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Jul 16, 2021

Roy Allen opened his first root beer stand in 1919, in Lodi, California. He’d bought a recipe for root beer and boy, it sure was a hit. He brought in people to help. One was Frank Wright, who would become a partner in the endeavor and they’d change the name to A&W Root Beer, for their names, and open a restaurant in 1923 in Sacramento, California. Allen bought Wright back out in 1925, but kept the name. Having paid for the root beer license he decided to franchise out the use of that - but let’s not call that the first fast food chain just yet. After all, it was just a license to make root beer just like he’d bought the recipe all those years ago. 

A&W’s Allen sold the company in 1950 to retire. The franchise agreements moved from a cash payment to royalties. But after Allen the ownership of the company bounced around until it landed with United Fruit which would become United Brands, who took A&W to the masses and the root beer company was split from the restaurant chain with the chain eventually owned by Yum! Brands now nearly 1,000 locations and over $300M in revenues. 

White Castle 

As A&W franchised, some experimented with other franchising options or with not going that route at all. Around the same time Wright opened his first stand, Walt Anderson was running a few food stands around Witchita. He met up with Billy Ingram and in 1921 they opened the first White Castle, putting in $700 of their own money. By 1927 they expanded out to Indianapolis. As is often the case, the original cook with the concept sold out his part of the business in 1933 when they moved their headquarters to Columbus, Ohio and the Ingram family expanded all over the United States. Many a fast food chain is franchised but White Castle has stayed family owned and operates profitably not taking on debt to grow. 

Kentucky Fried Chicken 

KFC îs fried chicken. They sell some other stuff I guess. They were started by Harland Sanders in 1930 but as we see with a lot of these they didn’t start franchising until after the war. His big hack was to realize he needed to cook chicken faster to serve more customers and so he converted a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer, completely revolutionizing how food is fried. 

He perfected his original recipe in 1940 and by 1952 was able to parlay the success of his early success into franchising out what is now the second largest fast food chain in the world. But the largest is McDonald’s. 


1940 comes around and Richard and Maurice McDonald open a little restaurant called McDonalds. It was a drive-up barbecue joint in San Bernadino. But drive-in restaurants were getting competitive and while looking back at the business, they realized that four fifths of the sales were hamburgers. So they shut down for a bit and got rid of the car hops that were popular at the time, simplified the menu and trimmed out everything they could - getting down to less than 10 items on the menu. 

They were able to get prices down to 15 cent hamburgers using something they called the Speedee Service System. That was an assembly-line of food preparation that became the standard in the fast food industry over the next few decades. They also looked at industrial equipment and used that to add french fries and shakes, which finally unlocked an explosion of sales and profits doubled. 

But then the milkshake mixer salesman payed a visit to them in San Bernadino to see why the brothers need 8 of his mixers and was amazed to find they were, in fact, cranking out 48 shakes at a time with them. The assembly-line opened his eyes and he bought the rights to franchise the McDonalds concept opening his first one in Des Plaines, Illinois. One of the best growth hacks for any company is just to have an amazing sales and marketing arm. OK, so not a hack but just good business. And Ray Kroc will go down as one of the greatest. From those humble beginnings selling milkshake mixers he moved from licensing to buying the company outright for $2.7 million dollars in 1961. 

Another growth hack was to realize, thanks to a former VP at Tastee-Freez, that owning the real estate brought yet another revenue stream. A low deposit and a 20% or higher increase in the monthly spend would grow into a nearly 38 billion dollar revenue stream. 

The highway system was paying dividends to the economy. People were moving out to the suburbs. Cars were shipping in the highest volumes ever. They added the filet-o-fish and were exploding internationally in the 60s and 70s and now sitting on over 39,000 stores with about a $175 billion market cap with over $5 billion dollars in revenue.

Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives

Those post-war years were good to fast food. Anyone that’s been to a 50s themed restaurant can see the car culture on display and drive-ins were certainly a part of that. People were living their lives at a new pace to match the speed of those cars and it was a golden age of growth in the United States. The computer industry was growing right along with those diners, drive-ins, and dives. 

One company that started before World War II and grew fast was Dairy Queen, started in 1940 by John Fremont McCullough. He’d invented soft-serve ice cream in 1938 and opened the first Dairy Queen in Joliet, Illinois with his friend Sherb Noble, who’d been selling his soft-serve ice cream out of his shop for a couple of years. During those post-war 1950s explosive years they introduced the Dilly Bar and have now expanded to 6,800 locations around the world. 

William Rosenberg opened a little coffee shop in in Quincy, Massachusetts. As with the others in this story, he parlayed quick successes and started to sell franchises in 1955 and Dunkin’ Donuts grew to 12,400 locations. 

In-N-Out Burger started in 1948 as well, by Harry and Esther Snyder and while they’ve only expanded around the west coast of the US, they’ve grown to around 350 locations and stay family owned. 

Pizza Hut was started in 1958 in Wichita, Kanas. While it was more of a restaurant for a long time, it’s now owned by Yum! Brands and operates well over 18,000 locations. Yum! Also owns KFC and Taco Bell. Glen Bell served as a cook in World War II and moved to San Bernardino to open a drive-in hot dog stand in 1948. He sold it and started a taco stand, selling them for 19 cents a piece, expanding to three locations by 1955 and went serial entrepreneur - selling those locations and opening four new ones he called El Tacos down in Long Beach. He sold that to his partner in 1962 and started his first Taco Bell, finally ready to start selling franchises in 1964 and grew it to 100 restaurants by 1967. 

They took Taco Bell public in 1970 when they had 325 locations. And Pepsi bought the 868 location in 1978 for $125 million in stock, eventually spinning the food business off to what is now called Yum! Brands and co-branding with cousin restaurants in that portfolio - Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. I haven’t been to a Long John Silver’s since I was a kid but they still have over a thousand locations and date back to a hamburger stand started in 1929 that over the years pivoted to a roast beef sandwich shop and pivoting many times until landing on the fish and chips concept in 1969. 

The Impact of Computing

It’s hard to imagine that any of these companies could have grown the way they did without more than an assembly-line of human automation. Mechanical cash registers had been around since the Civil War in the United States, with early patents filed in 1883 by Charles Kettering and James Ritty. Arguably the abacus and counting frame goes back way further but the Ritty Model I patent was sparked the interest of Jacob Eckert who bought the patent, added some features and took on $10,000 in debt to take the cash register to market, forming National Manufacturing Company. That became National Cash Register still a more than 6 billion dollar market cap company.

But the growth of IBM and other computing companies, the release of semiconductors, and the miniaturization and dropping costs of printed circuit boards helped lead to the advent of electronic cash registers. After all those are just purpose-built computers. IBM introduced the first point of sale system in 1973, bringing that cash register into the digital age. Suddenly a cash register could be in the front as a simplified terminal to send print outs or information to a screen in the back. 

Those IBM 3650s evolved to the first use of peer-to-peer client-server technology and ended up in Dillard’s in 1974. That same year McDonald’s had William Brobeck and Associates develop a microprocessor-based terminal. It was based on the Intel 8008 chip and used a simple push-button device to allow cashiers to enter orders. This gave us a queue of orders being sent by terminals in the front. And we got touchscreens registers in 1986, running on the Atari 520ST, with IBM introducing a 486-based system running on FlexOS. 

Credit Cards

As we moved into the 90s, fast food chains were spreading fast and the way we payed for goods was starting to change. All these electronic registers could suddenly send the amount owed over an electronic link to a credit card processing machine. 

John Biggins launched the Charg-it card in 1946 and it spread to Franklin National Bank a few years later. Diners Club Card picked up on the trend and launched the Diners Club Card in 1950, growing to 20,000 cardholders in 1951. American Express came along in 1958 with their card and in just five years grew to a million cards. Bank of America released their BankAmericard in 1958, which became the first general-purpose credit card. They started in California and went national in the first ten years. That would evolve into Visa by 1966 and by 1966 we got MasterCard as well. THat’s also the same year the Barclaycard brought credit cards outside the US for the first time, showing up first in England. Then Carte bleue in 67 in France and the Eurocard as a collaboration between the Wallenberg family and Interbank in 1968 to serve the rest of Europe.

Those spread and by the 90s we had enough people using them to reach a critical mass where fast food needed to take them as well. Whataburger and Carl’s Jr added the option in 1989, Arby’s in 1990,  and while slower to adopt taking cards, McDonald’s finally did so in 2002. We were well on our way to becoming a cashless society.

And the rise of the PC led to POS systems moving a little down-market and systems from and others like Aloha, designed in 1998 (now owned by NCR). And lots of other brands of devices as well as home-brewed tooling from large vendors.  

And computers helped revolutionize the entire organization. Chains could automate supply lines to stores with computerized supply chain management. Desktop computers also led to management functions being computerized in the back office, like scheduling and time clocks and so less managers were needed. That was happening all over post-War America by the 90s.

Post-War America 

In that era after World War II people were fascinated with having the same experiences over and over - and having them be identical. Think about it, before the war life was slower and every meal required work. After it was fast and the food always came out hot and felt like a suburban life, wherever you were. Even when that white flight was destroying city centers and the homogeneity leading to further centralized organizations dividing communities. 

People flocked to open these restaurants. They could make money, it was easier to get a loan to open a store with a known brand, there were high profit margins, and in a lot of cases, there was a higher chance of success than many other industries. This leads to even more homogeneity. That rang true for other types of franchising on the rise as well. Fast food became a harbinger of things to come and indicative of other business trends as well.

These days we think of high fructose corn syrup, fried food, and GMOs when we think of fast food. And that certainly led to the rise. People who eat fast food want that. Following the first wave of fast food we got other brands rising as well. Arby’s was founded in 1964, Subway in 1965, Wendy’s in 1969, Jack in the Box in 1961, Chick-fil-A in 1946, just a few miles from where I was born. And newer chains like Quiznos in 1981, Jimmy John’s in 1983, and Chipotle in 1993. These touch other areas of the market focusing on hotter, faster, or spicier. 

From the burger craze to the drive-in craze to just plain fast, fast food has been with us since long before anyone listening to this episode was born and is likely to continue on long after we’re gone. Love it or hate it, it’s a common go-to when we’re working on systems - especially far from home. 

And the industry continues to evolve. A barrier to opening any type of retail chain was once the point of sale system. Another was finding a way to accept credit cards. Stripe emerged to help with the credit cards and a cadre of tablet and app-based solutions for the iPhone, Android, and tablets emerged to help make taking credit cards simple for new businesses. A lot of the development was once put into upmarket solutions but these days downmarket is so much more approachable. And various fraud prevention machine learning algorithms and chip and pin technologies makes taking a credit card for a simple transaction safer than ever. 

The Future

The fast food and retail in general continues to evolve. The next evolution seems to be self-service. This is well underway but a number of companies are looking at kiosks to take orders and all those cashiers might find RFID tags as another threat to their jobs. If a machine can see what’s in a cart on the way out of a store there’s no need for cashiers. Here, we see the digitization as one wave of technology but given the inexpensive cost of labor we are just now seeing the cost of the technology come down to where it’s cheaper. Much as the cost of clockworks and then industrialization caused first the displacement of Roman slave labor and then workers in factories. Been to a parking ramp recently? That’s a controlled enough environment where the people were some of the first to be replaced with simple computers that processed first magnetic stripes and now license plates using simple character recognition technology.

Another revolution that has already begun is how we get the food. Grubhub launched in 2004, we got Postmates in 2011, and DoorDash came in 2013 to make it where we don’t even have to leave the house to get our burger fix. We can just open an app, use our finger print to check out, and have items show up at our homes often in less time than if we’d of gone to pick it up. And given that they have a lot of drivers and know exactly where they are, Uber attempted to merge with DoorDash in 2019, but that’s fine because they’d already launched Uber Eats in 2014. But DoorDash has about half that market at $2.9 billion in revenues for 2020 and that’s just with 18 million users - still less than 10% of US households. I guess that’s why DoorDash enjoys a nearly $60 billion market cap. We are in an era of technology empires.

And yet McDonald’s is only worth about three times what DoorDash is worth and guess which one is growing faster.

Empires come and go. 

The ability to manage an empire that scales larger than the technology and communications capabilities allows for was a downfall of many an empire - from Rome to Poland to the Russian Czarist empire. Each was profoundly changed by splitting up the empire as with Rome, becoming a pawn between neighboring empires, or even the development of an entirely new system of governance, as with Russia. Fast food employs four and a half million people in the US today, with another almost 10 million people employed globally. About half of those are adults. An industry that’s grown from revenues of just $6 billion to a half trillion dollar industry since just 1970. And those employees often make minimum wage. Think about this, that’s over twice the number of slaves as there were in the Roman Empire. Many of whom rose up to conquer the empire.

And the name of the game is automation. Has been since that McDonald’s Speedee Service System that enthralled Ray Kroc. But the human labor will some day soon be drastically cut. Just as the McDonald brothers cut car hops from their roster all those years ago. And that domino will knock down others in every establishment we walk into to pay for goods. Probably not in the next 5 years, but certainly in my lifetime. Job displacement due to technology is nothing new. It goes back past the Romans. But it is accelerating faster than at other points in history. And you have to wonder what kinds of socio, political, and economical repercussions we’ll have. Add in other changes around the world and the next few decades will be interesting to watch.