Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on October 5, 1902. Kroc worked as a salesman for 17 years after World War I, before becoming involved with McDonald’s in the 1950s. Kroc purchased the restaurant company in 1961, implementing automation and strict preparation standards that helped make McDonald’s the world’s largest restaurant franchise before his death in 1984, at the age of 81.
Ray Albert Kroc was born to parents of Czech origin in Oak Park, Illinois, on October 5, 1902. Kroc participated in World War I as a Red Cross ambulance driver, lying about his age to begin serving at 15. During his training, Kroc met Walt Disney, with whom he would maintain a professional relationship for most of his life. Fellow Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway also spent his time in the war as an ambulance driver.
Following the armistice, Kroc explored a number of career options, including paper cup salesman, pianist and DJ on a local Oak Park radio station. He worked for room and board at a restaurant, hoping to learn the business. He first put his restaurant knowledge to use as a traveling milkshake machine salesman. The machines that Kroc sold made five shakes at a time, increasing restaurant efficiency. He remained in sales for 17 years.
It was in his role as a milkshake machine salesman that Kroc first became involved with McDonald’s, a restaurant chain based in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers were clients who had purchased multiple mixers. Grasping the franchising potential of McDonald’s, Kroc offered to work as a franchising agent for a cut of the profits. Ultimately, Kroc’s ambitions for the restaurants eclipsed those of the McDonald brothers. In 1955, Kroc became president of the McDonald’s Corporation. He bought out the owners entirely six years later. In 1977, after leading McDonald’s past its main competitor Burger King, Kroc reassigned himself to the role of senior chairman. He held this position until his death in 1984.
Under Kroc’s ownership, McDonald’s retained some of its original character while incorporating new elements. Kroc kept the assembly line approach to hamburger preparation that the McDonald brothers pioneered in the 1940s. Kroc’s key contributions to the restaurant were automation, standardization and discipline. Franchise owners, carefully chosen for their ambition and drive, went through a training course at “Hamburger University” in Elk Grove, Illinois. There, they earned certificates in “hamburgerology with a minor in french fries.” Kroc focused his efforts on growing suburban areas, capturing new markets with familiar food and low prices.
While some critics lambasted the nutritional content of McDonald’s food and its treatment of teenage workers, the model that Kroc engineered proved extremely profitable. Kroc’s strict guidelines regarding preparation, portion sizes, cooking methods and packaging ensured that McDonald’s food would look and taste the same across franchises. These innovations contributed to the success of the McDonald’s brand on a global scale. By the time of Ray Kroc’s death, McDonald’s had 7,500 locations in 31 countries and was worth $8 billion. His personal fortune was estimated at $500 million.
Ray Kroc died of heart failure at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego, California, on January 14, 1984. He was 81 years old. Over three decades after his death, Kroc's story inspired the 2016 film The Founder, starring Michael Keaton.
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