n 1954, Ray Kroc is an unsuccessful traveling salesman selling Prince Castle brand milkshake mixers. While he has a supportive wife, Ethel, and has saved enough to live a simple and comfortable life in Arlington Heights, Illinois, he craves more. Ray also observes that many of the drive-in restaurants that he tries to sell to are inefficiently run, with a long waiting time for orders and carhops more concerned with avoiding the groping from greasers than getting the orders right. After learning that a drive-in in San Bernardino is ordering an unusually large number of milkshake mixers, Ray drives to California to see it. What he finds is McDonald’s—a highly popular walk-up restaurant with fast service, high-quality food, disposable packaging, and a family-friendly atmosphere.
Ray meets with the two McDonald brothers, Maurice “Mac” and Richard “Dick” McDonald. Mac gives Ray a tour of the kitchens and he notes the employees’ strong work ethic. Dick explains the high-quality food and lightning-fast service are the backbones of their restaurant. Ray takes the brothers to dinner and is told the origin story of McDonald’s. The next day, Ray suggests that the brothers franchise the restaurant, but they hesitate; pointing out that they already tried, only to have encountered absentee franchisees who were lackadaisical in upholding their system. Ray persists and eventually convinces the brothers to allow him to lead their franchising efforts on the condition that he agree to a contract which requires all changes to receive the McDonald brothers’ approval in writing.
Initially, Ray begins building a McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois while attempting to entice wealthy investors (specifically fellow members at his country club) to open franchises, but encounters the same poor management ethic which doomed the original franchise efforts. After encountering a dedicated Bible salesman who is Jewish, Ray hits on the idea of franchising to middle-class investors, who have more incentive to be hands-on and are willing to follow the McDonald’s formula. This proves successful, and new franchises begin opening across the Midwest, with Ray representing himself as the creator of McDonald’s. During this time, Ray meets Rollie Smith, an upscale restaurant owner in Minnesota who wishes to invest, and his wife Joan, to whom Ray is immediately attracted.
Despite his success, Ray begins to encounter financial difficulties as his share of franchise profits is limited due to his contract, a share that the McDonald brothers decline to renegotiate. The brothers also refuse to allow the use of sponsorships for fear of ruining the image of their restaurants. Meanwhile, the owners are encountering higher than expected costs, particularly for refrigeration of large quantities of ice cream for milkshakes. Joan suggests a powdered milkshake to Ray as a way to avoid these costs, but the brothers consider it degrading to their food quality. Ray is also called to the bank as his mortgage is past due, but this is overheard by Harry Sonneborn, a financial consultant for Tastee-Freez, who requests to review Ray’s books. Sonneborn realizes that the real profit opportunity is in providing real estate to the franchisees, which will not only provide a revenue stream, but give Ray leverage over his franchisees and the brothers. Ray incorporates a new company, Franchise Realty Corporation, and attracts new investors. This move upsets the brothers and emboldens Ray: he increasingly defies them by circumventing their authority and providing powdered milkshakes to all franchisees. Ray also divorces Ethel, who gets all his assets except any shares in his business.
Ray renames his company to the McDonald’s Corporation and demands to be released from his contract and buy the McDonald brothers out, the news of which sends Mac into diabetic shock. Ray visits him in the hospital and offers a blank check to settle their business. The brothers agree to a $2.7 million lump sum payment, ownership of their original restaurant in San Bernardino, and a 1% annual royalty, but when the time comes to finalize the agreement, Ray refuses to include the royalty in the settlement and instead offers it as a handshake deal. Afterwards, in the men’s room, Dick asks Ray why he had to take over their business, when he could have easily stolen their idea and recreated it. Ray argues that the true value of McDonald’s is the name itself, which expresses all the attributes of Americana (as opposed to his Czech Slavic-sounding name of Kroc).
The McDonald brothers are forced to take their own name off the original restaurant and Ray opens a new McDonald’s franchise directly across the street, finally putting the brothers out of business. The film closes in 1970 with Ray preparing a speech where he praises himself for his success in his elaborate mansion with his new wife, Joan. An epilogue reveals that the McDonald brothers were never paid their royalties, which could have been in the area of $100 million a year.
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