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Episode
216

The Rise Of Fast Food Part 1: The Early Years

Dec 3, 2021
How Stuff Works
-
20
minutes

Every day 1% of the world's population will eat at McDonald's, and hundreds of millions more will eat burgers, chips and all sorts of different fast food.

But just how popular is it, how is it so cheap and where did it come from in the first place?

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another three-part series, this time about Fast Food.

[00:00:30] All around the world billions of people eat fast food every single day, and 1% of the world’s population, 68 million people, will eat at McDonald's today.

[00:00:43] In the US alone one single burger, The Whopper, is eaten every 15 seconds, and globally the consumption of fast food is growing every single year.

[00:00:55] So, with this large subject on our plate, we are going to split it into three parts. 

[00:01:02] In part one, in today’s episode we’ll look at the early history of fast food, where it came from and how it became such a staple dish for so many people.

[00:01:12] In part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll look at when and how fast food went global, looking at some of the weird and wonderful stories of techniques that especially American fast food companies used to appeal to people from different cultures with different tastes, when these worked and when they failed spectacularly.

[00:01:37] And in part three we will look at the fast food industry today, how it has had to adapt, what it is doing to us and our bodies, and what the future of fast food might look like.

[00:01:51] OK then, fast food. 

[00:01:55] Now, the idea that someone might want to eat their food quickly and conveniently is, of course, nothing new.

[00:02:03] Even going back to the ancient Romans and Greeks there are examples of what we might call public kitchens, or perhaps even “street food”. These were called Thermopolia, and you can see examples of them in Southern Italy, in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

[00:02:22] A merchant would cook large quantities of a particular dish, and people could pay a small fee for a plate. 

[00:02:30] The main customers for this would typically be people who were too poor to have their own cooking facilities, so they would eat here out of necessity, not out of choice.

[00:02:42] And this is only the European example. 

[00:02:46] It’s clearly convenient to prepare food in advance so that it is ready to eat quickly. 

[00:02:52] Sushi, which many people would put in the category of “fast food”, traces its roots back to the second century BC.

[00:03:00] The kebab is thought to be able to be traced back to 1377, lo mein, the Americanised Chinese noodle dish, goes back 2000 years, and even the iconic British fast food, fish and chips, has a history that goes back to the 16th century, and there are countless other examples.

[00:03:23] But these aren’t the main topics of today’s episode. 

[00:03:27] Indeed, they are all small fry, to pardon the pun, compared to fast food in the 20th century, in particular American fast food.

[00:03:37] And that will be the focus for today. 

[00:03:41] We’ll look at how the fast food industry over the past 100 years went from almost nothing to a type of food that literally billions of people eat on a frequent basis.

[00:03:54] So, where did it all start?

[00:03:57] Well, it might not surprise you to find out that our story starts in the United States, in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, 100 years ago.

[00:04:08] Two men, Walt Anderson and Edgar Ingram had started up a restaurant called White Castle. 

[00:04:16] After being frustrated at how long some meatballs were taking to cook, Anderson reportedly smashed down one on the griddle, creating a small square hamburger. 

[00:04:31] He saw that this cooked quickly, and unlike larger burgers, it didn’t need to be flipped, it didn’t need to be cooked on both sides.

[00:04:41] He decided to test serving this out to his customers, wrapped in between two pieces of bread, the hamburger bun.

[00:04:50] His customers loved them, and this type of small hamburger, nicknamed The Slider, later became the signature dish of White Castle. 

[00:05:01] The hamburgers or meat patties could be prepared in advance, meaning you could come in, order a burger and within a short period of time it would be ready for you.

[00:05:13] Anderson didn’t invent the hamburger, of course, but by creating this miniature hamburger he had the inspiration to prepare food in his restaurant differently.

[00:05:26] The American public at this time were concerned about the conditions in which meat was prepared, after a 1906 book called The Jungle, which exposed the dirty secrets of the meat-processing industry.

[00:05:41] As a result, Anderson and Inghram put a particular emphasis on cleanliness in their restaurant, they called it “White” Castle, the interior was porcelain, and diners could see their food being prepared in front of them, similarly to how you can still see your food being prepared in many fast food restaurants today.

[00:06:05] What’s more, the early 20th century was a time when the public was increasingly interested in how things were made, and especially if this production involved some kind of industrial, efficient process.

[00:06:21] The Ford Model T car had been released in 1908, and this was the era of public obsession with the increasing industrialisation of manufacturing, in particular the novelty of the production line. 

[00:06:38] So, Anderson and Inghram took inspiration from the Ford production line in their restaurant. This not only captivated the public’s attention, but it made it a lot more efficient, leading to lower costs of production and lower costs for the customer.

[00:06:57] A slider, which was the name for the first burger, cost just 5 cents, which is the equivalent of about $0.77 today. 

[00:07:08] Now, the burgers were small, and the idea was that you would buy several of them, but they were still very affordable.

[00:07:17] So, you might be asking - especially if the name “White Castle” is unfamiliar to you - why are companies like McDonald’s and Burger King more normally associated with the term “fast food” than White Castle?

[00:07:32] Well, we’ll get to the arrival of McDonald’s and the battle of the fast food chains in a minute, but although White Castle might have had the original innovation of creating the first “fast food restaurant”, there were a number of reasons that it didn’t immediately take off.

[00:07:53] Firstly, the concept of a nationwide fast food chain as we know it today simply didn’t exist. 

[00:08:01] Americans weren’t used to this idea, and there also wasn’t the infrastructure to support it - there weren’t the industrial-sized meat processing plants or bakeries that exist today, so White Castle had to build all of this itself.

[00:08:18] Furthermore, there wasn’t an established culture of eating out, a culture of going to restaurants. People cooked meals and ate at home for the most part

[00:08:29] In addition, the Great Depression shook the US in the late 1920s, which was followed shortly later by The Second World War.

[00:08:39] So it was to be in the post-war period, first in the United States but then everywhere else in the world, that the fast food boom really got going. 

[00:08:51] It all started, really, with two brothers, Richard and Maurice. You might be able to guess their surname, McDonald.

[00:09:01] They had opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1940. It was very different to any McDonald’s you might have been to.

[00:09:12] It had a wide array of different items, it was more like a traditional restaurant. But what the McDonald’s brothers saw was that the most popular items on the menu were, well you might have guessed it, burgers, chips and drinks.

[00:09:29] The original McDonald’s restaurant was popular, and the brothers were making a very decent living, making around $100,000 a year.

[00:09:39] But, in what was to prove to be a stroke of genius, in 1948 they closed down the entire restaurant for three months while they renovated it in order to turn it into the first real fast food restaurant as we know it.

[00:09:57] They designed the layout of their new restaurant on a tennis court. It was all based on the idea of speed, and they even introduced something called the "Speedee Service System".

[00:10:11] They built on the original system developed at White Castle. The production was based on a fast assembly line. Instead of a waiter bringing you your meal, you would come to collect it yourself. There were no knives and forks, you would eat the food with your hands.

[00:10:31] And the original large menu that the McDonald’s brothers previously had was trimmed down to only 9 items: burgers, fries and drinks.

[00:10:43] All of these cost savings meant that they were able to sell burgers for a mere 15 cents, today’s equivalent of around $1.70. 

[00:10:55] You may note that this is over double what the White Castle burgers were selling for, but the McDonald’s burgers were normal-sized burgers, they weren’t tiny ones like you’d get at White Castle.

[00:11:09] It was a case of an offering that came at the right time, and at the right place.

[00:11:15] It was boom time in post-war America. Disposable incomes were on the rise, people had more money in their pockets.

[00:11:23] Car ownership had continued to rise, and fast food was the perfect type of food for someone on the move, whether that was a salesman travelling to his next meeting or a family stopping off for a quick bite while on a weekend trip.

[00:11:41] From the outset, McDonald’s was a huge hit. People loved it but its success quickly saw copycats, other people looked at how popular McDonald’s was becoming and thought, “well, I wouldn't mind some of that”.

[00:11:57] Burger King was founded in 1953, 5 years after McDonald’s, when Keith Kramer and Matthew Burns saw the success of the McDonald’s brothers. 

[00:12:08] Taco Bell, another famous American fast food chain was founded in 1962, when its founder, a decidedly non-Mexican man called Glen Bell saw how the fast food formula could also work for Mexican food.

[00:12:26] And the McDonald’s brothers in many ways became victims of their own success.

[00:12:32] In the early 1950s a man called Ray Kroc had been working as a salesman for a milkshake mixing machine company. 

[00:12:42] He would normally sell one milkshake mixing machine per restaurant, but when he saw that the McDonald’s brothers had bought eight machines for one restaurant he decided he had to go and see what was going on. 

[00:12:57] Eight machines must mean that they were able to sell eight times as much milkshake as a normal restaurant, meaning they were probably selling eight times as much of everything, and they were probably printing money.

[00:13:12] When Kroc went to see the McDonald’s restaurant, he was amazed. It was an incredibly efficient operation, and he sensed the potential. 

[00:13:22] He persuaded the McDonald’s brothers to start a franchising business, whereby they would open new McDonald’s locations which would be managed locally, but things like marketing and the sourcing of products would be done centrally.

[00:13:40] Then, 6 years later, in 1961, he negotiated with Richard and Maurice McDonald to buy the entire McDonald's operation for $2.7 million, today’s equivalent of around $25 million. 

[00:13:57] The McDonald brothers took the offer, and Ray Kroc became the owner of McDonald’s.

[00:14:04] The rest is, as they say, history. Kroc was an aggressive negotiator, and under his leadership McDonalds went from 1 restaurant in 1948 to 40,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries in the world, with 1% of the world’s population eating there every single day.

[00:14:25] The reasons for the success of fast food in America today are similar to what they were when the McDonald’s brothers first revealed their “Speedee Service System" and $0.25 burgers.

[00:14:38] Firstly, it’s cheap and quick, making it an affordable and practical meal for anyone, regardless of their budget.

[00:14:47] Secondly, it is the same wherever you go. It’s familiar, and we humans are creatures of habit. Whether someone was eating at a McDonald’s in New York, Dallas or Chicago, it should taste the same, every time.

[00:15:03] A third reason, which was more of a reason for the success of fast food 70 years ago than now, but is still a reason in some countries, is that fast food restaurants are clean and tidy. 

[00:15:16] Walt Anderson knew this when he first created White Castle, and almost all fast food restaurants make sure that everything is cleaned regularly and to a high standard. It sounds like a simple thing, but keeping a restaurant clean is no easy matter

[00:15:34] We’ll come on to discuss this more in the next episode, on fast food going global, but one of the reasons KFC is thought to have been so successful initially in China is because its restaurants were simply much cleaner than the average restaurant, so people preferred it despite it being a little bit more expensive.

[00:15:55] Reason number five, and we could go on for hours, but this will be our last reason, is to do with the growth of cars, and in particular an innovation that came a year before McDonald’s opened, the drive thru.

[00:16:11] It might surprise you, and it certainly surprised me to find out that in the United States over half of all McDonald’s sales come from drive-thrus, from people driving up to the restaurant in their car, placing an order, and driving off with their food. 

[00:16:29] As car ownership grew, so did the fast food industry, and fast food adapted to be eaten in cars, by people on the move. 

[00:16:39] Popcorn chicken, for example, is designed to be eaten with one hand while driving, the design of milkshakes has been perfected for cars, and McDonald’s makes sure that all of its burgers can be eaten with one hand.

[00:16:55] Fast food is made for a society obsessed with not wasting time, a society where time is money, a society that revolves around the automobile, and one could even say a society without the same cultural tradition of spending time savouring a meal as exists in many European and Asian countries, for example.

[00:17:19] It was, in many ways, a match made in heaven, and has resulted in between 15 and 20% of Americans eating fast food every single day, and 96% of Americans eating fast food every year. 

[00:17:35] It didn’t take long for fast food to conquer America, but there are only so many burgers, fries and milkshakes a human being can eat every day.

[00:17:45] The next step, of course, was beyond the American borders, where fast food companies looked for more people hungry for burgers and fries, ready for a taste of American pop culture and eager to see what all of the fuss was about.

[00:18:01] And that, my friends, is what we’ll cover in the next episode, when fast food went global.

[00:18:08] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the early history of fast food.

[00:18:14] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and the next time you see, or perhaps even go into a McDonald’s, Burger King, or any other type of fast food restaurant, well, you’ll know a little bit more about where it all comes from.

[00:18:30] Remember, this was part one of a three-part series. In part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll look at what happened when fast food companies took their restaurants to the world, when it went well, when it went not so well, and some of the cunning techniques that they used to attract customers.

[00:18:50] And in part three, the final part, we’ll look at the state of fast food today, from what it is doing to our bodies to the future of the fast food industry, and we’ll ask ourselves whether we’ll ever be able to kick our addiction.

[00:19:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:10] Did you know this history of McDonald’s? 

[00:19:12] Have you ever been to a White Castle, or had you even heard of it before today’s episode?

[00:19:18] I would love to know.

[00:19:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another three-part series, this time about Fast Food.

[00:00:30] All around the world billions of people eat fast food every single day, and 1% of the world’s population, 68 million people, will eat at McDonald's today.

[00:00:43] In the US alone one single burger, The Whopper, is eaten every 15 seconds, and globally the consumption of fast food is growing every single year.

[00:00:55] So, with this large subject on our plate, we are going to split it into three parts. 

[00:01:02] In part one, in today’s episode we’ll look at the early history of fast food, where it came from and how it became such a staple dish for so many people.

[00:01:12] In part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll look at when and how fast food went global, looking at some of the weird and wonderful stories of techniques that especially American fast food companies used to appeal to people from different cultures with different tastes, when these worked and when they failed spectacularly.

[00:01:37] And in part three we will look at the fast food industry today, how it has had to adapt, what it is doing to us and our bodies, and what the future of fast food might look like.

[00:01:51] OK then, fast food. 

[00:01:55] Now, the idea that someone might want to eat their food quickly and conveniently is, of course, nothing new.

[00:02:03] Even going back to the ancient Romans and Greeks there are examples of what we might call public kitchens, or perhaps even “street food”. These were called Thermopolia, and you can see examples of them in Southern Italy, in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

[00:02:22] A merchant would cook large quantities of a particular dish, and people could pay a small fee for a plate. 

[00:02:30] The main customers for this would typically be people who were too poor to have their own cooking facilities, so they would eat here out of necessity, not out of choice.

[00:02:42] And this is only the European example. 

[00:02:46] It’s clearly convenient to prepare food in advance so that it is ready to eat quickly. 

[00:02:52] Sushi, which many people would put in the category of “fast food”, traces its roots back to the second century BC.

[00:03:00] The kebab is thought to be able to be traced back to 1377, lo mein, the Americanised Chinese noodle dish, goes back 2000 years, and even the iconic British fast food, fish and chips, has a history that goes back to the 16th century, and there are countless other examples.

[00:03:23] But these aren’t the main topics of today’s episode. 

[00:03:27] Indeed, they are all small fry, to pardon the pun, compared to fast food in the 20th century, in particular American fast food.

[00:03:37] And that will be the focus for today. 

[00:03:41] We’ll look at how the fast food industry over the past 100 years went from almost nothing to a type of food that literally billions of people eat on a frequent basis.

[00:03:54] So, where did it all start?

[00:03:57] Well, it might not surprise you to find out that our story starts in the United States, in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, 100 years ago.

[00:04:08] Two men, Walt Anderson and Edgar Ingram had started up a restaurant called White Castle. 

[00:04:16] After being frustrated at how long some meatballs were taking to cook, Anderson reportedly smashed down one on the griddle, creating a small square hamburger. 

[00:04:31] He saw that this cooked quickly, and unlike larger burgers, it didn’t need to be flipped, it didn’t need to be cooked on both sides.

[00:04:41] He decided to test serving this out to his customers, wrapped in between two pieces of bread, the hamburger bun.

[00:04:50] His customers loved them, and this type of small hamburger, nicknamed The Slider, later became the signature dish of White Castle. 

[00:05:01] The hamburgers or meat patties could be prepared in advance, meaning you could come in, order a burger and within a short period of time it would be ready for you.

[00:05:13] Anderson didn’t invent the hamburger, of course, but by creating this miniature hamburger he had the inspiration to prepare food in his restaurant differently.

[00:05:26] The American public at this time were concerned about the conditions in which meat was prepared, after a 1906 book called The Jungle, which exposed the dirty secrets of the meat-processing industry.

[00:05:41] As a result, Anderson and Inghram put a particular emphasis on cleanliness in their restaurant, they called it “White” Castle, the interior was porcelain, and diners could see their food being prepared in front of them, similarly to how you can still see your food being prepared in many fast food restaurants today.

[00:06:05] What’s more, the early 20th century was a time when the public was increasingly interested in how things were made, and especially if this production involved some kind of industrial, efficient process.

[00:06:21] The Ford Model T car had been released in 1908, and this was the era of public obsession with the increasing industrialisation of manufacturing, in particular the novelty of the production line. 

[00:06:38] So, Anderson and Inghram took inspiration from the Ford production line in their restaurant. This not only captivated the public’s attention, but it made it a lot more efficient, leading to lower costs of production and lower costs for the customer.

[00:06:57] A slider, which was the name for the first burger, cost just 5 cents, which is the equivalent of about $0.77 today. 

[00:07:08] Now, the burgers were small, and the idea was that you would buy several of them, but they were still very affordable.

[00:07:17] So, you might be asking - especially if the name “White Castle” is unfamiliar to you - why are companies like McDonald’s and Burger King more normally associated with the term “fast food” than White Castle?

[00:07:32] Well, we’ll get to the arrival of McDonald’s and the battle of the fast food chains in a minute, but although White Castle might have had the original innovation of creating the first “fast food restaurant”, there were a number of reasons that it didn’t immediately take off.

[00:07:53] Firstly, the concept of a nationwide fast food chain as we know it today simply didn’t exist. 

[00:08:01] Americans weren’t used to this idea, and there also wasn’t the infrastructure to support it - there weren’t the industrial-sized meat processing plants or bakeries that exist today, so White Castle had to build all of this itself.

[00:08:18] Furthermore, there wasn’t an established culture of eating out, a culture of going to restaurants. People cooked meals and ate at home for the most part

[00:08:29] In addition, the Great Depression shook the US in the late 1920s, which was followed shortly later by The Second World War.

[00:08:39] So it was to be in the post-war period, first in the United States but then everywhere else in the world, that the fast food boom really got going. 

[00:08:51] It all started, really, with two brothers, Richard and Maurice. You might be able to guess their surname, McDonald.

[00:09:01] They had opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1940. It was very different to any McDonald’s you might have been to.

[00:09:12] It had a wide array of different items, it was more like a traditional restaurant. But what the McDonald’s brothers saw was that the most popular items on the menu were, well you might have guessed it, burgers, chips and drinks.

[00:09:29] The original McDonald’s restaurant was popular, and the brothers were making a very decent living, making around $100,000 a year.

[00:09:39] But, in what was to prove to be a stroke of genius, in 1948 they closed down the entire restaurant for three months while they renovated it in order to turn it into the first real fast food restaurant as we know it.

[00:09:57] They designed the layout of their new restaurant on a tennis court. It was all based on the idea of speed, and they even introduced something called the "Speedee Service System".

[00:10:11] They built on the original system developed at White Castle. The production was based on a fast assembly line. Instead of a waiter bringing you your meal, you would come to collect it yourself. There were no knives and forks, you would eat the food with your hands.

[00:10:31] And the original large menu that the McDonald’s brothers previously had was trimmed down to only 9 items: burgers, fries and drinks.

[00:10:43] All of these cost savings meant that they were able to sell burgers for a mere 15 cents, today’s equivalent of around $1.70. 

[00:10:55] You may note that this is over double what the White Castle burgers were selling for, but the McDonald’s burgers were normal-sized burgers, they weren’t tiny ones like you’d get at White Castle.

[00:11:09] It was a case of an offering that came at the right time, and at the right place.

[00:11:15] It was boom time in post-war America. Disposable incomes were on the rise, people had more money in their pockets.

[00:11:23] Car ownership had continued to rise, and fast food was the perfect type of food for someone on the move, whether that was a salesman travelling to his next meeting or a family stopping off for a quick bite while on a weekend trip.

[00:11:41] From the outset, McDonald’s was a huge hit. People loved it but its success quickly saw copycats, other people looked at how popular McDonald’s was becoming and thought, “well, I wouldn't mind some of that”.

[00:11:57] Burger King was founded in 1953, 5 years after McDonald’s, when Keith Kramer and Matthew Burns saw the success of the McDonald’s brothers. 

[00:12:08] Taco Bell, another famous American fast food chain was founded in 1962, when its founder, a decidedly non-Mexican man called Glen Bell saw how the fast food formula could also work for Mexican food.

[00:12:26] And the McDonald’s brothers in many ways became victims of their own success.

[00:12:32] In the early 1950s a man called Ray Kroc had been working as a salesman for a milkshake mixing machine company. 

[00:12:42] He would normally sell one milkshake mixing machine per restaurant, but when he saw that the McDonald’s brothers had bought eight machines for one restaurant he decided he had to go and see what was going on. 

[00:12:57] Eight machines must mean that they were able to sell eight times as much milkshake as a normal restaurant, meaning they were probably selling eight times as much of everything, and they were probably printing money.

[00:13:12] When Kroc went to see the McDonald’s restaurant, he was amazed. It was an incredibly efficient operation, and he sensed the potential. 

[00:13:22] He persuaded the McDonald’s brothers to start a franchising business, whereby they would open new McDonald’s locations which would be managed locally, but things like marketing and the sourcing of products would be done centrally.

[00:13:40] Then, 6 years later, in 1961, he negotiated with Richard and Maurice McDonald to buy the entire McDonald's operation for $2.7 million, today’s equivalent of around $25 million. 

[00:13:57] The McDonald brothers took the offer, and Ray Kroc became the owner of McDonald’s.

[00:14:04] The rest is, as they say, history. Kroc was an aggressive negotiator, and under his leadership McDonalds went from 1 restaurant in 1948 to 40,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries in the world, with 1% of the world’s population eating there every single day.

[00:14:25] The reasons for the success of fast food in America today are similar to what they were when the McDonald’s brothers first revealed their “Speedee Service System" and $0.25 burgers.

[00:14:38] Firstly, it’s cheap and quick, making it an affordable and practical meal for anyone, regardless of their budget.

[00:14:47] Secondly, it is the same wherever you go. It’s familiar, and we humans are creatures of habit. Whether someone was eating at a McDonald’s in New York, Dallas or Chicago, it should taste the same, every time.

[00:15:03] A third reason, which was more of a reason for the success of fast food 70 years ago than now, but is still a reason in some countries, is that fast food restaurants are clean and tidy. 

[00:15:16] Walt Anderson knew this when he first created White Castle, and almost all fast food restaurants make sure that everything is cleaned regularly and to a high standard. It sounds like a simple thing, but keeping a restaurant clean is no easy matter

[00:15:34] We’ll come on to discuss this more in the next episode, on fast food going global, but one of the reasons KFC is thought to have been so successful initially in China is because its restaurants were simply much cleaner than the average restaurant, so people preferred it despite it being a little bit more expensive.

[00:15:55] Reason number five, and we could go on for hours, but this will be our last reason, is to do with the growth of cars, and in particular an innovation that came a year before McDonald’s opened, the drive thru.

[00:16:11] It might surprise you, and it certainly surprised me to find out that in the United States over half of all McDonald’s sales come from drive-thrus, from people driving up to the restaurant in their car, placing an order, and driving off with their food. 

[00:16:29] As car ownership grew, so did the fast food industry, and fast food adapted to be eaten in cars, by people on the move. 

[00:16:39] Popcorn chicken, for example, is designed to be eaten with one hand while driving, the design of milkshakes has been perfected for cars, and McDonald’s makes sure that all of its burgers can be eaten with one hand.

[00:16:55] Fast food is made for a society obsessed with not wasting time, a society where time is money, a society that revolves around the automobile, and one could even say a society without the same cultural tradition of spending time savouring a meal as exists in many European and Asian countries, for example.

[00:17:19] It was, in many ways, a match made in heaven, and has resulted in between 15 and 20% of Americans eating fast food every single day, and 96% of Americans eating fast food every year. 

[00:17:35] It didn’t take long for fast food to conquer America, but there are only so many burgers, fries and milkshakes a human being can eat every day.

[00:17:45] The next step, of course, was beyond the American borders, where fast food companies looked for more people hungry for burgers and fries, ready for a taste of American pop culture and eager to see what all of the fuss was about.

[00:18:01] And that, my friends, is what we’ll cover in the next episode, when fast food went global.

[00:18:08] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the early history of fast food.

[00:18:14] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and the next time you see, or perhaps even go into a McDonald’s, Burger King, or any other type of fast food restaurant, well, you’ll know a little bit more about where it all comes from.

[00:18:30] Remember, this was part one of a three-part series. In part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll look at what happened when fast food companies took their restaurants to the world, when it went well, when it went not so well, and some of the cunning techniques that they used to attract customers.

[00:18:50] And in part three, the final part, we’ll look at the state of fast food today, from what it is doing to our bodies to the future of the fast food industry, and we’ll ask ourselves whether we’ll ever be able to kick our addiction.

[00:19:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:10] Did you know this history of McDonald’s? 

[00:19:12] Have you ever been to a White Castle, or had you even heard of it before today’s episode?

[00:19:18] I would love to know.

[00:19:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another three-part series, this time about Fast Food.

[00:00:30] All around the world billions of people eat fast food every single day, and 1% of the world’s population, 68 million people, will eat at McDonald's today.

[00:00:43] In the US alone one single burger, The Whopper, is eaten every 15 seconds, and globally the consumption of fast food is growing every single year.

[00:00:55] So, with this large subject on our plate, we are going to split it into three parts. 

[00:01:02] In part one, in today’s episode we’ll look at the early history of fast food, where it came from and how it became such a staple dish for so many people.

[00:01:12] In part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll look at when and how fast food went global, looking at some of the weird and wonderful stories of techniques that especially American fast food companies used to appeal to people from different cultures with different tastes, when these worked and when they failed spectacularly.

[00:01:37] And in part three we will look at the fast food industry today, how it has had to adapt, what it is doing to us and our bodies, and what the future of fast food might look like.

[00:01:51] OK then, fast food. 

[00:01:55] Now, the idea that someone might want to eat their food quickly and conveniently is, of course, nothing new.

[00:02:03] Even going back to the ancient Romans and Greeks there are examples of what we might call public kitchens, or perhaps even “street food”. These were called Thermopolia, and you can see examples of them in Southern Italy, in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

[00:02:22] A merchant would cook large quantities of a particular dish, and people could pay a small fee for a plate. 

[00:02:30] The main customers for this would typically be people who were too poor to have their own cooking facilities, so they would eat here out of necessity, not out of choice.

[00:02:42] And this is only the European example. 

[00:02:46] It’s clearly convenient to prepare food in advance so that it is ready to eat quickly. 

[00:02:52] Sushi, which many people would put in the category of “fast food”, traces its roots back to the second century BC.

[00:03:00] The kebab is thought to be able to be traced back to 1377, lo mein, the Americanised Chinese noodle dish, goes back 2000 years, and even the iconic British fast food, fish and chips, has a history that goes back to the 16th century, and there are countless other examples.

[00:03:23] But these aren’t the main topics of today’s episode. 

[00:03:27] Indeed, they are all small fry, to pardon the pun, compared to fast food in the 20th century, in particular American fast food.

[00:03:37] And that will be the focus for today. 

[00:03:41] We’ll look at how the fast food industry over the past 100 years went from almost nothing to a type of food that literally billions of people eat on a frequent basis.

[00:03:54] So, where did it all start?

[00:03:57] Well, it might not surprise you to find out that our story starts in the United States, in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, 100 years ago.

[00:04:08] Two men, Walt Anderson and Edgar Ingram had started up a restaurant called White Castle. 

[00:04:16] After being frustrated at how long some meatballs were taking to cook, Anderson reportedly smashed down one on the griddle, creating a small square hamburger. 

[00:04:31] He saw that this cooked quickly, and unlike larger burgers, it didn’t need to be flipped, it didn’t need to be cooked on both sides.

[00:04:41] He decided to test serving this out to his customers, wrapped in between two pieces of bread, the hamburger bun.

[00:04:50] His customers loved them, and this type of small hamburger, nicknamed The Slider, later became the signature dish of White Castle. 

[00:05:01] The hamburgers or meat patties could be prepared in advance, meaning you could come in, order a burger and within a short period of time it would be ready for you.

[00:05:13] Anderson didn’t invent the hamburger, of course, but by creating this miniature hamburger he had the inspiration to prepare food in his restaurant differently.

[00:05:26] The American public at this time were concerned about the conditions in which meat was prepared, after a 1906 book called The Jungle, which exposed the dirty secrets of the meat-processing industry.

[00:05:41] As a result, Anderson and Inghram put a particular emphasis on cleanliness in their restaurant, they called it “White” Castle, the interior was porcelain, and diners could see their food being prepared in front of them, similarly to how you can still see your food being prepared in many fast food restaurants today.

[00:06:05] What’s more, the early 20th century was a time when the public was increasingly interested in how things were made, and especially if this production involved some kind of industrial, efficient process.

[00:06:21] The Ford Model T car had been released in 1908, and this was the era of public obsession with the increasing industrialisation of manufacturing, in particular the novelty of the production line. 

[00:06:38] So, Anderson and Inghram took inspiration from the Ford production line in their restaurant. This not only captivated the public’s attention, but it made it a lot more efficient, leading to lower costs of production and lower costs for the customer.

[00:06:57] A slider, which was the name for the first burger, cost just 5 cents, which is the equivalent of about $0.77 today. 

[00:07:08] Now, the burgers were small, and the idea was that you would buy several of them, but they were still very affordable.

[00:07:17] So, you might be asking - especially if the name “White Castle” is unfamiliar to you - why are companies like McDonald’s and Burger King more normally associated with the term “fast food” than White Castle?

[00:07:32] Well, we’ll get to the arrival of McDonald’s and the battle of the fast food chains in a minute, but although White Castle might have had the original innovation of creating the first “fast food restaurant”, there were a number of reasons that it didn’t immediately take off.

[00:07:53] Firstly, the concept of a nationwide fast food chain as we know it today simply didn’t exist. 

[00:08:01] Americans weren’t used to this idea, and there also wasn’t the infrastructure to support it - there weren’t the industrial-sized meat processing plants or bakeries that exist today, so White Castle had to build all of this itself.

[00:08:18] Furthermore, there wasn’t an established culture of eating out, a culture of going to restaurants. People cooked meals and ate at home for the most part

[00:08:29] In addition, the Great Depression shook the US in the late 1920s, which was followed shortly later by The Second World War.

[00:08:39] So it was to be in the post-war period, first in the United States but then everywhere else in the world, that the fast food boom really got going. 

[00:08:51] It all started, really, with two brothers, Richard and Maurice. You might be able to guess their surname, McDonald.

[00:09:01] They had opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1940. It was very different to any McDonald’s you might have been to.

[00:09:12] It had a wide array of different items, it was more like a traditional restaurant. But what the McDonald’s brothers saw was that the most popular items on the menu were, well you might have guessed it, burgers, chips and drinks.

[00:09:29] The original McDonald’s restaurant was popular, and the brothers were making a very decent living, making around $100,000 a year.

[00:09:39] But, in what was to prove to be a stroke of genius, in 1948 they closed down the entire restaurant for three months while they renovated it in order to turn it into the first real fast food restaurant as we know it.

[00:09:57] They designed the layout of their new restaurant on a tennis court. It was all based on the idea of speed, and they even introduced something called the "Speedee Service System".

[00:10:11] They built on the original system developed at White Castle. The production was based on a fast assembly line. Instead of a waiter bringing you your meal, you would come to collect it yourself. There were no knives and forks, you would eat the food with your hands.

[00:10:31] And the original large menu that the McDonald’s brothers previously had was trimmed down to only 9 items: burgers, fries and drinks.

[00:10:43] All of these cost savings meant that they were able to sell burgers for a mere 15 cents, today’s equivalent of around $1.70. 

[00:10:55] You may note that this is over double what the White Castle burgers were selling for, but the McDonald’s burgers were normal-sized burgers, they weren’t tiny ones like you’d get at White Castle.

[00:11:09] It was a case of an offering that came at the right time, and at the right place.

[00:11:15] It was boom time in post-war America. Disposable incomes were on the rise, people had more money in their pockets.

[00:11:23] Car ownership had continued to rise, and fast food was the perfect type of food for someone on the move, whether that was a salesman travelling to his next meeting or a family stopping off for a quick bite while on a weekend trip.

[00:11:41] From the outset, McDonald’s was a huge hit. People loved it but its success quickly saw copycats, other people looked at how popular McDonald’s was becoming and thought, “well, I wouldn't mind some of that”.

[00:11:57] Burger King was founded in 1953, 5 years after McDonald’s, when Keith Kramer and Matthew Burns saw the success of the McDonald’s brothers. 

[00:12:08] Taco Bell, another famous American fast food chain was founded in 1962, when its founder, a decidedly non-Mexican man called Glen Bell saw how the fast food formula could also work for Mexican food.

[00:12:26] And the McDonald’s brothers in many ways became victims of their own success.

[00:12:32] In the early 1950s a man called Ray Kroc had been working as a salesman for a milkshake mixing machine company. 

[00:12:42] He would normally sell one milkshake mixing machine per restaurant, but when he saw that the McDonald’s brothers had bought eight machines for one restaurant he decided he had to go and see what was going on. 

[00:12:57] Eight machines must mean that they were able to sell eight times as much milkshake as a normal restaurant, meaning they were probably selling eight times as much of everything, and they were probably printing money.

[00:13:12] When Kroc went to see the McDonald’s restaurant, he was amazed. It was an incredibly efficient operation, and he sensed the potential. 

[00:13:22] He persuaded the McDonald’s brothers to start a franchising business, whereby they would open new McDonald’s locations which would be managed locally, but things like marketing and the sourcing of products would be done centrally.

[00:13:40] Then, 6 years later, in 1961, he negotiated with Richard and Maurice McDonald to buy the entire McDonald's operation for $2.7 million, today’s equivalent of around $25 million. 

[00:13:57] The McDonald brothers took the offer, and Ray Kroc became the owner of McDonald’s.

[00:14:04] The rest is, as they say, history. Kroc was an aggressive negotiator, and under his leadership McDonalds went from 1 restaurant in 1948 to 40,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries in the world, with 1% of the world’s population eating there every single day.

[00:14:25] The reasons for the success of fast food in America today are similar to what they were when the McDonald’s brothers first revealed their “Speedee Service System" and $0.25 burgers.

[00:14:38] Firstly, it’s cheap and quick, making it an affordable and practical meal for anyone, regardless of their budget.

[00:14:47] Secondly, it is the same wherever you go. It’s familiar, and we humans are creatures of habit. Whether someone was eating at a McDonald’s in New York, Dallas or Chicago, it should taste the same, every time.

[00:15:03] A third reason, which was more of a reason for the success of fast food 70 years ago than now, but is still a reason in some countries, is that fast food restaurants are clean and tidy. 

[00:15:16] Walt Anderson knew this when he first created White Castle, and almost all fast food restaurants make sure that everything is cleaned regularly and to a high standard. It sounds like a simple thing, but keeping a restaurant clean is no easy matter

[00:15:34] We’ll come on to discuss this more in the next episode, on fast food going global, but one of the reasons KFC is thought to have been so successful initially in China is because its restaurants were simply much cleaner than the average restaurant, so people preferred it despite it being a little bit more expensive.

[00:15:55] Reason number five, and we could go on for hours, but this will be our last reason, is to do with the growth of cars, and in particular an innovation that came a year before McDonald’s opened, the drive thru.

[00:16:11] It might surprise you, and it certainly surprised me to find out that in the United States over half of all McDonald’s sales come from drive-thrus, from people driving up to the restaurant in their car, placing an order, and driving off with their food. 

[00:16:29] As car ownership grew, so did the fast food industry, and fast food adapted to be eaten in cars, by people on the move. 

[00:16:39] Popcorn chicken, for example, is designed to be eaten with one hand while driving, the design of milkshakes has been perfected for cars, and McDonald’s makes sure that all of its burgers can be eaten with one hand.

[00:16:55] Fast food is made for a society obsessed with not wasting time, a society where time is money, a society that revolves around the automobile, and one could even say a society without the same cultural tradition of spending time savouring a meal as exists in many European and Asian countries, for example.

[00:17:19] It was, in many ways, a match made in heaven, and has resulted in between 15 and 20% of Americans eating fast food every single day, and 96% of Americans eating fast food every year. 

[00:17:35] It didn’t take long for fast food to conquer America, but there are only so many burgers, fries and milkshakes a human being can eat every day.

[00:17:45] The next step, of course, was beyond the American borders, where fast food companies looked for more people hungry for burgers and fries, ready for a taste of American pop culture and eager to see what all of the fuss was about.

[00:18:01] And that, my friends, is what we’ll cover in the next episode, when fast food went global.

[00:18:08] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the early history of fast food.

[00:18:14] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and the next time you see, or perhaps even go into a McDonald’s, Burger King, or any other type of fast food restaurant, well, you’ll know a little bit more about where it all comes from.

[00:18:30] Remember, this was part one of a three-part series. In part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll look at what happened when fast food companies took their restaurants to the world, when it went well, when it went not so well, and some of the cunning techniques that they used to attract customers.

[00:18:50] And in part three, the final part, we’ll look at the state of fast food today, from what it is doing to our bodies to the future of the fast food industry, and we’ll ask ourselves whether we’ll ever be able to kick our addiction.

[00:19:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:10] Did you know this history of McDonald’s? 

[00:19:12] Have you ever been to a White Castle, or had you even heard of it before today’s episode?

[00:19:18] I would love to know.

[00:19:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]