October 29, 2017

Photo Essay: How Billions of Burgers Got Their Start in Southern California (Updated for 2023)

[Last updated 2/2/23 11:17 PM PT—Museum founder and owner Albert Okura sadly passed away on 1/27/23.]

The McDonald’s in Downey may be the oldest standing of the billion-burger-selling chain -- but to trace the founding of this fast food empire, you’ve got to head to San Bernardino.

circa February 2009

That’s where brothers Dick and Mac McDonald discovered the appeal of “speedy” hamburgers and fries...

...and, in 1948, gave Post-War America what they wanted in the form of a walk-up burger stand.

Although its premise became the prototype for all McDonald’s locations to come, this first one at 14th and E wasn’t included when the McDonald brothers sold the business to Ray Kroc – a deal that was recently dramatized in the film The Founder starring Michael Keaton as Kroc.

So, in many ways, it’s been wiped from the “official” history of the burger operation. The location in Des Plaines, IL was branded "McDonald's #1."

But of course we southern Californians know better—and that McDonald’s started right here and not in Illinois.

Though the original walk-up burger stand building was demolished in 1972, the building on the site now (built in 1980) functions both as the headquarters for the Juan Pollo chain...

...and as a free museum devoted to McDonald’s ephemera and memorabilia from around the world, much of which has been donated by members of the public (including a lot of kids who’ve given up their Happy Meal toys).

The owner of both Juan Pollo and the museum is Albert Okura, who also bought the entire ghost town of Amboy in 2005. [Ed: Okura died on 1/27/23.]

While this McDonald’s is located a couple of blocks on the other side of the 215 Freeway from the current designation of Route 66 in San Bernardino, it's inextricably linked to The American Dream and the Land of Opportunity, just like the "Mother Road."

McDonald's turned out to be Ray Kroc's Great American Dream—who ultimately ended up taking all the credit for the McDonald's franchise expansion and cutting the McDonald brothers out of the narrative entirely.

He even took credit for the creation of McDonald's altogether...

...even though he'd just been a Midwest salesman hawking equipment to make shakes...

...and the McDonalds brothers in San Bernardino were customers of his.

But McDonald's changed a lot under Kroc's leadership, moving away from 1940s and '50s family values, "Speedee" service, and "golden arches"... abject commercialism, namely with the creation of the character "Ronald McDonald" in 1963... well as sponsorships...


...and, in 1979, the chain's first Happy Meal.

All this from a "head franchisee" who joined the team in 1954 and bought out his partners in 1961.

The McDonald brothers always wanted to stay small, so they could pay the highest amount of attention to quality standards.

But Ray Kroc had created a juggernaut—and even when they sold out to him, he opened a competing location of McDonald's close enough to the original San Bernardino location (not included in the deal, and renamed "The Big M") to force them to shut it down.

The Speedee character was permanently retired in 1967, setting the stage for the emergence of the Gobblins in 1972 (later renamed the Fry Guys in 1983 and the Fry Kids in 1987).

Now, more customers probably associate McDonald's with its licensed toys and superhero movie cross-promotions than its own characters...

...though people of a certain generation will appreciate the First Original McDonald's Museum's generous representation of characters like Grimace, Captain Crook, and the Hamburglar.

Nowadays, some things are still the same as at the very beginning...

...including the standardization of menu offerings and the focus on burgers and fries...

...with some regional and international anomalies, of course (which is why I insisted on visiting Mickey D's when we were in Fez, Morocco—so I could try the "Chicken Mythic").

For many people, McDonald's has represented a first job, a quick bite on the go, or a cheap meal out with the family—but for me, it was a symbol of independence. Anytime I went to McDonald's, I was free of my home. Whether it was on a school field trip, family vacation, or lunch break at the mall or even my first job at Atlantic Records, there was always a McDonald's nearby.

And I could always afford something—even if it was just on the Dollar Menu.

Sometimes when I'm on the road even now, I find myself pulling up to the Drive-Thru of a McDonald's somewhere in Southern California, even if it's just to order a large diet soda for a dollar. I love those red-and-yellow striped straws that are wider than your typical restaurant drinking straw.

The burgers don't taste good to me anymore—there are too many authentic, homegrown burger stands in SoCal that are so far superior—but every now and then, I treat myself to an order of small fries.

And they taste the same as they did when I was a little kid, licking the salty grease off my fingers before my mother could wipe it off with a napkin.

Stay tuned for a photo essay of the Downey McDonald's, the oldest standing location of the billion-selling burger chain.

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