One of the great ironies of American barbecue history is that the world's leading hamburger chain, McDonald's, got its start as a barbecue restaurant.
Long before the golden arches, barbecue restaurants dotted street corners in cities and towns throughout the South and West. From California to Florida, impromptu barbecue stands had "grown as thick as filling stations" along the sides of highways, reported Collier's Magazine in 1937. America's first drive-in chain—the Dallas-based Pig Stand—featured barbecue, and by World War II, pit-cooked meat was a staple of fancy steak and chop houses, too.
So, when brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their drive-in in San Bernadino, California, they naturally built a hickory-chip pit out back. The original menu featured sandwiches with "our famous barbecued beef, ham, or pork" for 35 cents and a barbecue plate for 60 cents. Hamburgers shared second billing, followed by chili, tamales, and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
A few years in, the McDonald brothers' drive-in was barely turning a profit, and they closed down for 3 months in 1948 to retool. When they reopened, the china and silverware had been replaced by paper wrappers and cardboard cups. The carhops were gone, and customers ordered at windows. Most severe was the menu overhaul: hamburgers only, the toppings limited to cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions, and pickles. The price of a burger had dropped to 15 cents. Sides and drinks were limited to french fries, milkshakes, coffee, and sodas. The hickory pit was no longer needed.
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The McDonald's "Speedy Service System" focused on convenience and value, selling a limited slate of low-cost items and making money through volume. The formula worked so well that Ray Kroc, a distributor of milkshake mixers, visited the brothers in person to see how one restaurant could possibly need eight of his five-spindled machines. Amazed by their volume, Kroc signed up to be the McDonald's franchising agency. We all know the rest of the story.
Barbecue simply wasn't suited for the new world of standardized fast food. It differed too greatly from one region to the next, took hours of hard labor to prepare, and required a long apprenticeship to learn to cook. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, hamburger chains flourished, and barbecue—once the king of the American highway—was relegated to a small-scale regional specialty.
Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.