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The Father of Fast FoodThe Father of Fast Food

February 1, 2000

3 Min Read
The Father of Fast Food

The Father of Fast Food
February 2000 -- Foodservice Front

By: Bill McDowell

  Who built the foundation for the QSR empires of the 20th Century? It's probably not who you'd think.  Watching countless variations of "the century in review" has led me to a bit of a revelation. I suddenly realized that we foodservice folks have gotten it wrong all these years. We've all blindly accepted the popular notion that Ray Kroc invented the systems and strategies that define the modern fast-food industry. But history says that Kroc, the mastermind of the McDonald's empire, is in fact no more the father of fast food than I am.  By rights, that distinction belongs to Henry Ford.Driving force  That's right, Henry Ford. The man who offered consumers a Model T in any color they wished - as long as it was black.  You see, Ford pioneered the assembly line. Prior to his contribution to the industrial revolution, virtually all products were made to order by skilled artisans who oversaw a job from start to finish. Ford's assembly line made it possible to mass-produce even complex items by dividing labor into small, component pieces.  Credit Ray Kroc for adopting that assembly-line approach to the restaurant business and leveraging it to build McDonald's into the world's largest restaurant company. The McDonald's machine was built on efficiencies and economies of scale. No longer need every item for every order be made individually. Instead, the components could be assembled in advance and served as needed.  Further, a uniform system allowed for hyper-rapid growth as the prototype could be replicated anywhere. Every fast-food concept in business today owes Ford for mapping out this growth infrastructure.  Ford's handiwork aided that growth in other ways, too, as the automobile opened the door to the development of suburbs, expressways and, of course, drive-thrus. Counter revolution  But just as Ford Motors has had to evolve to the times and changing tastes of modern consumers, so has McDonald's. And the transition hasn't always been pleasant or easy. The very efficiencies of its system grew into liabilities. As consumers became more and more accustomed to finely tuned micro-marketing, McDonald's machine began to look - and taste - a little antiquated and, well, mass-produced. Special orders were more a nuisance than a service. Just ask anyone who ever asked for a Big Mac sans pickles.  Which is why McDonald's transformation in recent years is so remarkable. Not only has it shed the onetime security blanket of its old operating systems (the system-wide rollout of McDonald's Made For You operating system is virtually complete), but the acquisition of complementary concepts, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Donato's Pizza and, most recently, Boston Market, shows an understanding by McDonald's management that consumers crave multiple options for multiple dining occasions.  And in this new, digital age, that understanding is critical. Success in foodservice, as in any industry today, depends on the ability to adapt to a market of one. Just as a Ford Motors customer today can order a vehicle to specification online, the McDonald's customer can get that burger made to order. Only in that kind of liberated environment will the kind of product innovation occur at McDonald's that will keep the brand relevant to consumers for the next 100 years.  Henry Ford's contribution to industry laid the groundwork for companies like McDonald's to become colossuses. But their future growth depends on their willingness and ability to think small.  Bill McDowell is editorial director of Horsham, PA-based VerticalNet's Foodservice Central at www.foodservicecentral.com. His previous editorial experience includes stints at Chain Leader, Advertising Age and Restaurants and Institutions. McDowell holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Evanston, IL, where he currently is an adjunct lecturer. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].
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