Schlosser begins his story with Carl Karcher, the eventual founder of Carl’s Jr. fast-food restaurants. Karcher was born to a large German-Catholic family in northern Ohio, in 1917, and moved at the age of 20 to Anaheim, where his uncle Ben had offered him a job at Karcher’s Feed and Seed, a business Ben owned. Carl Karcher was amazed by the natural beauty and abundance of southern California, its pleasant weather—and its potential for economic growth.
Schlosser finds Karcher’s story important, in part, because it is so quintessentially an American story of success—a man rises from relative obscurity, works hard, and finds economic opportunity by moving West. Of course, Schlosser wants to drill deeper into this story, too, to see exactly how American “self-reliance” mixes with other economic and political forces.
Carl realized, after marrying and purchasing a hot dog cart in Anaheim, that he could expand his business to fill the needs of car-bound southern Californians, who, more than ever, were driving and in need of quick sustenance on the go. Carl bought several more hot dog carts, then founded his own Carl’s Barbeque Drive-In in 1944, just as cars began taking over the region. Carl’s family ran the store with him, and he hired carhops, or waiter, to take food out to passengers in their automobiles, who had parked in the lot of the store.
Schlosser takes pains to emphasize the impact of the car on his story—indeed, there are times when one wonders whether Schlosser is writing about the American food industry or about its system of interstate highways. Both fast food and those highways came into being largely in the 1950s, and cars quickly acquired both practical and symbolic significance. One needed cars to drive on those highway—and one needed a car, too, to symbolize one’s independence, the freedom of the road, and of consumer choice while looking for food along the roadside.
Schlosser argues that Carl Karcher’s business took off at exactly the same time as other key southern California corporations, including Walt Disney’s—he was constructing Disneyland essentially around the corner from Carl’s first BBQ—and McDonald’s, which began as a drive-in in Pasadena in 1937, founded by the McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice.
Interestingly, the McDonald’s brothers lent their name to the restaurant, but it was Ray Kroc who later extended it, through franchising, into a national and global behemoth.
Schlosser notes that the McDonald brothers helped innovate what they called the Speedee Service System, after about ten years of operation in southern California, whereby they increased the grill size and the automation of their restaurant, trimmed the menu, and sought to lower prices and increase speed and efficiency. The result was a boom for McDonald’s business, and a precedent that swept through the fast-food industry: an emphasis on mass-produced food, available as cheaply as possible, and made through a system of labor such that larger jobs were broken down into much smaller tasks—thus turning “cooks” into “assembly-line workers” within the McDonald’s kitchen.
This is the first instance of a phenomenon Schlosser will track throughout the book—that of “throughput,” or institutional advancements in systems of production that put the focus on efficiency in a workplace. For McDonald’s, this meant breaking down the creation of a hamburger—typically a task that one person sees through to completion—into a series of far smaller sub-tasks. Individuals then complete only these sub-tasks, and the act of making a hamburger becomes a process for many people, working repetitively and in concert. The result is that each worker has less skill and oversight, but the entire process generates more product.
Schlosser notes that Carl Karcher visited the San Bernardino “Speedee Service” location of the McDonald’s brothers, and imported some of their efficiency improvements to Carl’s Jr., which he reopened accordingly in 1956. In 1953 Matthew Burns and Keith Cramer founded what would become Burger King, and Glen Bell, also in the ‘50s and also in southern California, founded what would become Taco Bell. Harland Sanders’ “finger-lickin’ good” chicken restaurants became Kentucky Fried Chicken, outside Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952. Certain fast food chains folded quickly, while others expanded throughout the car cultures of the American west. By the 1960s and ‘70s, fast food brands were national economic powerhouses—Schlosser writes that these formerly “regional businesses became a fast food industry, a major component of the American economy.”
Schlosser also notes that fast food was originally a concept belonging to a particular place, southern California, which was the center of car culture in America immediately after the Second World War. The region was also booming—with a great many families moving there in search of jobs and cheaper housing. This series of “Californian” inventions—the car, the highway, the speedee service system—then took the nation by storm, moving regional brands into the national spotlight. But it is worth noting that, really, a large part of America was imprinted with an idea that was initially Californian in origin.
Schlosser notes that, for men like Carl Karcher, it was not always a straight line of success. In the early 1990s, Karcher was accused of insider trading, and an expansion of the Carl’s Jr. franchise into Texas nearly proved disastrous for the California-based company. Karcher was ousted as chairman of the board of Carl Karcher Enterprises (CKE), and was locked out of his own office in Anaheim, at CKE’s headquarters.
Another refrain in the book—that some businessmen succeed, in part, because they are willing to bend, or break, the rules. Although Karcher has earned a great deal of his success, his business practices are not unimpeachable—and a great many other food conglomerates have done similar things to ensure that profits stay high.
But eight weeks after this “lockout,” Karcher managed to find an investment group that would take on some of Carl’s Jr.’s debt, and would agree to some of the new terms Karcher had conceptualized, for the company’s about-face. Karcher expanded the business by purchasing a series of Green Burrito franchises—not unlike Taco Bell—and Karcher later engineered the purchase of Hardee’s, making CKE “the fourth largest fast food company in the US” by the end of the 1990s. Because Hardee’s has a nationwide scope and was re-branded with Carl’s Jr.’s signage, Karcher had achieved a level of success previously unknown for the company. Karcher tells Schlosser, at the close of the chapter, that he “believes in progress,” and that the road outside his office in Anaheim “used to be gravel . . . and now it’s blacktop.”
Schlosser seems to imply, here, that there is an open question in Karcher’s career trajectory: whether he has gotten to where he is through his own disciplined work ethic, or luck, or some combination of the two. For all the people Schlosser profiles, the author does his best to remain objective, and to relate the facts of that person’s life—but for some individuals who work hard, like Hank the rancher later in the book, success is far more difficult to come by. Schlosser is interested in tracking the relationship between hard work, good fortune, and success for many of his characters.