Article Thumbnail

What Reading Every Fast Food Giant’s Autobiography Taught Me About Success

The cranky old men who built America’s burger industry have some secrets to share about our country

“I’m no psychologist, and I’m no economist or big deal politician, either. My goal is to share with you what my life has taught me rather than pretend to tell you what everybody should think or do.” —Dave Thomas

Ever had to buy a Christmas present for some uncle you barely know? Then you’re probably familiar with books like Dave’s Way. This 1991 nonfiction treatise by Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas (written with Ron Beyma and Mary Maroon Gelpi) is part memoir and part how-to, sprinkling basic business advice between lengthy “guess you had to be there” accounts of Dave’s pivotal franchising deals. Thomas’ tome is a lot like Lee Iacocca’s bestselling 1984 autobiography, which runs through some of the Chrysler bigwig’s greatest successes, peppered with his broader opinions about American society. These books are packed with simplistic truisms, delivered in “just plain folks” prose.

Dave Thomas wasn’t the first fast-food kingpin to pen (or hire a ghostwriter to pen) a book of tepid tips, self-congratulation and grumpy-old-man rants. He’s not the last, either. The sub-genre has waxed and waned in popularity, but altogether there have been dozens of these opinionated bios, presenting the well-earned wisdom of a man who invented a better hamburger or pioneered “30-minutes-or-less” pizza delivery.

Read enough of these, and patterns emerge. Even the funkier philosophical tangents have a similar ring. So here, in essence, is what the men who built America’s fast food industry — most of whom are dead now — want you to know about how our world works, and how to get the best of it.

Bring Back Bridge Mix!

Barely 10 pages into Dave’s Way, Thomas gets cranky. Not for the first time, nor the last. Reminiscing about how his Grandma Minnie used to buy him bridge mix — an assortment of chocolate-coated candy clusters, often set out for company during card games — he complains that no one sells this stuff any more or even knows what it is.

He’s overstating the case, of course. Bridge mix never went away. (Although Thomas is right that it became less popular.) But that’s not the point. What he really means to say is that the country he grew up in was much better than it was when he wrote Dave’s Way. Thomas goes on to quote his grandmother’s common complaint about sewing thread getting thinner, saying, “If people keep cutting corners, this country’s going to be in big trouble.”

This is the primary recurring theme for a lot of these memoirs: The world is getting worse and worse, and lazy, selfish young people are to blame. In Dunkin’ founder William Rosenberg’s 2001 book Time to Make the Donuts (written with Jessica Brilliant Keener), he insists that only 10 percent of the population possesses the “positive mental attitude” required to succeed in business, and that the rest are “complainers” who are “full of excuses.”

Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan flatly says in 1986’s Pizza Tiger (written with Robert Anderson), “Unfortunately, most people don’t have the importance of being nice to others instilled in them by their parents.” In his book, the super-conscientious Monaghan is focused on character and discipline. He even says of his own habits, “I eat dessert only 11 times a year: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, just before Lent, St. Patrick’s Day and six family birthdays.” (On the one hand: admirably restrained! On the other hand: Who makes a special point to eat dessert on St. Patrick’s Day?)

Even at the end of S. Truett Cathy’s slim 2007 salute to his Chick-fil-A triumphs — titled How Did You Do It, Truett? — he sums up his philosophies with 11 dos and don’ts, one of which reads, “Shortcut to success: Observe what is working in the lives of others. Teenagers, observe mature individuals.” Do not, under any circumstances, follow the example of anyone under 30… or anyone who’s never heard of bridge mix.

Education Ain’t Nothin’

Perhaps because a lot of burger, pizza, donut and chicken moguls came of age before WWII, many of them dropped out of school and entered the workforce after the eighth grade — or sixth grade, in the case of KFC’s creator-mascot Colonel Harland Sanders. Many of them never really cottoned to fancy book-learnin’.

On the first page of the first chapter of How Did You Do It, Truett?, Cathy says that when he’s asked to speak to graduating classes, he tells them — not as a warning — “The world is run by C students.” In Dave’s Way, high school dropout Thomas says the MBAs in his organization don’t look at the right numbers on profit-and-loss reports. Dunkin’s Rosenberg cautions, “School teaches you how to study and how to absorb information, but that alone will not teach ambition.” Monaghan of Domino’s admits he’s never worked well with “Ph.D.’s or MBAs who criticized me for not being ‘professional.’”

After all those “meh” opinions about college, it’s kind of a relief to read James W. McLamore’s 1998 book The Burger King: Jim McLamore and the Building of an Empire, where he talks about graduating from Cornell University. “My advice to young people starting out today is to get really familiar and comfortable with numbers,” he writes. That’s much different from Dave Thomas’ lament: “You can drown in data in even the simplest business these days.”

Want to Sell Paper Cups? Sell Milkshake Machines. Want to Sell Milkshake Machines? Sell Hamburgers

The gold standard of fast food memoirs — at least in terms of a book that’s both readable and lively — is Ray Kroc’s 1977 classic Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s, written with Robert Anderson. Even Kroc’s competition loved his book. In Pizza Tiger, Tom Monaghan talks about making a pilgrimage to San Diego to meet Kroc in 1980, carrying along a “dogeared” copy of Grinding It Out. What makes it so great? Maybe it’s because Kroc skips the self-aggrandizing pieties that his competitors spill across hundreds of pages, and instead tells a punchy (and not always G-rated) story about hustle.

Kroc famously didn’t found McDonald’s; he only came up with the idea of rapidly spreading Richard and Maurice McDonald’s industrialized, quick-serve process for serving hamburgers. Kroc originally became interested in the restaurant because he was selling a high-end milkshake mixer, and he thought that more McDonald’s stores might boost sales. His involvement with milkshakes stemmed from his years in the paper cup industry, where he started moving more product once he convinced soda fountains to offer malts to-go.

The point is that a lot of the “genius” in these fast food how-to books is really just the result of a dogged process of studying the competition, recognizing what works, and refining it. For every genuinely brilliant innovation — like Glen Bell coming up with a process for frying hard taco shells so his Taco Bell could assemble its signature dish more quickly, or S. Truett Cathy coming up with the idea of frying a boneless, skinless chicken breast and sticking it between two buttered buns with pickles — there are countless examples of other entrepreneurs who just improved pre-existing products and processes. (Again, look at Cathy. A lot of Chick-fil-A’s success sprung from his decision to set up shop in indoor malls.)

Colonel Sanders would say that the secret to his success was his blend of “11 herbs and spices.” (Or his cream gravy. Sanders was weirdly fanatical about gravy.) But KFC really took off because of his method of “pressure-frying” chicken in minutes and then keeping it warm in proofing trays. Tom Monaghan sped up pizza delivery at his Domino’s stores, and figured out how to deliver a uniform product, with a flavor extensively tested in blind tastings. Even Jim McLamore admits that his Burger King Whopper was inspired by another local restaurant doing well with burgers much bigger than anything McDonald’s was selling at the time.

The World Is Full of Crooks

Something else that’s great about Grinding It Out is that Kroc’s unafraid to be pissy: toward the McDonald brothers (who he says changed the terms of their agreement once his franchises started taking off), toward his ex-wife (who he says doubted his big plans) and toward anybody he’s ever met who cut corners and shaved pennies, losing long-term customer loyalty over a short-term gain.

“Can you believe this idiot I met once?” anecdotes abound in these biographies. The 1991 book Never Stop Dreaming: 50 Years of Making It Happen — written by Carl’s Jr. honcho Carl Karcher, with the help of B. Carolyn Knight — is practically a compendium of all the bad people he’s known. He grumbles about dishonest bread salesmen, hot dog vendors purposefully miscounting inventory… just one no-good bum after another.

By contrast, it’s refreshing to read Sanders’ wild 1974 memoir Life as I Have Known It Has Been “Finger Lickin’ Good” — essentially an anthology of all the colorful anecdotes he’d been telling on late-night talk shows for years. He boasts about lying his way into the U.S. Navy. He describes the clever way he tried to exploit the commission system at an insurance agency he worked for. He essentially admits to being something of a benign scoundrel throughout his youth.

Debra Lee Baldwin’s 1999 biography Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story similarly drops some juicy details about the Taco Bell founder’s youthful hobby of illegally hopping trains, in a chapter titled “Hobo Adventures: 1937–1941.” This leads to one of the book’s best bullet points, from its running “Glen’s Recipes for Success” sidebar: “Whatever generalizations I had about hobos as a group disappeared when they became individuals with names and faces.”

Choice Is Bad

Another of “Glen’s Recipes for Success” in Taco Titan is “Don’t sell everything customers ask for.” It’s a piece of advice that comes up again and again in these restaurateurs’ books. Ray Kroc would crack down on franchisees who expanded beyond McDonald’s core products, because he felt a diverse menu diluted the brand and was inconsistent with a high level of quality. Kroc wouldn’t even allow jukeboxes, payphones or cigarette machines in any McDonald’s (though that was in part because “the vending machines were controlled by the crime syndicate, and I wanted no part of that”).

One of the first big steps on the path to Tom Monaghan’s Domino’s dynasty came during a busy night at one of his first restaurants, when he decided to streamline the assembly process by getting rid of the small, “personal”-sized pizza and limit the number of toppings. He quickly realized it had been costing him just as much time and money to make a 6-inch pie as a 12-inch. Reduce choice, reduce cost, reduce prep time.

Carl Karcher’s book, on the other hand, is one cautionary tale after another about his getting too ambitious with the Carl’s Jr. concept. He repeatedly strays from the ideal of “good hamburgers, served fast, in a clean store.” He tries an overstuffed menu that includes tuna sandwiches, fried shrimp and tamales. He comes up with spinoff restaurants, including the coffee shop Scot’s and the gimmicky, railroad-themed Carl’s Whistle Stop. He experiments with a more adult dinner menu, featuring trout and steak. Eventually he introduces a company-wide “Back-to-Basics Day,” as an annual reminder to keep the business simple.

Be a Republican

To be fair, most restaurateur-authors don’t expressly state their political affiliations, because, to paraphrase the great Michael Jordan, “Democrats buy burgers, too.” The notable exception is Colonel Sanders, who writes, “I was registered a Democrat and worked for the Democratic Party until Roosevelt ran for his fourth term. I didn’t like the third term. He leaned too much toward socialism — too liberal, and I didn’t like that.”

Instead, these gentlemen tout their religious convictions. There a lot of Catholics in this crowd. Monaghan, for example, insists, “You can’t go to mass and take Communion with a mortal sin on your soul; it’s simply not possible,” by way of explaining why he was okay with the otherwise “crooked” Chicago mayor Richard Daley.

They also name-drop their favorite presidents. (Thomas loves Ford and the first President Bush. Karcher’s unusually proud of his friendship with Nixon.) And they express some generalized GOP dogma. (Karcher writes, “You should never complain about difficulties being unfair or demand government should help you through them.”)

It’s especially remarkable to see how much Dave Thomas’ tone changes between Dave’s Way and his second book, 1994’s Well Done! The Common Guy’s Guide to Everyday Success (again co-written with Ron Beyma). The first book is mostly focused on the creation of Wendy’s, with just a little grumbling about the miserable, “bridge mix”–rejecting modern world. Three years later, in Well Done!, Thomas more openly courts right-wing readers.

In Dave’s Way, Thomas recounts an anecdote about how he refused to use the word “keister” in a TV ad, because that was “too far.” In Well Done!, he complains about how showbiz in the ’90s is all “shoot-’em-out, slice-’em-up, strip-it-off” instead of being more like The Waltons. He adds that while he’s against harassment and prejudice in the workplace, “Sometimes the laws have gotten so sticky that it’s hard to tell a person where he or she really stands.” He also dedicates a few pages of the book to the budget deficit, the line-item veto and his appreciation for the work of fiery conservative congressman Dan Burton.

Everybody Knows Everybody

Tom Monaghan may have had to make a special trip to meet Kroc, but many of his peers knew him well. Bell and Karcher started their businesses in California around the same time as the McDonald brothers, and paid close attention to what Kroc was doing with franchising. McLamore admits that while Burger King and McDonald’s are fierce rivals, he considers Kroc a good friend and role model. (Of Kroc’s killer instinct, McLamore writes admiringly, “Someone asked him what he would do if he saw his chief competitor drowning a little offshore. He is reported to have said that he would stick a running hose in his mouth.”)

A lot of fast food moguls knew Colonel Sanders, too. Before he founded Wendy’s, Dave Thomas was already a millionaire, thanks to the part he played in making Kentucky Fried Chicken a household name. Dunkin’ boss William Rosenberg, meanwhile, met Colonel Sanders when they were both in the same extreme dieting program at Duke University. He says of talking to Sanders or Kroc or any of the “many other self-starters … you would think you were talking to the same person.”

WWWDD: What Would Walt Disney Do?

According to the Illinois-born Ray Kroc, he first met fellow Chicago-area native Walt Disney while they served together as a Red Cross ambulance drivers during WWI. (“Whenever we had time off and went out on the town to chase girls, he stayed in camp drawing pictures.”)

Other fast food pioneers had a different relationship with Disney, drawing inspiration from how he turned the somewhat disreputable amusement park business into the family-friendly Disneyland. Karcher opened his first Carl’s Jr. in Orange County, aiming for “a Disneyland experience.” Fellow California restaurateur Glen Bell visited Disneyland when it opened, and saw the future. He later got into the family amusement business himself, opening a tourist railroad.

Disney established the model for the post-McDonald’s world: Keep it clean, keep it sunny, keep it safe.

America would never be the same.