he knew how to expand on it. He wanted in.

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So, later that year, they brokered a deal. Kroc would become a partner, and the McDonald brothers would allow him to open franchises, and make deals with other businessmen who wanted to own franchises, in order to expand the McDonald’s company’s footprint.

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At first, things went well. Under the terms of the McDonald/Kroc contract, the original brothers would get 0.5% of all profit from every franchise opened, and they’d get to keep their own restaurants. But trouble soon began to rise.

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Just five years later, Kroc had established a chain of over 200 McDonald’s locations — but he still wanted more restaurants, and he wanted more of the profit. He also wanted to own the name “McDonald’s.”

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Finally, after a lot of pressure, the brothers agreed to sell the name and the company to Kroc, to the tune of $2.7 million. They only asked one more thing: they wanted to be able to keep their original location, and they wanted to keep the design element of the Golden Arches.

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Kroc said no. They could keep the location, but not the arches. Even then, he wasn’t happy; if he couldn’t have the original location, well, he’d just run it out of business. So he got to work.

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Kroc built a McDonald’s not even a block away from the brothers’ original restaurant, which was now called The Big M. Sure enough, the locals preferred the recognizable name McDonald’s, and The Big M ended up having to close.

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“I ran ’em out of business,” Kroc told the press, proudly. He would continue to rake in hundreds of millions as the company grew to 38,000 locations in 100 countries, while the McDonalds retired without control over their burger joints or input in the company’s dealings.

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Not only did he oust them from the company, but Kroc also wiped the brothers from McDonald’s history. He had plaques put up in franchise stores, naming him as the “founder” and claiming that his first franchise in Des Plaines was the actual first McDonald’s.

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The brothers were angered by Kroc’s actions, but they couldn’t stop him. They kept up a polite public facade, but Mac was so stressed about the whole affair that he died of a heart attack. Meanwhile, Kroc continued his unscrupulous business practices.

The Filet-O-Fish is also in the same league as the Big Mac when listing off the most popular items. For those who love the sandwich, they couldn’t imagine McDonald’s without it. However, it almost never happened, thanks to Ray.

The story started with a man named Lou Groen. He was a Cincinnati franchise owner who was the operating force behind the initial idea that kicked off the culinary journey eventually arriving at the Filet-O-Fish.

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A magazine ad prompted Lou to invest in a McDonald’s restaurant. In 1959, he opened a Cincinnati-based establishment, as well as bought the franchise rights to the entire city and northern Kentucky. He was ready to sling some sandwiches.

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However, even though he didn’t have a competing McDonald’s to prevent an influx of business, there were plenty of popular spots within proximity that already had a solid reputation. And there was a particularly severe profit loss during one period of the year.

Catholics who observed the religious period of Lent were to abstain from eating meat on Fridays for six weeks. Lou’s McDonald’s was located in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, and this wreaked havoc on his Fridays. He needed to think of something.

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He knew Frisch’s Big Boy, another super popular fast food chain not far away, was serving fresh fish sandwiches. This drove tons of local business there every Friday because fish fit into the Lent diet. So, Lou had an idea.

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Two years after opening his McDonald’s, Lou presented the CEO of the company, Ray Kroc, with a prototype of a fish sandwich he hoped could enter the public’s culinary playing field. The result was not what he wanted.

Kroc was appalled by the idea his restaurants might start reeking like fish and immediately turn off customers. However, Lou successfully convinced a team of executives who wanted to serve something new it was worth a shot. They agreed — but hit unforeseen issues.

A food technologist named Al Bernardin got to work on an idea that could hopefully outsell Frisch’s Big Boy fish sandwiches. He settled on using cod, but first he had to navigate around one complicated hurdle.


CEO Kroc didn’t want to advertise the sandwich using the word “cod.” To him, it conjured up nauseating memories of cod liver oil from childhood. So, the team cleverly referred to it as “North Atlantic Whitefish” to increase interest.

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But, just as Lou was prepared to settle on a final version of the sandwich, one of his employees proposed the incredible idea of adding cheese. Kroc was all about the combination of flavors — but he wasn’t sold.

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Kroc was clearly intrigued in the sandwich. However, he still had one more trick up his sleeve: he would attempt to launch a different pineapple patty sandwich, called the Hula Burger, instead of the Filet-O-Fish.

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The last challenge the new fish sandwich faced was a profit test. Both sandwiches were released briefly to the public and the sales were recorded. In the end, there was only one true winner in a landslide victory.

The almighty Filet-O-Fish absolutely crushed the Hula Burger. A total of 350 people chowed down happily on the fish sandwich. Kroc’s pineapple creation came out with a measly six sales. The Filet-O-Fish was a go, but there was another hurdle to leap.

In 1963, a big fast food litmus test was given to the Filet-O-Fish: a limited sandwich debut to judge whether or not there was potential success. Well, two years later, it became an official menu item.

The slogan for the sandwich was “the fish that catches people.” You know what else it caught? A whole lotta moolah for Lou Groen. He opened up a slew of new McDonald’s franchises and started earning millions every year.

Kroc admitted in a published piece of work that even long after his Hula Burger defeat, Lou would still throw humorous jabs regarding his loss that led to such success. Apparently, Kroc still enjoyed homemade pineapple and cheese sandwiches until he passed.

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The Filet-O-Fish miraculously worked exactly the way McDonald’s needed it to. The concept swooped in during a time of financial distress to ease panicked minds.

When McDonald’s first opened in 1955, the menu was rather limited. Still, while the hamburger and cheeseburger have been reimagined and rebranded, the fries have always looked the same.

2. There won’t ever be curly fries: Curly fries, thick-cut fries, waffle fries, sweet potato fries… whatever your favorite alternative is, chances are slim that McDonald’s will ever sell them. Why mess with the best?

3. They’re different all around the world: Not only do the sandwiches and desserts vary from country to country, but the fry ingredients also change. For example, the U.K.’s list of ingredients is much shorter than those in the U.S.

4. They are made from real potatoes: Sorry, skeptics — although these fries aren’t exactly organic, they really are made from regular old taters. The chemicals don’t get added until much later!

5. A variety of potatoes are used: It’s hard to tell from the perfectly even off-white tone, but there are four different types of potatoes mixed to make the famous fries: Russet Burbank, Russet Ranger, Umatilla Russet, and Shepody potatoes. How Mickey D’s came upon this recipe, no one knows, but it sure is working!

6. McDonald’s buys 3.4 billion pounds of potatoes: So how many of these different spuds does McDonald’s actually need to provide all of their french fries around the entire world? 3.4 BILLION pounds. Annually.

7. They’re cut: Contrary to popular belief, the fries aren’t placed in molds to get their uniform shape. These babies are cut with knives, although it is all automatically done in factories — a far cry from hand-cut!

8. They have 19 ingredients: Former Mythbuster Grant Imahara dug deep into every detail of the McDonald’s fry-making process and presented the world with a list of a whopping 19 ingredients that go into the U.S.A.’s version of the fries. Wow!

9. There’s a reason why they all look alike: In fact, some of those ingredients are the reason why all the fries come out the exact same shade of yellow. They are dipped in sugar and sodium acid pyrophosphate to get them all to cook evenly.

10. They’re flash frozen: If these ingredients are disappointing you, just wait until you hear about the freshness. The fries are actually flash frozen before being tossed into the fryer for later use. But did you really expect anything different?

11. They used to be cooked in beef fat: The fries actually used to be cooked in beef fat, but nowadays, they’re made using tallow or lard. So while they might not taste like a burger, they definitely aren’t vegetarian.

12. The recipe changed in 1992: Since the beef fat, tallow, and lard were so costly, the company switched to vegetable oil. However, the public wasn’t “loving it,” so the recipe continued to evolve over the following two decades.

13. They’re still not vegan though: While the fries are no longer smothered in animal fat, the list of ingredients still includes natural beef flavor and milk. We’re sorry vegans, hopefully, there will be more fast food options for you soon!

14. They are the healthiest fast food fries next to Sonic: Despite all the chemicals, McDonald’s fries land close to Sonic’s fries in terms of low calories and fat. Still, “low in calories” does not always a healthy food make.

15. Salt-free orders are a pain in the butt: Most people don’t want fries that have been sitting out in a batch for a while, so they purposely order salt-free fries to get a fresh batch. While the salt-free option is healthier, it’s a lot of work for the employees, so please don’t order them to just sprinkle salt on later.

16. You can just ask for fresh ones: Still want those freshly fried puppies? Just ask for them! It’s easier for staff to whip up some new regular fries than to prepare for the salt-free orders.

17. A proper serving is 6: According to Harvard nutrition and epidemiology professor Eric Rimm, the right serving of McDonald’s french fries is 6, which is funny because 6 is also the number of people on the planet who can stop eating after just 6 fries.

18. The small serving takes an hour to walk off: A small portion of McDonald’s french fries contains about 230 calories, which means if you want to burn them off, you need to walk for an hour, run for 20 minutes, or bike for 30. The large portion requires twice that time.

19. Fries are most popular menu item: Of all the things McDonald’s sells (McDoubles, McRibs, salads, milkshakes, chicken nuggets, Filet-O-Fish), the fries are their most frequently bought item — and for a good reason! They’re tasty.

20. Golden arches: The french fries are such a staple to McDonald’s that they even make up its logo! Thought that was just a yellow M? They’re symbols of the delicious salty sticks that have won the world’s hearts for over 60 years.

Though fries may be one of the most popular items on the menu, many are missing out on some equally delicious options that they’re not even aware of. Why? Well, as it turns out, not every customer across the globe is ordering off of the same menu…

1. The Sweety with Nutella (Italy): This tasty dessert may look like a burger at first, but instead of meat, there’s a gooey center of hazelnut and cocoa spread! Yum.

2. The Pizza McPuff (India): Big fan of Hot Pockets? Then you’d absolutely love this puff pastry filled with sauce, cheese, and meat! Don’t worry, there’s a veggie option so all can enjoy.

3. The Favourites Box (Australia): Finally, the perfect solution for those who are so hungry they can’t decide what to eat. This deal comes with 4 different burgers, 2 family fries, 10 nuggets, and 4 drinks!

4. The McChoco Potato (Japan): Meet the unique and only seasonal, Halloween side McDonald’s offers. Drizzled with chocolate and pumpkin sauce, these fries are sure to spook your taste buds…

5. The Chicken McDo with Spaghetti (Philippines): Yes, we’re also surprised this menu item doesn’t exist in Italy. It’s a pasta dinner served with a side of chicken that’s sure to fill you up like a king.

6. Sausage N’ Egg Twisty Pasta (Hong Kong): Lover of both breakfast and dinner? Fear no more for Ronald McDonald’s got your back with this hot dish of sausage and egg over a bowl of chicken or broth, twisty pasta, and greens.

7. The Black Burger (Japan): With Japan basically being the culinary center of the world, many of us know about these dark buns by now. But did you know that the black, spicy sauce is made from squid ink?

8. McBeer (Germany, Portugal, France): That’s right, the McDonald’s restaurants within these 3 countries always make sure to offer a cold one at every location.

9. Poutine Fries (Canada): Just thought this gravy, cheesy goodness was only sold in diners, eh? It’s only fair that they’re also served at a fast food place too – especially within the country they originated from!

10. The Tzatziki Beef Wrap (Croatia): This menu item may look like it came from a local gyro shop, but it’s actually just another rare product of McDonald’s. It’s basically their chicken snack wrap with a Mediterranean twist…

Though the beef and Tzatziki sauce do add a nice change of flavor, the classic chicken snack wrap will always remain a favorite in America.

11. Red Bean or Green Tea McFlurry (Malaysia): If you’re trying to stay healthy but can’t get rid of that need for dessert, then this unique snack is for you. You can also order them with or without Oreos!

12. Bubblegum Squash McFlurry (Australia): No, there is not actual squash in this much less healthy choice of soft-serve… But there is blue bubblegum syrup and marshmallows!

13. Bacon Mac N Cheese Toastie (China): McDonald’s launched this mouth-watering sandwich not too long ago, and boy, does the rest of the world already want a slice of that heaven too!

14. Churros (South Korea): How can you say no to this fried pastry dough covered in sugar? Add a coffee to dip it in, and we’re sold!

15. Patatas Deluxe (Spain): These aren’t a normal side of potatoes, rather a group of seasoned wedges that come with not 3, but 12 dipping sauces!

16. Shaka Shaka Chicken (Japan): Just picture a wrapped-up chicken patty without the bun, and a packet of seasoning…

17. Frozen Coke (New Zealand): If you’ve ever wanted to taste your soda in slushie form, look no further than the beautiful islands of New Zealand. Might as well get whipped cream on top while you’re at it!

18. Cadbury Creme Egg McFlurry (United Kingdom): The English may have outdone themselves with this last one. Not only can people there enjoy the delicious Cadbury Creme Egg candies in ice cream, they don’t have to wait until Easter to do so!

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