The Founder: Is the Movie Based on Ray Kroc’s Story?

John Lee Hancock’s drama film ‘The Founder’ revolves around Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake machine salesman in his fifties who gets impressed by McDonald’s, a San Bernardino-based restaurant run by brothers Richard “Dick” McDonald and Maurice “Mac” McDonald. The restaurant’s efficient operation stuns Ray, who has seen several inefficiently run fast-food joints during his career. He puts an end to his current job to supervise the franchising operations of the restaurant, marking the beginning of the astounding growth of the fast-food chain. Since McDonald’s is one of the largest restaurant chains in the world, the viewers must be intrigued to find out whether Ray’s saga is also inspired by a true story. Well, let us provide the answer!

The Founder: Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s Saga

Yes, ‘The Founder’ is based on a true story. John Lee Hancock’s film is a biographical account of Ray Kroc, who is renowned as the “founder” of McDonald’s despite not starting the company. Ray initially joined the company to oversee the franchising potential of the restaurant upon signing a deal with brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. His policies attracted franchisees from different parts of the nation and he ensured the quality of the service delivered at the places to guarantee the success of the restaurant’s expansion. He opened the first McDonald’s restaurant under his supervision in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Ray took out second mortgages of his and then-wife Ethel Fleming’s house to finance the Des Plaines restaurant. Around the same time, Ray joined hands with Harry J. Sonneborn, a finance expert who opened a new door for Ray to grow his McDonald’s empire. Harry came up with a scheme of Ray owning the lands where new franchises of the restaurant chain were to be built. The scheme not only gave Ray enough control over the franchisees but also a steady revenue stream. Harry became the keystone of Franchise Realty Corp., the company that dealt with the same land deals. By the early 1960s, Ray became confident that he can run the entire company on his own.

In 1961, Ray bought McDonald’s from Dick and Mac McDonald for $2.7 million. Although he didn’t have ready cash to pay the brothers, Harry played an integral role in securing the funds. As per reports, Ray allegedly had a handshake deal with the brothers to provide an annual royalty of 0.5% (1% in the film) upon the sale but the same wasn’t a part of any legally bound contracts, which made Ray not obliged to pay any annual royalty money to the starters of the restaurant chain. Harry remained Ray’s right-hand man as the president and CEO of the company till 1967. After Harry vacated the two positions, Ray became the president and CEO of McDonald’s from 1967 to 1973.

Under Ray, McDonald’s did wonders despite the heavy competition in the burger joint market. He made sure that the franchise had a presence in suburban regions of the nation, anticipating sales after the main business hours. Ray heavily relied on the hamburger preparation system introduced by Dick and Mac even after buying the company from them. He extensively instructed franchisees about the quality, quantity, uniformity of the food served, efficiency of the service, etc. to make sure that every franchise was producing admirable business. By the time of his death in 1984, McDonald’s grew from eight outlets to around 7,500 outlets worldwide, making a sale of around $8 billion globally.

Ray Kroc//Image Credit: Biography/Wikimedia Commons

When Robert Siegel was commissioned to write the film, he was given ample resource materials concerning Ray. “I was handed a giant stack of transcripts and archival material, and then I just kind of didn’t look at it. You can get really lost in research. It’s a great way to procrastinate,” Siegel told NPR about the research behind writing the screenplay of the film. However, the screenwriter mostly relied on the businessman’s autobiography. “In this case, I just read – I read Ray Kroc’s autobiography. And then there was an unauthorized [biography],” he added.

Siegel and director John Lee Hancock did make several deviations from reality to portray Ray’s life in the film. In a pivotal scene, Ray meets Mac at a hospital to give him a blank cheque to buy the brothers out of the company. In reality, there was only a phone call between Ray and the brothers, the former asking the latter for a price. Although the film portrays Fred Turner as a hired hand in a restaurant when Ray spotted him, the two of them really got acquainted when the former wanted to buy a franchise with his friends. Turner eventually served McDonald’s as a CEO. Even though Ray is listed as the president of Franchise Realty Corp. in the film, Harry was the one who served in the position.

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