Just up the street from the Elks Lodge and Oehler's Funeral Home sits a national artifact as American as mom's apple pie, a modest structure that has become a motorist's lure.
Situated between Podiatry Associates and the Drury Northwestern Motel, the building can be easily overlooked. Yet almost daily, motorists from far beyond the borders of this city of 55,000 on the northwestern outskirts of Chicago drive slowly past 400 Lee St. -- just to take a look. The traffic is so constant that any cop in Des Plaines knows instinctively what the question will be when a stranger rolls down his window.
A recent colloquy between a cop in his cruiser and an outsider in his rented car:
"Could you tell me where -- "
" -- Straight ahead, be sure to keep right, and you can't miss it."
Follow the directions and there it is: the first McDonald's hamburger stand ever run by Ray Kroc, the late fast-food genius who built a world empire on the lowly hamburger.
Thirty years ago, Kroc, then 52 and a successful malted milk mixing machine salesman, figured he could make a handsome new living selling 15-cent hamburgers and 10-cent bags of french fries according to a method pioneered by two brothers in California named McDonald. He made a franchise deal with them, then looked around near his suburban Chicago home for a location. He envisioned running the stand between daily railroad commutes to his malted milk mixer business in the downtown Loop.
Lee Street in Des Plaines beckoned; it was near the railroad station. Kroc opened his first McDonald's on April 15, 1955 -- tax day. It was the first time the golden arches showed up in America's heartland. The rest is history.
McDonald's grew into the largest fast-food chain in the world, a nonpareil of American organization and excellence that last year rang up total sales of more than $8.6 billion. The statistics are nothing short of colossal: this fall, the 8,000th McDonald's will open and by next month, the corporation will have sold its 50,000,000,000th hamburger. Fifty billion.
Hard to believe that it all began with so unassuming a landmark of the roadside, strip-zoned, neon-lit, drive-in, postwar culture as this hamburger stand. In his pithy as-told-to autobiography, "Grinding It Out," Kroc called the location "a mediocre site for a place that had no prior public exposure." But he applied his usual energy and zealous attention to detail; the company took in $235,000 that year and was off and running.
The brick-and-glass fronted building with the slanted roof at No. 400 is closed now, its stainless steel grills cold, the refrigerators empty, its signs removed. But just to look inside conjures memories of a fading era of economy-class roadside cuisine that marked the 1950s and '60s.
Hundreds of identical "red-and-whites," as the company calls them, were built from 1955 to 1970. The company's fortunes boomed. Kroc, who died Jan. 14 at 84, became a multi-millionaire, a friend of presidents, a high-school dropout who received honorary degrees for his business acumen. In 1968, the 1,000th store was opened and the corporation's gross sales exceeded $200 million.
But just like tail fins on cars, the old red-and-whites began disappearing as consumer tastes changed. Barely a dozen survive in working condition.
400 Lee Street's time came when franchisee Alex Karis, who has owned the building more than 20 years, completed a new McDonald's across Lee Street from Kroc's original restaurant. When he shut the original place and opened the new one, no one had any idea America would care.
But it did. The new McDonald's was mobbed when it opened. One reason was because Karis sold opening-day hamburgers at Kroc's original price of 15 cents. But the special only lasted a day. Still, the crowds keep coming.
Now, at McDonald's world headquarters in nearby Oak Brook, plans are afoot to restore No. 400. Corporate spokesman Steven H. Leroy says that "a lot of attention is being paid by the public to firms such as McDonald's that were on the leading edge of technology in the '50s and '60s." Even the Smithsonian Institution is now interested in preserving a McDonald's -- maybe arches and all.