McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, John F. Love

Bantam, 1986, 470 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-05127-X

I didn’t pick this book; it picked me. Fell on me, actually. Slipped off the shelf at a used book sale and was caught in mid-air by a reflex action of mine. One can’t ignore those signs; I brought it home.

It’s hard to find a more iconic institution than McDonald’s. Given that the average North-American is almost always within good walking distance of one of their outlets, this restaurant chain has come to represent far more than just fast food. It has been associated with gastronomic imperialism, the culture of speed, the fattening up of America, the perils of globalization and a rigid sense of order. Step into any McDonald’s anywhere in the world and you will find commonalities with all the others.

From the outside, McDonald’s seems to exemplify rigidity, stability and hierarchy. But as John F. Love manages to show in Behind the Arches, this is an incomplete, carefully cultivated portrait. For the strength of McDonald’s has been not unthinking devotion to order, but reigned entrepreneurial spirit. McDonald’s has always encouraged innovations, both inside and outside their immediate purview.

Obviously, this is a “friendly” biography of McDonald’s. While the project wasn’t commissioned by the company, extensive collaboration was given to Love in order for him to complete the project. While the book does discuss the sometime-rocky corporate history of the firm with a critical eye, it seldom delves into the darker side of the company. You’ll have to read Fast-Food Nation for that.

But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. McDonald’s success story can be appreciated regardless of one’s feeling toward the food offered there. At times, it almost seems too good to be true; the story of two brothers with a good idea (speed and price; always speed and price!), a refined system and a convinced salesman who’d transform this kernel into the foundation of an empire. Behind the Arches is also the story of the people who made a success out of McDonald’s, and none of them as grandiose as Ray E. Kroc, the man those no-nonsense approach made an empire out of McDonald’s.

The early struggles of McDonald’s are told in a detailed, almost breathless style that requires very little effort to read. While the early heroics of the corporation latter transform into high-finance deals (including a disastrous flirtation with a more rigid style of management), the book remains interesting from the start to end. Seldom has there been a more compelling corporate biography.

It’s not as if it’s an ordinary story. The bare facts are astonishing: The way McDonald’s restructured whole industries in order to be best-served. The importance of the franchisees. The decentralized fashion by which advertising is used. The emphasis on real estate. The technological innovation that went into developing even the simplest food products. The difficult foreign expansion of the company. The battle for rumour control and favourable opinion. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s all worth reading. The origins of Ronald McDonald are almost charmingly quaint, whereas the process by which some of the most recognizable McDonald staples were created is a monument to food engineering.

The biggest problem of Behind the Arches, naturally, is the 1986 publication date. Fifteen years past, who knows what has changed since then? Is McDonald’s still so loyal with its suppliers? Does it still depend so much on the individualism of their franchisees? An update would be useful.

But in the end, I was so impressed (and, true, so curious), that I willingly stepped in another McDonald’s (meters away from my workplace, a location that was the sole victim of vandalism during the Ottawa anti-globalization protests of 2001) after years of absence. Despite the noon-time crowd, service took less than five minutes. Once back at my office, I offered brief congratulations to Ray E. Kroc, started eating and headed over to because I’m such a sucker for irony. The meal reminded me of why I hadn’t eaten McDonald’s in a while, but in a way, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the impressive display of ingenuity, determination and sheer cleverness that is the true basis of McDonald’s success. Even critics and pundits can’t help but being impressed, whatever their sentiments may be regarding what McDonald’s stands for.

So here’s to you, Ray A. Kroc, Fred Turner, and united franchisees. Good show.

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