Business and Labor

When Dad Lost His Job, the McDonald Brothers Started a Fast-Food Empire

The McDonald brothers vowed they would get rich when their father lost his job at a New Hampshire shoe factory. After 42 years of loyal service, he received no pension, no gold watch, no thank you.

Stung by their father’s abrupt dismissal, the McDonald brothers pledged they would make a million dollars by the time they reached 50. They almost made it.

Richard and Maurice McDonald were born in Manchester, N.H., the sons of Irish immigrants. Their father Patrick worked as a shift manager at the G.P. Krafts shoe factory as one of some 20,000 shoe workers in Manchester.

The second McDonald's franchise -- and oldest still standing -- in Downey, Calif.

The second McDonald’s franchise — and oldest still standing — in Downey, Calif.

McDonald Brothers Go West

Maurice, or Mac, was born November 26, 1902. Richard, or Dick, was born February 16, 1909. The McDonald brothers had three sisters. Mac went to Central High School, Dick to West. They attended some of the same classes as the Revson brothers, who founded the Revlon cosmetic empire.

After they graduated from high school, the McDonald brothers moved to Hollywood, Calif.

Mac and Dick began working as set movers and handymen at film studios. They opened a movie theater that didn’t do so well. Then they opened a hot dog stand in Monrovia, Calif., in 1937. They called it the Airdome and added 10-cent hamburgers and all-you-can-drink orange juice for a nickel. The hot dog stand did okay.

In 1940, the brothers moved the building 40 miles east to a bigger city: San Bernardino. They called it McDonald’s Bar-B-Que, with 25 items on the menu. By the fall of 1948, Dick and Mac realized most of their money came from hamburger sales. They closed their barbecue stand and built anew.

Fast, Clean and a Lot of It

Their goals:  speed, volume and cleanliness. The new drive-in had no interior and no wait staff, but it had a kitchen designed as a production assembly line. A stainless steel grill replaced the old iron version because it could cook more burgers. Paper and plastic replaced cutlery and plates, and the dishwashers who Dick complained were drunks didn’t return. Customers ordered food at the counter and got it within seconds.

At the new restaurant, called McDonald’s, they sold only hamburgers, cheeseburgers, potato chips, coffee, soft drinks and apple pie. A freak storm dumped three inches of snow on San Bernardino on the day the new McDonald’s opened. So few customers came the employees were told to park their cars in front of the restaurant so it looked busy.

A year later they were serving hordes of customers who didn’t want to wait for their meals: high school students, cab drivers, travelers and busy families. They swapped out the apple pie and potato chips for milk shakes and French fries. They were so successful they each bought a Cadillac and traded it in every year.


Golden Arches

By 1952 the McDonald brothers decided to expand. They hired Southern California architect Stanley Clark Meston to design the first franchised restaurant.

Meston had already worked on drive-ins in a late art deco style. He worked closely with the McDonald brothers to design the new restaurant. They chalked the actual measurements of every piece of kitchen equipment on one of their tennis courts.

The brothers offered Meston a flat fee or a commission every time a new restaurant was built.  Meston made the wrong choice – he took the fee. He designed the building with red-and-white ceramic tile, gleaming stainless steel surfaces, pulsating neon and two 25-foot yellow arches (Dick’s idea).

Historic 1962 McDonald’s sign in Pine Bluff, Ark.

Meston hated the arches. “I’ll put the damn things in, but don’t tell anyone I was involved in it,” Meston said. The sign proclaiming how many millions, then billions, sold was also Dick’s idea.

They built the first franchise in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1953 for Neil Fox. Fox’s brother-in-law bought the second franchise in Downey, Calif., where the oldest original McDonald’s restaurant still stands.

In 1954, the McDonald brothers met Ray Kroc, who persuaded them to go national. In 1961, after 24 years in the restaurant business, they decided they’d gotten tired of it. They sold out to Kroc for $2.71 million plus 1 percent of gross sales.

The McDonald brothers are portrayed in the film The Founder, starring Michael Keaton.

The McDonald brothers are portrayed in the film The Founder, starring Michael Keaton.

Lost Points

The first New Hampshire McDonald’s opened in 1964 on South Willow Street in Manchester, a block from the childhood home of the McDonald brothers. The 596th franchise, it opened just around the time Dick retired.

Dick returned to Bedford, N.H., a suburb of Manchester, and married his sweetheart from West High School. One day he took his step-grandson to the South Willow Street McDonald’s. He lost a lot of points with the boy because he not only had to stand in line, he had to pay.

Mac lived out the rest of his life in Califiornia.

Dick was once asked if he regretted selling out to Kroc. Not at all, he replied. “I would have wound up in some skyscraper somewhere with about four ulcers and eight tax attorneys trying to figure out how to pay all my income tax,” he said.

In the 2017 film The Founder, Richard McDonald is played by Nick Offerman, and John Carroll Lynch portrays Maurice McDonald. (To see a trailer, click here.)

Today, about 38,000 McDonald’s serve  about 68 million customers every day. 

Photos: 1953 McDonald’s at Night by Bryan Hong (Brybry26) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

This story about the McDonald Brothers was updated in 2021.

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