In the late 1950s, when Dave Thomas, Tom Monaghan, the Carney brothers, and Glen Bell were all starting there businesses, although they didn’t know each other and they lived a country apart, they shared common goals: produce a high quality, uniform product and serve it up quickly.
Today Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and the others are more a fact of life in a world that is perhaps moving a little too fast, but at the time these men were revolutionizing the way convenience food is marketed and served in America. Domino’s founder Monaghan thought he could deliver a good-tasting pizza and still keep his quality up, prices down and service fast.
In the industry today these businesses are called Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs), but we of course think of them corporately as fast food. But these QSRs all had something else in common-their menus were small and decidedly unsexy. High quality, uniform, lean, fast … and unsexy.
So what happened?
In 2007, Wendy’s fell on hard times, and in recent years Domino’s sales have dipped. Burger King filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004, and, before his death in 1980, Col Harlan Sanders complained that KFC’s mashed potatoes tasted like “wallpaper paste.”
Unless your idea of a fast, tasty meal is a tablespoon of steamed brown rice with a side of tofu and seaweed, this may interest you. We all rely on a fast burger or pizza, once in a while, and though it can be successfully argued that too much of anything is not a good thing, QSRs provide a service in our fast-paced society that would be sorely missed were they not with us.
A month or so back, my wife and I had to make a whirlwind business trip to the California coast. The trip may have been successful-the jury’s still out-but the first day was a nightmare. Our 45-minute meeting turned into a four-and-a-half-hour marathon, we were exhausted and starving by 10 o’clock that night, when we were finally finished.
We stopped in at a Subway on the way to our room and ordered a couple of subs. Fifteen bucks! They were neither quick, inexpensive or very good. We ate them and I stewed for an hour and read the nastiest murder mystery I could lay my hands on.
Has fast food lost its way? The slim little menus are bloated to the size of the San Fernando Yellow Pages, the service is good if you’re bilingual, and when you open the bag at home-well, I for one, am tempted to get an Uzi and do my Michael Douglas impersonation.
Over the last couple of decades the fast food industry has been almost as notable for its flops as for its growth. New menu items seemingly appear like acne on a 14 year old, their advertising budgets have swollen to the sizes of Third World GNPs, and they throw more at us everyday. Look at some these flops:
The Choco Taco? Please tell me why oh why Taco Bell thought this would be a positive exclamation point at the end of anyone’s busy day. The McPizza? Like McDonald’s didn’t have enough of the market share, a decade ago they decided to go pizza. Now think McLobster and McBrats.
Where are we headed here?
Members of Wendy’s Thomas’s family revolted in 2007, at what they claimed was the company’s loss of vision since their father’s death, saying “the culture of the company has been damaged and Dave Thomas’ simple philosophies set aside.”
It is the nature of American entrepreneurship to grow. It is one of the things that make us different from every other country in the world. From the industrial revolution of the 19th century to today’s technology boom, we have always led the way in research and development and expansion. New, better, faster. But in the process-and our history should tell us this-we have also been known for dizzying failures, when we have diverted our attention from the original mission.
From the late 1940s, and for two decades thereafter, Justin Dart’s Rexall-Owl drugstores virtually owned the retail pharmacy business in America. He controlled 20% of all pharmacies in the country, about the same number of outlets McDonald’s has today in the QSR industry. But Dart lost his focus. He didn’t see the looming shadow of Thrifty hovering over his empire. In 1977, Rexall sold for a mere $16 million.
In California, In-N-Out Burger has steadfastly resisted buyouts by fast food competitors, refused to franchise and kept a lean, no-frills menu for more than 60 years. Yet this miniscule-when compared to the leviathan McDonald’s or even Burger King-burger joint has developed a nationwide, almost cult-like following.
Why? Business Week’s Stacy Perman says, “Harry Snyder’s initial philosophy, which was based on quality and keeping it simple and streamlined. He had a motto: ‘Do one thing, and do it well.’ Even though the chain has grown-it’s now about 232 stores in four states-by and large they follow that motto.”
And not a bikini-clad bimbo in sight.
The original philosophies of the pioneers in the fast food industry were simple. They were filling a societal void created by the faster pace and diminishing free time of a post World War II generation. High quality, uniform product, lean menu, and fast … unsexy food.
But in the intervening years many of these companies have been taken over by multinational conglomerates with completely a different take on business; competition and bottom line and the idea that new and bigger are better have become the mantra of the QSR industry.
When, all the time, right down the street, cars are lined up to the freeway off ramp, to get into In-N-Out. And they are making money.
Ask yourself, KFC, What is wrong with this picture?