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Meeting Joe the plumber

Jean Edelstein gives her verdict on the latest US presidential debate and wonders if loving the UK o

Though I’ve heard in the past that plumbing is a profitable trade, I never understood quite how much until last night.

You'll have heard of Bob the builder. Now meet Joe the Plumber - a blue collar, all-American hero; a disciple of the American Dream. Someone whose business is apparently still so lucrative that he is within the top five per cent of American wage earners. Even in this time of near-unprecedented financial crisis, our nation can’t help but get hairballs lodged in its waste pipes.

But all is not rosey in Joe's garden. Tragedy may very soon strike just around the next U-bend in the form of higher taxes if Barack Obama wins the White House.

So warned Republican John McCain in the latest presidential debate. McCain gazed, watery-eyed but steely into the camera and told Joe the Plumber – Joe Six-Pack’s hard-working doppelganger? – “I’m…going to help you buy that business”. I felt, for a fleeting moment, that until I, too, learnt to manipulate a plunger, I would never quite be a real American.

At Hofstra University in Long Island – a private institute that Joe the Plumber might consider to be worryingly close to the pulsing heart of Manhattan’s liberal elite, but which has a comfortingly mediocre academic reputation that won’t intimidate Joe Six-Pack - Obama and McCain squared off last night, moderated by veteran American TV newsman Bob Schieffer, to discuss domestic issues. It was the final of three gruelling and fairly tedious debates in an even more gruelling and tedious electoral process. Perhaps because they are tired, this time the candidates were allowed to sit down, unlike the last when they roamed about the town-hall style meeting and experimented with different styles of awkward pointing.

McCain, perhaps, deserves a Most Improved badge: having honed his style of performance over the course of these showdowns like an over-keen but untalented high school forensics competitor, this time he figured out not only how to look his opponent squarely in the eye but also how to address him by name which he somehow managed to do in an exclusively hostile and patronising fashion, pulling squinty, childish faces in the background when his opponent was speaking, mannerisms that he perhaps picked up from his running mate. ‘He’s like a character from the Simpsons!’ declared my debate-viewing companion. McCain’s assurances that he would unpick the Old Boy’s network in Washington fell flatter than ever: at the end of this long and hard campaign, no amount of makeup (or even nerve-paralysing bovine toxins) can hide the fact that McCain looks like more of an Old Boy than ever after his 26 years inside the Beltway.

Mind you there were plenty of gems in there if you were really concentrating. On the topic of health care, McCain argued that if you like Obama’s plan, ‘you’ll love Canada and England’. Which, of course, as a ex-resident of the neighbour to the north who currently dwells in the UK, I really do. Does that make me un-American, Senator McCain?

Obama once again proved that his aptitude for splendid oratory is not quite as splendid when he has to speak extemporaneously. Between the slightly awkward pauses, however, he stared soulfully into the lens, appealing directly to Joe the Plumber and outlining solid policy initiatives and uttering phrases that made my little liberal heart skip a beat: “ordinary families”, “preventative health care”, “an army of new teachers”, and – finally! – “we should try to prevent unintended pregnancies”.

A long and somewhat irrelevant discussion about the nature of the campaign itself was the clear lowlight of the evening, with the exchange taking on the tone of a particularly nasty marriage counselling session as each candidate cast blame on the other for negative campaigning: McCain looking stricken when he recounted how Congressman Jim Lewis had associated him with mid-century segregationists; Obama frowning as he noted how McCain supporters had accused him of being a terrorist.

By the end of the segment, both looked so world-weary and unhappy that it would only have been right for them to hug and cry and agree that they loved each other, despite the hard times, but instead they forward to the conversation about their vice-presidents, about health care, about abortion.

Here McCain’s rhetoric referring to those who do not approve the overturning of Roe v Wade as ‘pro-abortion’ was unusually hardline for him, reflecting his desperation to pick up the most conservative votes.

They concluded with a snippy discussion about how to reform the American education system covering the same tired points that have been raked over since the Clinton years. Conclusion? Nothing's getting reformed any time soon.

Who won at Hofstra last night? The only American who could say, with any authority, is Joe the Plumber.

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.

Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.


In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”

The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.

The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.

An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder


These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.

Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.

An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.


Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.

Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”

The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.