Thursday, February 22, 2007

All that is gold does not glitter--but these fries sure do!

One aspect of literary history which is I think underappreciated by both fans and critics is the degree of influence which the fast food industry had on J.R.R. Tolkien. (Big man for fast food, was Tolkien. Many's the time his students saw him tucking a half-consumed Wimpy burger into his robes to snack on during his lectures).

The McDonalds Brothers

Back in 1948 a pair of Irish restauranteurs, Dick and Mac McDonald, opened a streamlined version of their carhop drive-in, the McDonald Brothers Burger Bar Drive-In. The brothers had discovered that most of their sales were of hamburgers and decided to do away with most other items on their menu. And, influenced by Henry Ford's assembly line processes, the brothers stressed efficiency in food preparation, delivery, and architectural layout. This new restaurant was an enormous financial success, but for various reasons the brothers were not successful in selling franchises, and by 1953 only 21 franchises had been sold, and only 10 of those became operating units.

Enter the Dark Lord, Ray Kroc.

His Unholy Darkess, Ray Kroc

At this time Kroc was selling Multimixer milkshake makers to various fast food franchises, but he saw the potential of the brothers' operation and signed an agreement with them to sell the brothers' franchises nationwide. (Rather than get into the lexigraphic Cannae that is "how do you spell the possessive of McDonald's?" I'm just going to refer to the franchise as "M."). At this time, selling a franchise merely meant ceding territory to a local owner in exchange for a large up-front fee. But Kroc wanted more control than that. He insisted on total control, selling individual store franchises rather than territorial franchises (thus controlling the number of stores one licensee could have) but also requiring licensee conformity to operating standards, equipment, menus, recipes, prices, trademarks, and architectural designs. Kroc hired the sinister Harry Sonneborn and with him designed the McDonald's Franchise Realty Corporation, which would purchase land for individual M. franchises and then rent the land to the licensee, which allowed M. to make money from rental agreements and to evict licensees if they violated the franchise agreement.

Kroc began selling franchises, and after a series of disagreements with the McDonald brothers bought them out. The corporate culture of M. changed, from the brothers' insistence on efficiency to Kroc's...well, as usual, Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin put it best, although he was describing Jack Aubrey's mother-in-law: "a deeply stupid, griping, illiberal, avid, tenacious, pinchfist lickpenny." (Among other charming habits, Kroc would spring surprise inspections on M. franchises, and if there was, for example, ketchup or mustard spilled on a counter, Kroc would insist on the ketchup or mustard being scooped back into a container for re-use). Kroc also targeted suburban America, a change from previous fast food restaurants' inner-city-oriented business plans. By 1963 Kroc was selling a million burgers a day.

I needn't tell you about M.'s history with anti-union activities, environmental destruction, lobbying the government against increasing minimum wages and worker benefits, denying health benefits to workers, laying waste to the environment, undue influence on potato farmers, contributing to the Boss Hogging of the American citizen, and general McDonaldization of the world, do I? I don't need to tell you what it means when a major corporation chooses a clown to be its spokesman, do I?

The natural objection is that the evils I blame M. for actually come from the fast food industry itself. But to a large degree M. is the fast food industry. It remains the leader in sales among fast food restaurants by an enormous amount, and has been for years. Its sales are increasing at a greater rate than its competitors. Of course, M. doesn't really have to worry about competitors. Of the top ten fast food franchises in terms of sales, M. is #1--and its sales are more than the sales of #2 through #5 combined.

Why? Partly because Dark Lord Kroc's current state is likely something like this:

Futurama Nixon

or even this.

But more than that, it's because too many of those who should M.'s competitors are fatally, even spiritually, compromised. It can't be the food--have you actually tasted a M. Extruded Food Product recently? Even a White Castle Slider is preferable. (I do not say that lightly). No, it can't be the food. The answer must lie somewhere else.

Burger King is #2 on the fast food franchise sales list. One would think it was M.'s greatest threat. Certainly the number of Burger King commercials would seem to imply so. And yet in 2006 M.'s sales were almost four times those of Burger King. Why? Partly as karmic punishment for the way that Burger King bullied poor Wimpy and destroyed a good solid British company. But, really, Burger King never had a chance against M. Burger King began as the "Insta-Burger King," back in 1953, founded by Keith Cramer. Cramer got the idea for Insta-Burger King by visiting M.; later, he bought the very first milkshake maker for the new fast food franchise from...wait for it...Ray Kroc himself, in what can only be described as a gift of a poisoned chalice. Likewise, Jack-in-the-Box (#5 on the sales list), begun in 1950 in San Diego, got its first milkshake makers from Multimixer, Kroc's company.

Taco Bell (#3 on the sales list) began in San Bernardino, California, home to the first M. Taco Bell's founder, Glen Bell, was inspired by M. to open his own chain.

Wendy's is #4 on the sales list, and is the only franchise whose sales are significantly increasing (over 33% from 2000-2006). Wendy's is actually one of the two most dangerous franchises to M. See, back in 1952 Harland Sanders (an honorary "Kentucky Colonel") founded Kentucky Fried Chicken (#8 on the sales list) without any inspiration from M. or links to Ray Kroc. (Which, naturally, is a threat to M. KFC is independent of M., and we all know how evil empires feel about independent rivals, don't we?) Sanders had to sell KFC in 1964, but soon afterwards helped his protegé, Dave Thomas, establish his own chain, Wendy's. Now, there was some unpleasantness between Sanders and KFC later in Sanders' life, and Thomas was always very loyal to Sanders, but both KFC and Wendy's have, surely, put aside whatever rivalry and hurt feelings they have in their war with M. After all, there is a lineage there.

Colonel Sanders Dave Thomas

Why are these two a threat to M.? Because fast food is now a global business, not just one limited to American borders. M. is certainly working on the global level; the largest M. in the world is in Tiananmen Square (on the corner where that nameless hero stopped the tank in 1989), and the second largest is near Red Square in Moscow (which, like M.'s presence in Tiananmen Square, is a symbolic statement so obvious as to not need limning or explication). The truth is that, like the major tobacco players, M. gets the majority of its income from foreign (that is, non-American) sources: 34.6% from Europe, 34% from the United States, 6.5% from Latin America, and 13.8% from "Asia/Pacific, the Middle East & Africa." (6.6% comes from "other regions"). M. needs the global customer more than it needs the American customer.

Wendy's owns Tim Horton's, which does twice as much business in Canada as M. And KFC...well, it was the first fast food chain in Japan, is the most-recognized foreign brand in China, and now has more restaurants outside the U.S. KFC and Wendy's are far behind M. in sales, but on the international stage both are a legitimate threat to M., especially in China, where KFC has an unofficial corporate policy of opening a KFC franchise within 500 yards of every new M. franchise.

As mentioned, Jack-in-the-Box is #5 on the sales list. The franchises after that, KFC excepted, are non-starters in the eyes of M., minor entities like Chick-Fil-A, Hardee's, Sonic, and Long John Silver, which cumulatively sell less than a quarter of M.'s annual business. And yet, even among the second and third tier of fast food franchises, the taint of Dark Lord Kroc can be found. Carl's Jr., founded by Carl Karcher in 1956 after a visit to the M.'s mothership in San Bernardino. Dairy Queen, which resolved its financing and corporate structure problems in 1948 by forming the Dairy Queen National Trade Association; an attendee at the first meeting of the association? Ray Kroc, who was selling his Multimixers to numerous Dairy Queen franchises. Hardee's, who began by modeling not only its serving processes but the very architecture of its buildings on M.'s. And White Castle, whose recipes are based duplicating the taste of the wastewater that builds up in the dumpsters behind M.

As you can see, the claw marks of Dark Lord Kroc are everywhere across the industry. So what's the link to Tolkien?

Where do you think Tolkien got the idea of Sauron offering the cursed rings to men and dwarfs? Kroc selling milkshake makers to his tools rivals, and allowing him to visit M. locations to derive inspiration for their own efforts.

Take a look at the Eye of Sauron, which, if you remember, was "rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

eye of sauron

Take a look at the clown.

the clown

Rimmed with fire, glazed, black slits, a window into nothing...remind you of anything?

What are the Golden Arches except Twin Towers? The Lavic Lake volcanic field, including Pisgah Crater, is only 50-odd miles from San Bernardino, and what are those but the obvious inspiration for the landscape of Mordor?

Put another way, have you considered what happens when you take the Golden Arches and bring their ends together? You get this:

The One Ring

(Nice fries, though. Tasty).

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