7 min read

Highlights from Grinding It Out (Ray Kroc)

On why he got a male secretary

It got to the point in the office that I was generating too much business, too much paperwork, to be handled by the clerical pool, so Mr. Clark told me I should hire a secretary. “I suppose you’re right,” I said. “But I want a male secretary.” “You what?” “I want a man. He might cost a little more at first, but if he’s any good at all, I’ll have him doing a lot of sales work in addition to administrative things. I have nothing against having a pretty girl around, but the job I have in mind would be much better handled by a man.”

On why the fries are so good

A subject of much greater concern to me, however, was the great french-fry flop. I had explained to Ed MacLuckie with great pride the McDonald’s secret for making french fries. I showed him how to peel the potatoes, leaving just a bit of the skin to add flavor. Then I cut them into shoestring strips and dumped them into a sink of cold water. The ritual captivated me. I rolled my sleeves to the elbows and, after scrubbing down in proper hospital fashion, I immersed my arms and gently stirred the potatoes until the water went white with starch. Then I rinsed them thoroughly and put them into a basket for deep frying in fresh oil. The result was a perfectly fine looking, golden brown potato that snuggled up against the palate with a taste like … well, like mush. I was aghast. What the hell could I have done wrong? I went back over the steps in my mind, trying to determine whether I had left something out. I hadn’t. I had memorized the procedure when I watched the McDonald’s operation in San Bernardino, and I had done it exactly the same way.I went through the whole thing once more. The result was the same—bland, mushy french fries. They were as good, actually, as the french fries you could buy at other places. But that was not what I wanted. They were not the wonderful french fries I had discovered in California. I got on the telephone and talked it over with the McDonald brothers. They couldn’t figure it out either.

This was a tremendously frustrating situation. My whole idea depended on carrying out the McDonald’s standard of taste and quality in hundreds of stores, and here I couldn’t even do it in the first one!

I contacted the experts at the Potato & Onion Association and explained my problem to them. They were baffled too, at first, but then one of their laboratory men asked me to describe the McDonald’s San Bernardino procedure step-by-step from the time they bought the potatoes from the grower up in Idaho. I detailed it all, and when I got to the point where they stored them in the shaded chicken-wire bins, he said, “That’s it!” He went on to explain that when potatoes are dug, they are mostly water. They improve in taste as they dry out and the sugars change to starch. The McDonald brothers had, without knowing it, a natural curing process in their open bins, which allowed the desert breeze to blow over the potatoes.

With the help of the potato people, I devised a curing system of my own. I had the potatoes stored in the basement so the older ones would always be next in line for the kitchen. I also put a big electric fan down there and gave the spuds a continuous blast of air, which greatly amused Ed MacLuckie.

“We have the world’s most pampered potatoes,” he said. “I almost feel guilty about cooking them.”

“That’s all right, Ed. we’re gonna treat ’em even better. We’re gonna fry ’em twice,” I told him. I explained the blanching process the potato people had recommended we try. We gave each basket of fries a preliminary dip in the hot oil and let them drip dry and cool off before cooking them all the way through. Finally, about three months after we’d opened the store, we had potatoes that measured up to my expectations. They were, if anything, a little better than those tasty morsels I’d discovered in San Bernardino. We worked it out so the blanching was done on a regular production-line basis. We’d take two baskets at a time and blanch them for three minutes. They would be a rather unappealing gray color when they came out at that point, but the cooling and draining would allow some oil to penetrate into the body of the potato. The chemistry of this tinge of oil in the starch of the morsel when it was dumped back to fry for another full minute created a marvelous taste. They’d emerge for the second time golden, glowing, and appealing. We would dump them into a stainless steel drain pan under a few heat lamps and let the grease drain off. Then they would be placed, with sugar tongs, two or three strips at a time, into the serving bag. That process wouldn’t work today. It would be far too costly in labor. Even then a lot of people marveled that we could sell those potatoes for a dime.

Reading this book I was impressed by all the little details that they worked on to make the whole system efficient

We decided that our patties would be ten to the pound, and that soon became the standard for the industry. Fred did a lot of experimenting in the packaging of patties, too. There was a kind of paper that was exactly right, he felt, and he tested and tested until he found out what it was. It had to have enough wax on it so that the patty would pop off without sticking when you slapped it onto the griddle. But it couldn’t be too stiff or the patties would slide and refuse to stack up. There also was a science in stacking patties. If you made the stack too high, the ones on the bottom would be misshapen and dried out. So we arrived at the optimum stack, and that determined the height of our meat suppliers’ packages. The purpose of all these refinements, and we never lost sight of it, was to make our griddle man’s job easier to do quickly and well. All the other considerations of cost cutting, inventory control, and so forth were important to be sure, but they were secondary to the critical detail of what happened there at that smoking griddle. This was the vital passage in our assembly line, and the product had to flow through it smoothly or the whole plant would falter.

On husband-wife teams

I’ve sometimes wondered what would have happened if the Post-Turner Corporation had found a site all four partners could agree on and Fred had become an operator. I’m sure he would have done extremely well, just as other members of the group did: Joe Post, for example, is an operator in Springfield, Missouri. He and his wife have three stores, including one on the city’s new Battlefield Mall that has five dining rooms on different levels, with fireplaces and fine paintings. It’s a veritable Taj Mahal among McDonald’s restaurants. Fred would have carved out an empire for himself no matter where he’d gone. I am sure of that, not only because I know him but because I know his wife. Patty Turner has allowed her husband to be successful. I know that she would have been right in there pitching with him if he’d chosen to become an operator. Since a McDonald’s restaurant is a prime example of American small business in action, the husband-wife team is basic for us. Typically, the husband will look after operations and maintenance while his wife keeps the books and handles personnel. This mutual interest extends into all levels of the company, and I’ve always encouraged corporate executive wives to get involved in their husbands’ work—two heads are better than one, whether a guy is manning a griddle and sweating out getting started in his own store or shuffling papers behind a fancy desk.

There is a very similar scene in Phil Knight's memoir about starting Nike

Our biggest argument with the underwriters was on what the initial selling price should be. We had split the stock a thousand to one by that time, and the underwriters thought we should go out at seventeen times earnings. I wouldn’t stand for that. I knew we were worth more, and I stood to lose more than anyone else if we went out too low. Harry agreed. He fought for twenty times earnings, and he made several trips between New York and Chicago trying to get them to see it our way. It was a stalemate. We had come down to the final deadline when I walked into Harry’s office and told everyone involved that there was no way we would go for less than twenty. That was a pretty heavy moment. But I meant it; even if we had to flush away all the hours and weeks of effort that had got us to this point, I was determined not to sell McDonald’s short. No way!

"It's always shocking to be a loser"

We were accused of “shocking manipulation” in our dispute with labor unions in San Francisco. I suppose that’s another way of saying we don’t fool around. It’s always shocking to be a loser.

On not giving money to colleges

One thing I flatly refuse to give money to is the support of any college. I’ve been wooed by some of the finest universities in the land, but I tell them they will not get a cent from me unless they put in a trade school. Our colleges are crowded with young people who are learning a lot about liberal arts and little about earning a living. There are too many baccalaureates and too few butchers. Educators get long faces when I talk like this and accuse me of being anti-intellectual. That’s not quite right. I’m anti-phony-intellectual, and that’s what too many of them are.

Too many young Americans these days don’t get a chance to learn how to enjoy work. Much of this country’s social and political philosophy seems aimed at removing the risks from life one by one. As I told a group of business students in one of the talks I gave at Dartmouth, it is impossible to grant someone happiness. The best you can do, as the Declaration of Independence put it, is to give him the freedom to pursue happiness. Happiness is not a tangible thing, it’s a byproduct of achievement. Achievement must be made against the possibility of failure, against the risk of defeat. It is no achievement to walk a tightrope laid flat on the floor. Where there is no risk, there can be no pride in achievement and, consequently, no happiness. The only way we can advance is by going forward, individually and collectively, in the spirit of the pioneer. We must take the risks involved in our free enterprise system. This is the only way in the world to economic freedom. There is no other way.