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14 Unusual Ways McDonald's Did Business in the '60s

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McDonald's

One tablespoon of ketchup; 1.6 ounces of ground beef; a pickle slice one inch in diameter. With their expansion into a national chain in the 1950s, McDonald’s embraced the concept of gastronomic sameness: a burger was a burger no matter where in the country you were. Each was prepared with obsessive detail to conform to company directives.

Like any business, however, McDonald’s knew when to change their corporate recipe to fit the times. Have a look at these 14 facts about the Golden Arches and their unique approach to serving fast food in the 1960s.

1. THEY DIDN’T HIRE WOMEN.

Fast-service restaurants in the ‘40s and ‘50s were renowned for their carhops—perky young women who delivered trays of food to parked automobiles. But franchise founders Maurice and Richard McDonald held a negative opinion about these jobs: They felt it created an atmosphere where families would be uncomfortable visiting a burger stand populated by obnoxious teen boys ogling employees. They eliminated the carhop position, expecting customers to instead approach windows on foot. Subsequent owner Ray Kroc held firm to the no-women policy: “We don’t hire female help,” he told the Associated Press in 1959. The freeze lasted until franchise operators began insisting on a gender-balanced staff in the mid-to-late-‘60s. Even then, Kroc ruled that female employees be “flat-chested” and not work the grill since they didn’t possess the “stamina” for such intensive labor.  

2. THEY’D WASH YOUR WINDOWS.

Several McDonald’s promotions in the early 1960s promised a free windshield wash for drive-in patrons. The moment anyone pulled up, an employee would deploy a squeegee and clean the glass before an order was placed. McDonald’s offered that it was for “safety” reasons, as though people drove with such filth on their cars it impaired their driving. The fast-food-with-car-wash concept never caught on beyond weekend specials.

3. NOTHING WAS FROZEN.

Find work in a contemporary McDonald’s kitchen and you’ll probably see boxes full of trucked-in frozen French fries and hamburger patties that are sometimes kept on ice up to three weeks before being cooked. This wasn’t always the case, though. One of the company’s most often-repeated talking points in 1960s media was the fact that everything arrived fresh to stores: meat came refrigerated and potatoes were shipped whole. Each location would have to use a peeler and slicer to prepare the fries. Eventually, the spud-related labor began to slow down service, and Kroc began phasing out the fresh fries in 1966.

4. KITCHENS HAD VIEWING WINDOWS.

Believing families had a curiosity about the McDonald’s conveyor-belt approach to food preparation, Kroc had kitchens outfitted with 900-square-foot viewing windows. Covering the front and sides, the quarter-inch glass allowed customers to see every step of burger manufacturing. According to company vice president Don Conley, the layout allowed mothers to inspect the area for cleanliness and walk away “entranced” with the stainless-steel amenities. Dads, presumably, just wanted to see meat sizzle.

5. ENTIRE MEALS COST 45 CENTS.

A burger, fries, and shake set visitors back two quarters, with change back. The chain liked to brag that an entire nuclear family could eat there for just over two dollars. Kroc maintained that it wasn’t food that went up in price, but the service itself. So Kroc attempted to get rid of anything that wasn't edible, telling Time in 1961, “You can’t eat a 20 percent tip." (Cow inflation did eventually set in: In 1966, the price of a hamburger rose from 15 cents to 18.)

6. THEY DIDN’T WANT BUSINESS FROM DIRTY HOBOS.

Family was a key selling point for McDonald’s. Time and again, spokespeople for the chain reinforced the idea of creating an environment parents would be comfortable in. The company told press that new locations were scouted based on the number of church steeples, schools and residential streets nearby, not foot traffic. McDonald's, Kroc said, didn’t want to cater to “transients.”

7. KIDS ATE SIX BURGERS A WEEK. THIS WAS A GOOD THING.

Statistics were a big part of the McDonald’s corporate message when the company began moving across the country.  They estimated roughly 800 million burgers were sold by 1963; 460 stores were operating in 42 states that same year. They also liked to brag that kids had become burger-munching maniacs, telling press that children devoured 6.2 of them per week in 1966.   

8. THEY BANNED CIGARETTE MACHINES AND JUKEBOXES.

Continuing their bid to oust delinquents and miscreants from the premises, Kroc mandated that no location would install a jukebox, cigarette machine, or phone booth. (The jukebox ban was part of his “three nos” campaign, which also included no tipping and no carhops.)

9. YOU COULDN’T SIT DOWN.

With an average transaction time of just 50 seconds, McDonald’s didn’t really have the time or resources to put into washing dishes. Virtually all locations in the early ‘60s amounted to front counters and drive-in windows: There was no place to sit down inside the restaurant itself until 1962, when a Denver, Colo. location became the first to offer stools.

10. THEY INTRODUCED HAMBURGER UNIVERSITY.

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Franchisees looking to get in on the near-guaranteed cash cow that was a McDonald’s location needed $12,000 in franchise fees and deposits, and then they would pay 2.2 percent of sales back to McDonald's. They also needed to spend time at Hamburger University in Elk Grove, Ill., where they’d receive a crash course in everything from restaurant management to pickle distribution. Opening in a restaurant basement in 1961, the school offered majors in “hamburgerology” and minors in fries. Accomplished students could graduate “magna cum mustard.” 500 people attended each year.

11. THEY HAD (LOCAL) CELEBRITY APPEARANCES.

Before the rise of Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s took a homegrown approach to in-store appearances. While kids begged parents to let them see such luminaries as Zorro and Uncle Ben, the chain also promoted appearances by regional kid show personalities like Quacky the Ducky, Miss Ann, and Mr. T. (Not that one. Another one.) 

12. KROC DIDN’T WANT A “STINKY” FILET-O-FISH.

McDonald’s now boasts an expansive, two-sided drive-thru menu, but there was a time when they bragged about keeping options capped at 10 items or less. It was Monfort, Ohio franchisee Lou Groen who opened the doors for the McNuggets, Big Macs, and other innovations to come. In 1961, he presented Kroc with the idea for a fish sandwich, which he wanted to introduce to bolster his business during Lent. Kroc was unimpressed, telling Groen he didn’t want stores smelling like seafood. The two eventually agreed on a test market run; the halibut-based sandwich proved to be a hit. McDonald’s now moves more than 300 million of them every year. 

13. FRED TURNER WAS THEIR SECRET WEAPON.

Turner originally wanted to be a franchisee until he lost his financial backing. Going to work for corporate, he became a master of efficiency. It was Turner who would figure out how many burger patties could be piled up before falling over, and that stores could save precious seconds if buns came to them fully separated instead of only partially halved. In 1977, Turner became CEO.

14.  THE ARCHES WERE SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU THINK OF BREASTS.

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While the Golden Arches that formed a swooping “M” were part of McDonald’s architecture that made stores easily recognizable, at least one advisor thought they served another purpose entirely. According to the BBC, psychologist Louis Cheskin convinced the franchise to keep the logo in the 1960s because of the “Freudian symbolism of a pair of nourishing breasts.” The company wound up taking Cheskin’s advice. Despite remodeling their storefronts, the arches stayed.     

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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