Food - General
By: - at March 12, 2015

15 Surprising Facts About the History of Fast Food

In America alone, the number of fast food stores littered throughout the country is a whopping 232,611 strong. Spending on advertising alone for fast food was a staggering $4.6 billion in 2012. Advertising expenses for consumer behavior involving the consumption of fruits and vegetables only came out to $116 million. There is an ominous disconnect between what the youth of this country are being told and what really are nutritious meal choices. Fast food companies are famous for their marketing process which, through the implied subtext of their advertising campaigns, target America's youth. Many of America's obesity problems and mounting health care expenses are directly linked to a policy of misinformation.

fast food

Some Americans perceive meals like pizza, hamburgers and fries, or Taco Bell as proper meal choices. After having a diet consisting of toxic foods full of preservatives, unfortunately most people get used to the crummy way they feel. This is one of the most damaging aspects of fast food on the American people because people could have lives that are fuller, less stressful, and without the growing dependence many Americans have on prescription drugs.

Jr. Deluxe Burger from Sonic

Since the beginning of the industry way back in the early 1900s, fast food has become a fundamental part of American and Western culture. Its immersion into American culture has even led to "Rock & Roll" Exhibit that is operated in conjunction with a McDonald's like this one pictured below located in Chicago, IL.

"Rock & Roll" McDonald's
By TonyTheTiger from Wikimedia Commons

By pairing up two very "American" ideals, Rock & Roll and capitalistic consumerism as McDonald's has here, Americans can't help feeling drawn towards these low-quality food serving, glorified food dispensaries. This location materializes all of the metaphors and rhetoric that is pumped into all of the company's advertisements and brand image efforts. The advertisements that fast food companies use are also grossly inaccurate and portray their foods in an inaccurate fashion. 

false advertising

As ubiquitous and iconic as many of the fast food chains have become, there are number of facts about the history of the fast food industry that are little known and in a number of cases quite surprising.

15)  A Cinema Manager Created Large Fries
The reason for large sizes in regards to fast food came about because of all things a cinema manager. In 1967, David Wallerstein the then manager of the Balaban cinema chain noticed that customers frequently bought multiple drinks and bags of popcorn, which led Wallerstein to realized that there was demand for larger sizes. Large fries are such a common feature for a fast food chain that every chain has their own version of French fries.

"Animal" Style from In-N-Out Burger Includes Cheese and Grilled Onions
Animal In-N-Out
By Qfl247 via Wikimedia Commons

The idea was an immediate success, with the increased sizes selling for more than the multiple purchases would have ultimately amounted to. The McDonald’s company soon noticed this genius ploy and hired Wallerstein. This resulted in the first line of large sized French fries available in a major fast food chain.

The large sized French fries were an immediate success, with people snapping them up immediately upon release as they believed the product was a great value. The large size was so successful that other fast food chains quickly copied the idea.

mcdonald's fries
By TeaLaiumens via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, McDonald’s boss Ray Kroc was initially against the idea of introducing a larger size of French fries, as he was concerned about the health repercussions given that he felt that it would be far too much food for one person to consume. Presumably, he then realized that there was far too much money to be made by going ahead with the brilliant idea.

14)  Jurassic Park Created Super Size
McDonald’s controversial Super Size was first introduced in 1993, as part of a promotional gimmick for the film ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993). They were first known as "Dino Size". The super sizes applied to the drinks and fries and they were an immediate success, so much so that McDonald’s kept the items on their menu after the promotion had ended.

jurassic park
By Daryl Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons

While the super size option never lost its popularity, the McDonald’s company was forced to for the most part phase out the super size option from 2004 onwards after receiving extremely bad publicity for health groups. The super size was received extensive criticism following the release of the film ‘Super Size Me’ (.....) in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month and became quite sick.

super size me
By Melesse via Wikimedia Commons

Still, the super size option hasn’t been completely removed from all McDonald’s menus, with the option still available in some McDonald’s in England.

13)  Taco Bell Can’t Break Into the Mexican Market
For much of the world, the Taco Bell chain epitomizes Mexican food. In reality, it’s far from it, so much so that the business has never been able to break into the Mexican market. There is a great deal of irony with Taco Bell's Live Mas campaign whose literal translation means to live more. 

taco bell
By Huon via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that, despite the myth that has been largely propagated by Taco Bell’s menus, very few traditional Mexican dishes have ground beef in them, unlike most of the dishes available from Taco Bell. Chicken is also rarely used. The hard taco shell, which non-Mexican individuals typically associate with Mexican food, has nothing to do with Mexico.

Taco Bell in Revere, Massachusetts
taco bell
By Anthony92931 via Wikimedia Commons

In short, Taco Bell isn’t actually Mexican food, which explains why, while Taco Bell’s competitors like Dominos Pizza and McDonald’s are phenomenally successful in Mexico, Taco Bell has twice failed in their attempts. This was even after they tried re-branding themselves and their product by labeling their food as “American Food” instead of Mexican.

12)  Subway is the World’s Biggest Fast Food Chain
McDonald’s certainly had a good run as the world’s biggest fast food chain. They were the forerunner for almost everything when it came to fast food restaurants and all the various initiative to the industry over the years. But at the end 2010 the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Subway had more restaurants globally than McDonald’s.

Subway Located in Shanghai
Subway Shanghai

It wasn’t by much (there were only 12 more Subway stores than McDonald’s, in fact) but the reality is that Subway is bigger. And it has since kept growing. This shift in success came about in part because of the growth of the Subway business throughout Asia.

subway china

More significantly, though, the success was due to Subway’s emphasis on its healthier menu, with the ever increasing focus on healthier options in the fast food market in the last decade.

11)  Fast Food Architecture Used to Ruin Communities
Fast food restaurants are known for their distinct designs. They are built to specifically stand out from the rest of area in which they are located, much to the annoyance of residents nearby. The need for flamboyancy in fast food architecture came about because of the success of cars and when fast food companies began offering customers the opportunity to use a drive thru service to grab a meal on their travels.

Arby's Located in Middle Village, Queens, New York
By Jcerulli via Wikimedia Commons

Initially, when fast food first started there weren’t as many cars on the road so design of the restaurants wasn’t too important. Soon, though, more and more people were on the road. By then there were a number of fast food restaurants all competing for motorist’s attention.

First McDonalds San Bernardino, CA
first McDonald's
By Cogart Strangehill via Wikimedia Commons

As a result, businesses had to design what was often very ostentatious (and very ugly) architecture, complete with loud and annoying sound music and/or sound effects in order to grab a potential customer’s attention.


It wasn’t until the 1970s that communities came together and protested in regards to the over the top designs that ruined the aesthetic of their respective towns.

10)  The Oldest McDonald’s and Taco Bell Are in the Same Town
In 1962, the original Taco Bell restaurant was established by Glen Bell in the town of Downey, California. While it was originally opened in 1953 and is technically the third McDonald’s store to ever open, the town also happens to be the location of the oldest McDonald’s restaurant. Though it was not the first McDonald’s, it is the only surviving store of the original McDonald’s chain.

Oldest Operating McDonald's Restaurant in Downey, Southern CA
oldest McDonald's
By Bryan Hong via Wikimedia Commons

Strangely, although Taco Bell had gone out of their way to ensure that the significance of their store wasn’t forgotten, McDonald’s originally let their store fall into disrepute, despite its historic significance.

Original Design for Taco Bell Restaurants
Original Design Taco Bell
By Jonrev from Wikimedia Commons

The store was closed in 1994, due to its significant lack of facilities – it lacked both indoor seating and a drive-thru window and the location had sustained considerable damage from an earthquake.

Taco Bell's New Store Design as of 2013
Taco Bell
By Sphilbrick via Wikimedia Commons

It was only after local residents and McDonald’s customers complained about the lack of respect shown to the historically significant store that something was done to improve the location’s conditions. Ultimately, their customers’ complaints led to the McDonald’s company taking two years to restore the site.

9)  Hamburger and Fries Was Intended to Replace the Meal of Meat and Potatoes
The coupling of a hamburger with French fires is a staple of the fast food industry. As iconic and seemingly obvious as the paring seems nowadays, it might surprise some to know that the original fast food chains typically only sold hamburger and drinks.

Hamburger and Fries American Diner Style
Hamburger and Fries

Fast food restaurants didn’t think to throw French fires into the mix until fast food companies noticed that people were eating hamburgers in place of a complete meal – not merely a snack as the businesses had originally assumed. Thus, the idea came about to provide people with a fast food meal of a hamburger, French fries and a drink.

No. 2 Meal from Crown Burger Plus in Denver, Colorado
Crown Burger Plus
By Max Slowik via Wikimedia Commons

The logic to add the French fries came from the traditional idea of a meal being a simple combination of meat and potatoes, which had been a principle for a basic meal in America since the 1700s.

8)  French Fries, Not Hamburgers, Are the Most Popular Fast Food
Traditionally, the symbol for fast food is a hamburger. After all, it was the selling of hamburgers that got the industry of fast food started in the first place. Despite appearances, though, the hamburger is not the most popular fast food in America. French fries are.

McDonald's French Fries
McDonald's French Fries

It’s hard to say just when French fries surpassed hamburgers as the preferred fast food by most Americans, but it was probably around the 1970s, when larger sizes of French fries were introduced and customers immediately started buying up big.

Five Guys Meal Complete With of Course, French Fries
five guys

During the course of 2004, Americans consumed around 7.5 billion pounds of French fries.

7)  High Fructose Corn Syrup is Key to Fast Food
The year of 1967 saw the fast food industry revolutionized, with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup. It’s a sugary substitute that works by tricking a person’s body into both wanting to consume more junk food but also into storing fat.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

On average the typical American consumes around 63 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup annually. Since its introduction it was been used in pretty much any and all forms of fast food – even fast food that seems to offer a healthier alternative to the other obviously unhealthy food that is predominately sold by most fast food chains.

Developing High Fructose Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup

6)  Ronald McDonald Wasn’t McDonald’s Original Mascot
Nowadays, there’s debate as to whether the McDonald’s company really needs their long time mascot Ronald McDonald anymore, but what’s undeniable is that Ronald certainly had a massive impact in his heyday. In fact in 2005, Ronald came in second in the ‘Advertising Age’ magazine’s poll of the world’s best advertising icons from the 20th century – he was second only to the Marlboro Man.

Ronald McDonald
Ronald McDonald

In the mid 2000s, studies found that 96% of children recognize Ronald throughout America. As iconic and successful as Ronald was for McDonald’s, he was not the company’s first mascot. McDonald’s very first mascot was named “Speedee” – a chef with a hamburger-like face.

McDonald's Sign Showcasing "Speedee"

He was somewhat popular, but was ultimately replaced in 1967 by Ronald McDonald.

5)  The Founder of Wendy’s Made KFC a Success
Dave Thomas was the co-founder of the fast food chain Wendy’s. He established the business in 1969. Thomas began his work in the food industry when he was just 15. He took a job at friend’s father’s restaurant. After establishing himself as a solid worker over a number of years, he was offered a job at KFC. He took the position, which involved overseeing four separate stores.

Dave Thomas
Dave Thomas
By Theo's Little Bot via Wikimedia Commons

While at KFC, Thomas had the idea to introduce coupons and a number of deals to get more customers through the door, which worked brilliantly. He later personally advised KFC’s founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Thomas told Sanders that he should reduce the amount of items on the menu, focus of a signature dish, produce a distinct bucket for his products and appear in the company’s ads himself. Sanders followed Thomas’ advice and thus gained greater success than the company had previously experienced.

Colonel Harland Sanders in the 1970s Signing Autographs
Colonel Harland Sanders
By Edgy01 via Wikimedia Commons

Having proved himself a solid businessman, Thomas left KFC and established Wendy’s. He opted to focus on hamburgers as he couldn’t find a decent burger near where he lived. He named the company after his 8 year old daughter. The company is one of the biggest fast food chains in America.

kentucky fried chicken
By Brent Moore via Wikimedia Commons

Still, the company has never enjoyed the success on both a national and international scale as KFC, who owe much of their success to Thomas’ advice.

4)  McDonald’s Didn’t Want People Eating In their Restaurants
Love or hate McDonald’s, you’ve got to admit that they know their business. Throughout the company’s history, they have made a number of groundbreaking decisions that have revolutionized the fast food industry and the business world in general. Not all their decisions were brilliant, though.

 Ray Kroc's First and Opened in 1955 Converted to a Museum, Des Plaines, Illinois
By Bruce Marlin via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most astoundingly bad decision the McDonald’s company ever made in their history was that they initially didn’t like the idea of their customers sitting inside their stores to eat their meals – thus, while McDonald’s allowed for customers to eat in their restaurants, they intentionally made the stores quite uncomfortable. Specifically, the furniture in their restaurants was purposely built so that people wouldn’t want to use it for an extended period of time.

McDonald's in Hong Kong
hong kong mcdonald's
By Ka Ho Fa Yuen via Wikimedia Commons

The logic was that McDonald’s didn’t want people taking up space for other customers as they might deter people from even coming in if they saw a large number of people eating inside. The company soon realized that the longer people stay the greater chance there is that they’ll buy more food and ultimately changed their stores’ designs to make them more appealing.

3)  The Success of Fast Food Fundamentally Changed the Food Industry
The impact of the success of the fast food industry as a whole has been far reaching, but while much of the impact in a commercial and cultural sense is blatantly obvious, other changes the industry has caused go largely unnoticed. This is especially true in regards to food production.

Fast Food Causes Increases in Corn Demand
corn farming
By Mick via Wikimedia Commons

With the high demand for certain types of food – particularly meat products – the food industry has had to significantly alter the way animals are bred, raised, killed and processed, thus resulting in factory farming as we know it. The impact has been felt on fresh produce growers.

Murray Grey Cows and Calves Used in Beef Production
Beef Production
By Cgoodwin via Wikimedia Commons

The McDonald’s company has had the biggest impact, as the company is the largest purchaser of pork and beef and the second biggest purchaser of chicken. McDonald’s are also the largest purchaser of potatoes. Their demand for the products has forced the industry to alter the way food is manufactured throughout the world.

2)  Chinese Food is More Popular Than Fast Food
As popular as fast food chains there are still more Chinese restaurants throughout America than there are fast food chains combined. Chinese food first arrived in the U.S. in the 1800s, long before fast food existed, when immigrants moved from China in search of new opportunities.

Most Chinese immigrants encountered a significant deal of racism and were forced to establish their own communities, which led to the development of “Chinatowns” throughout the country.

China Town Main Plaza, Los Angeles, CA
China Town
By Sgerbic via Wikimedia Commons

Food production was one of the easiest ways for these immigrants to make money, as they modified their traditional cuisines for an American market. As a result, iconic dishes that non-Chinese Americans associate with Chinese food were invented. These include the dishes like Crab Rangoon and Chop Suey, along with the iconic fortune cookie – all of which still rivals the seemingly incomparable success of fast food.

Garlic Chicken and Peapods Chop Suey With Fried Rice
chop suey
By Eli Hodapp via Wikimedia Commons

1)  There Is Now a Hamburger Stand Where Thomas Jefferson Wrote the Declaration of Independence
There is perhaps no greater document in the history of America than the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration in the Graff House in Philadelphia. Despite the profound historical significance of the location, the building was demolished in 1884. A bank was then built on the area.

Graff House Philadelphia, PA
graff house
By Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons

During the 20th century, the bank was also demolished. The location eventually had another establishment erected in its place – of all things, it was hamburger stand. All there is to indicate the historical significance of the location is a humble historical marker, detailing that it was the area where one of the most important events in the history of America happened to take place.

Recent concerns facing the fast food industry have to do with ingredient transparency. Consumers have indicated time and again that they really do want to know all of the ingredients that go into their most favorite convenient creations. Traditionally, fast food chain's lion's share of profits are derived directly from cost-cutting measures concerning the ingredients they purchase. As customers are beginning to shift back towards being very concerned with what they consume, it will be interesting to see how global fast food giants will adapt to the attitudes and behaviors of their targeted consumers. Will there be substantial profit losses? Will companies like McDonald's all of a sudden find themselves in financial jeopardy as they attempt to compete with companies like Chipotle who have made it their corporate mandate to be nutritionally responsible? The ability for fast food giants to adapt will be central to their long-term success and future popularity.





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