It's just a little burger-and-fries stand with a red sign out front and a pair of old yellow arches sticking through the roof. Inside, there isn't even a place to sit down. But this is where Ray Kroc's dream began. Out of here, 28 years ago, began the never-ending flow of patties that now doubtless would, if you set them end to end, reach all the way to Mars, form rings around Saturn.
This is burger Bethlehem, home of McDonald's No. 1. This place should be an American shrine, like Chickamauga or U.S. 1 or Elvis' Cadillac. And instead the company wants to shut it down, forsake this holy ground. There are more dollars to be had, you see, at a site across the road.
Des Plaines, pop. circa 56,000, is a bead in a necklace of bedroom towns strung out along the northwest side of Chicago. The Chicago and Northwestern Railway cuts through the middle of it, and the movie theater that caught fire a couple months ago is about to reopen in all its former splendor. At the town limits, in the near-roar of a one-time apple orchard called O'Hare Field, a wooden sign proclaims: "Entering Des Plaines. City of Destiny."
The story about the threatened closing of the rude but glorious spot where it all began got on the news wires a few days before Thanksgiving, and since then you wouldn't exactly describe the outcry from preservationists as hysterical, though there are those, like town historian Jim Williams (retired from a life in the sales biz), who say:
"Hell, it's been here since 1955, when Ray Kroc himself opened it. I don't know if you're proud of it, exactly. People who have lived in Des Plaines, as I have, for 33 years drive by that little building and say, 'Hey, we got something here.' And when relatives come to town, well, why not, I usually take them down to get a hamburger and a picture of the joint. Now I'm a big guy. I like the triple. Well, the double. I mean the quarter-pounder."
Tacked on a board in the basement of the Des Plaines historical society these days is a black and white photograph of the little burger stand that roared. The picture is draped in a sorrowful black ribbon. "Well, it's actually a dark blue ribbon," Williams says.
It is brittle-bright in Des Plaines; shortly it will be high noon. All sorts of town citizenry have started to come by to gawk or pose or slam down a "slider." A slider is American slang accorded the original White Castle burger, precursor of the McDonald's patty. White Castle stands date from the late '20s, and you still can get yourself a slider--on Mannheim Road in Chicago, for instance--for an incredible 28 cents. The little wads of gray meat come smothered with limp onions in cardboard cartons. The McDonald's burger, meanwhile, has almost quadrupled in price to 56 cents.
In the parking lot of No. 1 today, his bearded face partially hidden by wrappers, is a man in a Datsun pickup. Next to him is a lady in a red Merc; her baby daughter, in a car seat, sucks madly on a shake.
An unwashed yellow Malibu pulls up and two aging, overweight hippies get out. One has long hair tied in a knot behind his head. Do they know they have hit the McDonald's?
"Yeah?" one says, surprised. "I'm into nostalgia anyway."
Frank LaPore, 21, emerges from the restaurant with a sack in his hand. LaPore is a cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Des Plaines. He can tie on the feed bag down there free, but he comes in here anyway. "Don't let them do it," he says with great urgency. "Tell them Frank LaPore says that if they tear it down, it'll be ignorant."
A big glossy sedan pulls into the lot: It is Marilyn and Bob Scheibel, with their son, John, and John's fiance'e, Tara Flaherty. Flaherty is from the East Coast and has come to meet the prospective in-laws. The Scheibels live in Arlington Heights, one suburb away. Bob Scheibel has an overcoat and a fedora on and he snaps pictures with abandon. Mother and son and the Eastern fiance'e squat down at the base of the flagpole. They are all a little embarrassed and are tittering, but they do it anyway.
"Oh, sure, we come here a lot, my doctor's just right down the street," says Marilyn Scheibel.
Says the fiance'e: "My parents stopped here years ago on a motor trip when they were 15 cents apiece."
They go into the store, get their order, return to the sedan. All four munch happily, two in the front, two in the back. Presently the son emerges and carries the refuse to a can.
Inside the store, behind the counter, Dick Pilz is managing the noontime tide. Damn it if a coil didn't go out this morning in the front warming bin. But you always face the unexpected in this business. Dick is a likable, beefy, middle-aged man who eats the product and gets up every morning at 3 a.m. to open his store by 6. There's a new line, Chicken McNuggets, that's coming on strong (it replaced the McChicken sandwich and some aren't happy about that), and Dick won't be satisfied 'til you've tried it with the sweet and sour sauce.
"But I tried it with the barbecue sauce yesterday," a visitor says meekly.
"No, no, no. You have to try it with the sweet and sour right now."
Pat Gardner, eight years at this store, is "calling production." She stands out front of her coworkers, by the crowd, calling the flow of quarter-pounders and cheeseburgers and Big Macs like a quarterback calling plays, like a TV director calling shots.
"I'll have mixed feelings if they close it, that's for sure," she says. "I think you have more contact with the people when you have the old registers like these rather than the computers. The customer goes by you too fast that way."
Gardner thinks it's a great company, actually. "They let you have all the holidays off that the kids have, and if your daughter gets sick at school, well, you just go home."
Here at No. 1, the shakes are made the old way. In fact, over there in the corner is an icon: one of Ray Kroc's five-spindle multimixers.
"You mean you've never had a shake from a multimixer?" Pilz says.
Nothing will do 'til one is tried. Actually, it's delicious, definitely better than the brave new shake which comes premixed in a machine. In the old way, you have to clean the spindle and the metal mixing cup each time. Pilz doesn't particularly wish to say the old shake is superior, of course. He is all in favor of this modern technology. He'll be happy to go across the street when the time comes.
"You know, Mr. Kroc used to record in his logs how the weather was that day," Pilz says. "Well, we do that, too. Some things just aren't going to change."
A regional supervisor is in the store today. He is spiffy in a blue McDonald's tie.
"What's that diet organizaion?" he asks Pilz.
"You know, that outfit where they lose weight--something anonymous?"
"Weight Watchers," says Pilz.
"Yeah. Weight Watchers. Well, the only thing on their list they can eat in here is a grilled cheese. It's not even on our menu, but we'll cook one for them."
Before Ronald McDonald came along, the most famous name in Des Plaines was Socrates Rand. Socrates lived in the last century and owned the town mill and about everything else, too. Alas, the Rand Mill did not survive, and the Landmark Condominium is there now.
If you didn't know Des Plaines, or if you weren't having a Big Mac attack, you might motor right on past the tatty spot at 400 Lee St., which is hemmed in now by a rheumy hotel and the "Podiatry Associates Ltd." The podiatry building, ugly and squat, somewhat obscures the big red McDonald's sign, with its cartoon of the Speedee hamburger man. Little Speedee was the original company logo, and he was pure '50s American roadside vernacular. Speedee still is on the sign, which is faded and creaky, though you still can easily make out the message: "Coast to Coast. Speedee Service System." Only thing, down at the bottom they've put on the '80s astronomical number of total burgers served: 40 billion. It's probably higher than that, in fact.
A few feet away from the venerable old sign, at the base of a flagpole, is a modest bronze plaque set in concrete. It announces proudly: "The National chain of McDonald's was born on this spot with the opening of this restaurant on April 15, 1955." It is signed with the name Ray Kroc. A kid with a ski cap over his ears and hands jammed in a parka is standing in front of the plaque. He reads it, scuffs his shoe, shrugs to himself, moves on.
At the Drury Northwestern Hotel (rooms: $15 a night), which faces the north end of the McDonald's lot, Helen Cully Austin stands outside her room, gestures with her head, and says: "Yeah, we go over there for coffee 'bout every morning." Mrs. Austin is elderly now, and her room is on the ground floor, facing outside, like a motel room. Her front window looks onto the McDonald's. "I was here the year they opened that place. 'Course, this wasn't a hotel then. It was a hospital and I was a patient. I lost a baby daughter here."
The door to her room is covered with Christmas wrapping, as if it were a giant present. The door opens suddenly and her husband, Jim Austin, comes out. He stamps his feet and blows into his fist. "Damn, it's cold," he says. "Yeah, I'll probably go over for a sandwich after a bit."
In 1955, founding father Ray Kroc was a middle-aged Chicago businessman making a handy living from his five-spindle "multimixer" milkshake machines. And then destiny struck in the vision of a 15-cent hamburger served quick and easy at a walk-up counter. Kroc's 15-center at a little red-and-white tile restaurant (derived, it should be pointed out, from two brothers in San Bernardino, Calif., named Dick and Mac McDonald), was the burger shot round the world.
And now you can find a McDonald's in Hong Kong, at the Toronto Zoo, on the Garden State Parkway, and in approximately 6,900 other places in the Unites States and Canada and some 28 other countries, Kuala Lumpur being only the latest. Altogether there are nearly 7,000 outlets. Des Plaines has three other McDonald's: Nos. 1,000, 2,000, and 6,000 in the corporate system. This is not by accident.
From the beginning, Kroc thought of his chain of roadside stands as a great "system," even when he barely had two dimes to rub together. His earliest corporate letterheads and memorandums speak not of the plans for one McDonald's, or 20, but of the total "system." Kroc was Alexander the Great of burgers and fries, bent on colonizing the immediate universe. He expanded into Michigan and Indiana and Florida and then beyond. In Chicago right now, there are 274 outlets, and managers of these brave new hamburger palaces matriculate in Advanced Operations at an institute called Hamburger U., in Oakbrook, Ill. When they graduate, it's with a master's in hamburgerology.
Whenever the founder hunted for new sites, or so the legend goes, the first thing he did was look for church steeples and schoolyards. America was moving to the suburbs, and Ray Kroc was going along. For years the McDonald's story was mainly a suburban phenomenon. But in 1968 Manhattan fell. Now no city is exempt. Almost as much as Henry Ford, the early flower of our century's genius, Kroc changed the very patterns of American life--and not necessarily for the better, it should quickly be added, though the plasticizing and homogenizing of America is a different story from this one.
Today, Ray Kroc is an old, rich man riding a golf cart in San Diego. He has had a stroke and is partially disabled. Last summer he celebrated his 80th birthday at a San Diego Padres game. He owns the Padres.
The faint groundswell from preservationists and vernacular historians and nostalgia buffs to save No. 1 may have caught the McDonald's company brass on the short bounce. "Yes, we expected some response," says Stephanie Skurdy, media relations spokeswoman. The announced reason for the closing of No. 1 (it will occur, if plans go ahead, sometime this spring) was so the company could better serve its customers at a larger site across the street. A closed-up Ground Round is across the street at the moment. The company will tear that building down, but whether it will change its mind about the facility at 400 Lee is uncertain just now. The issue of the closing is complicated by the fact that McDonald's owns the building at No. 1, though not the lot it stands on. Maybe it will become a museum.