Fast Food Nation
On the surface, a fast food chain is a study in de-personalization, valuing homogeneity over individuality. In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser quotes the founder of McDonald's, Ray Kroc, as he declares, "We have found out...that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists...We will make conformists out of them...The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."
I learned the minutia of corporate dictatorship years ago, when I put in four months at a Michigan Burger King. No matter how many Whoppers I built, I couldn't give in to the prescribed dance of left hand over right, then right hand out... ketchup, pickles, bun. With a history of alternative education, I was accustomed to finding my own way. I filled orders fast, but still the manager stood over me, correcting, frustrated and nervous, until sending me back to manage drinks or fries. At the same time my friend James--now an artist in NY with an architecture degree from MIT and a design degree from Pratt--engineered his own method of Whopper construction. James took three seconds off the process and almost lost his job.
With Fast Food Nation, Schlosser achieves an amazing effect by personalizing the impersonal, finding both the glory and the nightmare fast food has brought to the United States over the past 50 years. The recently deceased Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, made himself a household image by appearing in his own ads. Schlosser takes the story further back. "Dave Thomas started working in a restaurant at the age of 12, left his adoptive father, took a room at the YMCA, dropped out of school at 15, served as a bus boy and a cook, and eventually opened his own place...calling it Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant." Despite the menu of sad, square burgers, it's hard not to admire Thomas, an orphan who became a self-made millionaire by his 30s.
Twelve years old was a pivotal age for many franchise founders. Harlan Sanders also left school at 12. He "worked as a farm hand, a mule tender, and a railway fireman...a lawyer without having a law degree, delivered babies as a part-time obstetrician without having a medical degree, sold insurance door to door, sold Michelin tires, and operated a gas station...he served home-cooked food at a small dining-room table in the back...and at the age of 65 became a traveling salesman once again, offering restaurant owners the 'secret recipe' for his fried chicken. The first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened in 1952...lacking money to promote the new chain, Sanders dressed up like a Kentucky colonel, sporting a white suit and a black string tie. By the early 1960s, Kentucky Friend Chicken was the largest restaurant chain in the United States..." Taco Bell, Dunkin' Donuts, Carl's Jr.--they were all started by radicals, innovators and free spirits looking to get rich on the American dream.
Schlosser's history includes Nazi scientists who came to work for Walt Disney. Disney was Ray Kroc's one-time military companion, when the two both lied about their age to enlist early. Later, this friendship lead to rivalry; Disney made his name first and ignored Kroc's appeal to establish McDonald's in Disneyland. From that bitter moment, the McDonald's Playlands were born, each one an appeal to children who bring in parents, expanding the customer base.
Fast Food Nation should be required reading for high school history classes, bringing history home to the suburbs and strip malls of our nation's urban sprawl. The book is a tightly drawn network of amazing facts and recognizable figures, linking Ronald Reagan to merchandizing to children, and Ronald McDonald to Barney and the insidious psychology of marketing.