Boomers Witnessed Fast Food History

The fast food concept that developed into what we know today began in earnest in the 1950s. Before the McDonald brothers popularized walk-up service and assembly-line methods of hamburger preparation (though White Castle was the first to do this a decade earlier), the drive-in restaurant reigned supreme for the earliest boomer teens. Driving teens and families could park in a restaurant lot where waitresses — often on roller skates to speed service — would take their order and then deliver it, without the patrons ever leaving their car. As the country latched on to the automobile as a very American way of life, drive-in restaurants thrived from coast to coast. Dick and Mac McDonald would help to change the definition of the drive-in restaurant.

Most people know the basic history of McDonald’s: the two McDonald brothers started their restaurant in San Bernardino, California in 1948; they were approached by Ray Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman, who tried to get them to franchise the MacDonald method of what became known as fast food. Subsequently, Ray Kroc took over franchising across the country, opening the first franchise outside of the existing Arizona and California locations (which the brothers owned) in 1955. Kroc bought out the brothers in 1961, yadda, yadda, yadda and you all know the rest. By the early ’60s, national advertising and the car culture that was rapidly growing, thanks to the new interstate highway system, allowed the company to quickly expand, and for the first time allowing people in different geographic locations to enjoy the exact same food — fast.

In Mister Boomer’s Upper Midwest neighborhood, the McDonald’s appeared somewhere around the late ’50s or very early ’60s. It was one of the traditional McDonald’s buildings outfitted with golden arches that pierced either side of a back-slanted roof. The front and most of the sides were glass, giving the building a very modernist look. At night the arches were internally lit with fluorescent lights, so you could see the bright golden-yellow glow from blocks away. At that time there was space between buildings, and the McDonald’s was set back from the road to accommodate a parking lot in front. An empty lot to the left of the restaurant let the bright white glow of the interior combine with the golden-yellow arches to give the building the surreal appearance that it was a fifties-style spaceship that had landed on the prairie.

At the roadside entry — between the one-way in and one-way out driveways — was a massive metal sign structure, itself shaped into a huge arch. A horizontal sign with the name of the restaurant spanned the space between the sides of the arch. Near the top was the McDonald’s mascot, Speedee. He was a hamburger-faced man in a chef suit, running to indicate the business’ focus on fast service. Below the restaurant name was the phrase, “Over xx million served.” Every few months the numbers changed to reflect the national chain’s sales. The whole sign was laced with shaped neon tubes, bringing a bit of Las Vegas or Times Square pizzazz to an otherwise dark highway. The Speedee mascot was retired in 1967, partly to avoid a conflict with Alka-Seltzer’s Speedy character, and paving the way for Ronald McDonald.

The restaurant joined the existing drive-in style restaurants in Mister B’s area, becoming another choice. It was Mister B’s observation that a local business that sported a bright red building with a pointed roof and bright blue trim, surrounded on all sides by parking lot, was the choice of driving teens in his area. Kids might order a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke, but would then sit on the hoods of their cars to eat, their radios synchronized to the latest hits.

Mister B was still a young teen when one summer evening a ruckus was raised in the lot. The local paper called the resulting disturbance a rumble. Time limits were imposed and a police presence cruising the lot may have been the final push for kids to try the McDonald’s more often. A short time later the restaurant closed permanently.

McDonald’s seeming monopoly was short-lived. A couple of year later, Burger King moved into the neighborhood. The McDonald’s, with its bright yellow and red colors, now had its counterpart parked directly across the street with, coincidently, bright red and yellow colors.

Through all the jockeying for top hamburger rule, Mister B’s family rarely frequented either establishment. Like most families, dining outside of the home was reserved for special occasions, and then at sit-down restaurants. As wandering pre-teens, we had not developed an afternoon snack habit, nor did we have an allowance to be able to afford the (now unbelievably low) cost of a shake, burger and fries. By the time Mister B was in high school, his friends did visit the spots for weekend lunches on occasion. The choice was most often Burger King, mainly because, at least with Mister B’s friends, the Whopper beat the Big Mac.

Shortly before Burger King arrived, a regional chain established itself in the neighborhood. They matched McDonald’s item for item to the point of naming their products in a similar fashion, so it was only a matter of convenience or taste that determined the public’s choice. When Mister B’s brother began working at the closest one to his home, the family had an “excuse” to order a large sack of French fries every now and then. Mister B would ride his bike to the restaurant. There, he could watch his brother, dressed in white and wearing a white paper hat, working behind a glass wall. Mounted on the white enamel-tiled back wall was a potato slicer. Brother Boomer would place a peeled potato into the slicer slot, then grab the three-foot handle that extended perpendicular from the wall and push down until the potato was sliced into perfect fries, dropping into an awaiting bucket. Like most fast food places, the fries were prepared fresh every day. Combined with proper temperature control of the frying oil, that made them irresistibly delicious. The chain smartly offered fries by the sack — family size, as it were — for under a dollar. This experience may have contributed to Mister B getting his first job at the same chain, but at a different location. That will be a story for another time.

Years later Wendy’s and Jack in the Box came to the area, but their locations were few and far between. Arby’s, Taco Bell, Roy Rogers and more all followed suit. Today the area is laced with every possible fast food franchise available. But Mister B still remembers the golden glow in the darkness of that first McDonald’s.

What are the fast food memories of your youth, boomers?