McDonald's got its start as a barbecue restaurant
August 2nd, 2012
03:00 PM ET
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Editor's note: All summer long, the Southern Foodways Alliance will be delving deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. Dig in.

One of the great ironies of American barbecue history is that the world's leading hamburger chain, McDonald's, got its start as a barbecue restaurant.

Long before the golden arches, barbecue restaurants dotted street corners in cities and towns throughout the South and West. From California to Florida, impromptu barbecue stands had "grown as thick as filling stations" along the sides of highways, reported Collier's Magazine in 1937. America's first drive-in chain - the Dallas-based Pig Stand - featured barbecue, and by World War II, pit-cooked meat was a staple of fancy steak and chop houses, too.

So, when brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their drive-in in San Bernadino, California, they naturally built a hickory-chip pit out back. The original menu featured sandwiches with "our famous barbecued beef, ham, or pork" for 35 cents and a barbecue plate for 60 cents. Hamburgers shared second billing, followed by chili, tamales and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

A few years in, the McDonald brothers' drive-in was barely turning a profit, and they closed down for three months in 1948 to retool. When they reopened, the china and silverware had been replaced by paper wrappers and cardboard cups. The carhops were gone, and customers ordered at windows. Most severe was the menu overhaul: hamburgers only, the toppings limited to cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions and pickles. The price of a burger had dropped to 15 cents. Sides and drinks were limited to french fries, milkshakes, coffee and sodas. The hickory pit was no longer needed.

The McDonald's "Speedy Service System" focused on convenience and value, selling a limited slate of low-cost items and making money through volume. The formula worked so well that Ray Kroc, a distributor of milkshake mixers, visited the brothers in person to see how one restaurant could possibly need eight of his five-spindled machines. Amazed by their volume, Kroc signed up to be the McDonald's franchising agency. We all know the rest of the story.

Barbecue simply wasn't suited for the new world of standardized fast food. It differed too greatly from one region to the next, took hours of hard labor to prepare and required a long apprenticeship to learn to cook. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, hamburger chains flourished, and barbecue - once the king of the American highway - was relegated to a small-scale regional specialty.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and author of "Barbecue: the History of an American Institution". Follow him on Twitter at @mossr.

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog.

 



soundoff (91 Responses)
  1. something wrong

    Anyone else ordering a McDouble and getting a bun that smells like the floor of a barn? Ive been to 3 different McDonalds that had farm-poo smelling buns, one was so bad that I could smell it through the bag.

    August 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • Jimbo

      That strange smell is the McFeces they add to their meat for flavor.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:56 am | Reply
  2. Ed

    Note to the editor...the McDonalds restaurant pictured with this story is the first of the Ray Kroc founded chain of McDonald's restaurants, on Lee St. in Des Plaines, IL. They never, ever served BBQ beef at this restaurant (except maybe the McRib sandwich, but I think this location was a museum by the introduction of the McRib, and there is serious question if the McRib was really BBQ beef.) This location was all hamburgers and fries when it opened and for many years thereafter. This was not the location owned by the McDonald brothers in California which gave Ray Kroc the inspiration for this location.

    August 3, 2012 at 2:43 am | Reply
    • Enjoying Life

      "This was not the location owned by the McDonald brothers in California which gave Ray Kroc the inspiration for this location."
      Who claimed that it was?
      I don't see any caption claiming that it IS the original location owned by the McDonald Brothers...

      August 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • Jimbo

      No doubt there was BBQ in the mcrib, but I agree there is (or should be) some doubt if there was any meat in that sandwich. For that matter, I doubt that Mcdonalds sells ANY meat these days.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:57 am | Reply
    • mikeofla

      the McRib is "pork" and has always been pork. Just sayin...

      August 14, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
    • Deb

      I recognized this too! For years I worked in Des Plaines. I believe it is still there, including 1950's cars in the lot. Of course, all fenced up just for show. A current store is just across the street.

      November 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  3. government cheese

    Chick Fil A!!!!!!!

    August 3, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
  4. Chad

    I'm shocked! McDonalds meals use to contain meat?!?!

    August 3, 2012 at 1:25 am | Reply
  5. lacoaster

    I LUV SAN BEE!!!

    August 3, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply
  6. CNNidegaz

    They've progressed. Now they sell diabetes.

    August 3, 2012 at 12:53 am | Reply
  7. Jon

    And their hamburgers were made of real beef! Imagine that!

    August 3, 2012 at 12:40 am | Reply
  8. mommatocharlie

    hey stwebb–Nixon wasn't impeached. Clinton was.

    August 2, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Reply
    • Eve

      You are correct....Nixon was smart enough to resign

      August 2, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Reply
      • CNNidegaz

        Nixon wasn't smart enough to resign - Congress stalled and dilly-dallied until he ran out of sweat. They should have proceeded. It was certainly a more compelling case.

        August 3, 2012 at 12:24 am | Reply
  9. fedupwithla

    I think that the picture is from one of the original McDonald's in Downey, California. Any comments or corrections? Sure looks like So Cal weather backing up the place . . .

    August 2, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • dacshund2

      I think you're right. The black and yellow license plates look like California ones to me.

      August 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm | Reply
      • AJK

        I think New York had black and yellow plates also. Also, Newington CT had one of the first Mc Donalds.

        August 3, 2012 at 2:06 am | Reply
    • Carolyn

      The very first McDonald's own by Ray Kroc was built in Des Plains Illinois, and I know this for a fact because my dad was one of the bricklayers who built it, and Mr Kroc paid my dad half in cash and the other half in stock of his company, which my dad held on, never cashed them in.

      August 3, 2012 at 1:32 am | Reply
  10. Davidw0909

    Most of the people posting here act like they are about 12 years old.

    Very interesting little piece of American history and I enjoyed reading it. I never knew Mikky-d's got started as a barbeque place. Didn't know the first drive-in started in Dallas. Thanks for the article.

    August 2, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Reply
    • in Dallas

      Yep, In Dallas, we had the first drive thru, and the first drive by.(Kennedy).

      August 2, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
    • Chad

      Relax fatty

      August 3, 2012 at 1:27 am | Reply
  11. Larry

    Why doesn't the text of the article print? I can do the picture, and the comments, only!

    August 2, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  12. Jdizzle τ McHammerpants ♫♫

    Damn. Secret, given away

    August 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply
    • angrybabykitty

      They found out?? Damn.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Reply
      • @The Trolls

        You people are not even funny. You're probably the same idiots that screwed up the Marquee blog.

        August 3, 2012 at 7:01 am | Reply
      • angrybabykitty

        We were trolled. So back off please. Do you think we like to wake up and see this mess under our names?

        August 3, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
  13. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    I think the only good thing at McDonald's is their black iced coffee! Mmmmm so much better than Starbucks!

    August 2, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Reply
    • jessica

      Anything is better than the burnt taste of Starbucks coffee...

      August 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  14. Lew

    And all's they got now is the McRib?? Wow. I'd rather a great BBQ joint than a fast food burger place any day.

    August 2, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • Lew

      Don't get me wrong. If it was all about the money, then they obviously did the right thing.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  15. sportreform

    What did they sell before hamburgers? Their soul. They sold their soul to the Devil.

    August 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  16. Me

    Best burgers I ever ate were the ones I cooked myself..

    August 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  17. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    I remember someone doing this to me a few years back around here, LOL

    August 2, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  18. Sal

    Subway is garbage..........

    August 2, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
    • Lew

      True. Anyone 'foodie' knows that Subway is Sub-par.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  19. subwayJared

    SUBWAY EAT FRESH!!!!

    August 2, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  20. mpakoumian ortanse

    one of the greatest 'institutions' of all time! it really serves people so well and at the lowest cost that's why they thrive. If they could 'feature' microwave-pass safe food – for a few seconds – then no bacteria objections could be raised since the food will be like treated to be absolutely infectious agent-free and the company lawsuit-safe as well!

    August 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  21. Sal

    The best hamburgers I've ever had were from White Castle when I lived in North Jersey. They were the best. 

    August 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  22. obamacansaveyourhouselosangeles

    1958 Wichita Kansas, The McDonalds's sign said "more than 100,000 Sold". way back when.

    August 2, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • d-bag

      or Des Plaines Ill, the forst franchise.

      August 2, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  23. RichardHead

    Of course you do...Now change hands so you won't miss a Stroke,Momma's watching at the top of the stairs.

    August 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  24. Joe

    Listen to Mark Knopfler's song Boom Like That – it's tells this story and is a great song.

    August 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  25. McMike

    McD's did not sell french fries when they reopened in Dec. '48. They sold potato chips but changed to fries within the first year. My grandparents lived a mile away from the orig. store at E St. and 14th Ave, San Bernardino. Google the location, go to the street view and you'll see a 'copy' of the original marquee on the southwest corner by the Mexican restaurant. I remember the hamburgers, shakes and fries to all taste exactly the same in 1952 as they do now.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • stwebb

      Actually the fries taste a tad bit different...

      They were made with a fat greasy oil back in the day...

      They are somewhat safer to eat these days!!!

      August 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  26. LOL

    I can't actually remember McDonalds selling an actual hamburger so the point is moot.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  27. Gaby Atamoo

    So that is the true origin of the otherwise mysterious McRib sandwich.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
    • Lew

      We make homemade McRibs all the time. Equal parts hair, filler and BBQ sauce.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  28. The end to world hunger

    Would be guaranteed if someone would start a Troll Burger chain. These boards are the true source for renewable energy.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  29. michael

    Chick fil a had a record day yesterday and another on tap for today. Ohhh no but you wont see CNN communist news network talk about that. Doesnt fit their libtard agenda

    August 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
    • Peter Knight

      Chik has the lousiest food. So that's why it is non-news

      August 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
    • Nophah Kingweigh

      Hey Mikey, did you happen to open your eyes when peering at the internet today? The chik fil a thing is all over CNN you GOP tool.

      August 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Reply
    • kerry

      Actually, it did report on that. There's more than one story on CNN.com. Who's the tard?

      August 2, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
    • Jay

      If you dislike CNN so much why are reading their news? FOX News network will give you all the lies you want to hear, so log on now!

      August 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • Andres

      They did talk about it... :P

      August 2, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      CNN and CNN.com presented several stories about it. You're simply lying because it furthers your political agenda.

      And "libtard"? What are you, eight years old?

      August 2, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • stwebb

      Hey guys...

      Please leave brain dead mikey alone...

      His life isn't complete unless he calls the majority of Americans LIBERTARDS!!!

      August 2, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Reply
    • Lew

      Give it to Mikey. He'll eat anything the GOP will give him.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  30. Candi

    I bet their bugers tasted 100% better and were all real, no fillers.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • Lew

      Agreed. I'd love to go back to taste the burgers that made them famous in the first place.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  31. conoclast

    The McD's in the photo is similar to the original San Berdoo store but isn't - as I remember it anyway; it was in a semi-residential area with more trees. Sigh.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  32. OregonGranny

    That's "San Bernardino" not San Bernadino.... ok... so we slur it a bit when speaking. (Oregon now, SB Cal then)

    August 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
    • conoclast

      Thanks for correcting the heathens. BTW I'm a San Berdoo Oregonian too!

      August 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Reply
      • stwebb

        Good ole bankrupt San Berdoo!!!

        August 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  33. Burbank

    I remember the 15 cent burgers and one million sold signs on the arches in SoCal.That number went up fast! Except fr the fries, which have always been good, the food itself actually sucked and the ultra-thin rubbery meat patties were more like eating leather, but it was all about convenience in the early sixties. Good taste and/or healthy wasn't important – cheap and fast was!

    August 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  34. Chaz

    That's all fine and good but all CNN really cares about is what side of the gay marriage debate McDonalds is on.

    Because if we don't know every faceless owners' stance on the social topic du jour, how can we ever make purchases or know where to direct our hateful comments?

    August 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
    • Burbank

      Young gay men are sometimes called chickens.

      August 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
    • Joscar

      Oh Please . . .
      Most business people are savvy enough to know to keep their mouths shut about hot button issues lest they offend one group or another.
      In the early 70's a lot of people were ticked off at McDonald's when it was revealed Ray Kroc gave a large donation to Nixon's re-election campaign. There were probably people who boycotted them at that time.

      August 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
      • Chaz

        Yeah, it's call sarcasm. Never goes over well on CNN boards.

        But that was an interesting tid-bit about McDonalds/Nixon. I guess I like the Golden Arches more than I thought...

        August 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Reply
        • stwebb

          Soooo...

          You've got a thing for impeached presidents!?!

          August 2, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  35. Easy E

    Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger Happy Clown.

    August 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  36. Pete

    And with that, the global decline of the food industry...

    August 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  37. Bill

    At McDonalds, they do it all, for ME!

    August 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  38. dave

    They don't donate $$$ to "Kreestyuns Whut Hates Faigs Jes' Lahk Jeezus Done"....er... I mean the Family Research Council

    August 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • Truth™@dave

      Nice. Stereotype much?

      August 2, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
      • har har

        You a idiot Truthtm

        August 2, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • PerdomoDad

      In the Winter 2010 issue of its magazine, Intelligence Report, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the FRC as a hate group, saying that the organization "pushed false accusations linking gay men to pedophilia".

      Dave, Aside from your sarcasm. Your statement is factual.

      August 2, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Reply
    • Texas Eater

      Hey, Pedro. You are Not Very Nice.

      August 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  39. McRibbit

    Well Duh They invited the McRib

    August 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  40. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    I see. So all I have to do is set up a drive-thru and defecate violently into a bag and sell it in large volumes. We'll have to eat a lot of Taco Bell to keep up with demand, I suppose.

    August 2, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • angrybabykitty

      Don't forget to bag up cat vomit & feces too.

      August 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
    • RichardHead@Jdizz

      Use Both hands and don't look back......Big Mike...SF 49'er's

      August 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • Burbank

      What about those gross, ultta-greasy and tough, chewy tortilla shell Taco Bell tacos with that thin smear of something that looks like baby food mystery meat? They have a slice of not quite melted american cheese too and a few strands of wilted lettuce! You can put this thick, ketchupy "hot sauce" on it too!

      August 2, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Reply
    • angrybabykitty

      Someone has a little I'm 16 and angry at my dad syndrome going on. Eat paint chips as a kid much, Angela?

      August 3, 2012 at 6:45 am | Reply
  41. Uninformed Partisan Hack

    Bbbbbbbbbut where do they stand on gay marriage???????????????

    August 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
    • RichardHead

      Between the Buns with a little Carolina White Sauce included.

      August 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • Klancy Schmertz

      Did you see where that chicken sandwich chain is offering chicken sandwiches with extra santorum on them?

      August 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      Don't ask, don't tell! LOL

      August 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply

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