Fast food through a historical lens

Besides health concerns, fast food’s social impact includes convenience, economic opportunities and cultural influence

Fast food through a historical lens


ast food has had a significant social impact, both positive and negative, on our society. It has provided convenience and affordability, allowing people to grab a quick meal on the go. It has also created job opportunities, particularly for low-skilled young workers. Fast food chains have become gathering places, where friends and families can socialise and spend time together.

However, fast food also has negative effects. It has been linked to several health issues, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, due to its high-calorie fat and sugar content. Fast food consumption has given rise to sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy eating habits. Additionally, the fast-food industry has faced scrutiny for its labour practices, including low wages and lack of welfare benefits for workers.

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, became a prominent figure in the fast-food industry after opening his first Wendy’s restaurant in Columbus, Ohio in 1969. Thomas had already been involved in the food service sector for over two decades, starting at the Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he was just 15 years old. During his time at the Hobby House, Thomas met Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), who mentored him and offered him a job at a new KFC franchise.

While working together, Thomas and Sanders forged a close bond. However, their relationship strained when Thomas was asked to take over four underperforming KFC restaurants in Columbus. Thomas disagreed with Sanders on how to handle the chicken. This led to a rift between them. Despite the tension, Thomas introduced some ideas that Sanders approved, such as the rotating red bucket KFC sign and getting Sanders to appear in TV ads for the franchise.

Eventually, Thomas sold his stake in the KFC franchise to Sanders for $1.5 million. With this money, he opened the first Wendy’s restaurant, named after one of his daughters. It catapulted Thomas to greater success in the fast-food industry. It also solidified his status as an influential figure who thrived under the guidance of Col Sanders.

Mike Ilitch, a former minor league baseball player and his wife Marian, opened Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat in 1959. The business grew and became the third-largest pizza chain in the US. Alongside his success as a business owner, Ilitch was also known for owning the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings sports franchises. He had a significant philanthropic impact, particularly in combating hunger and assisting veterans.

A little-known act in Ilitch’s philanthropy was his discreet support of Rosa Parks, a civil rights icon. When Parks was robbed and assaulted in 1994, Ilitch learned that civil rights activist Damon Keith was helping her find a safer place to live. Ilitch personally contacted Keith and offered to pay her rent. He continued to cover her rent until her passing in 2005. This symbolised Ilitch’s commitment to the residents of his city.

Ilitch’s contributions to the sports world and his dedication to improving the lives of those in need speak of an extraordinary character.

Before Col Harland Sanders became an iconic figure in the realm of fast food, his culinary journey had begun in a humble setting. Nestled beside his roadside Shell gas station in Kentucky, Sanders delighted customers, particularly truck drivers, with his delectable country dishes. Surprisingly, during those early days in 1930, fried chicken was not a part of his menu due to its time-consuming preparation. Instead, Sanders garnered popularity through offerings like country ham and steak dinners.

Later, Sanders took a significant stride by establishing a restaurant across the street from his gas station, unveiling his now-famous fried chicken to the world. In 1939, he pioneered the use of pressure cooker to prepare chicken, eventually perfecting the renowned “secret” recipe encompassing 11 herbs and spices, which would forever be synonymous with the KFC.

The first KFC franchise materialised in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952 under the stewardship of Sanders’s friend Pete Harman. It was at this establishment that the iconic bucket container made its debut, accompanied by the introduction of the Kentucky Fried Chicken name. Despite being in his early sixties at the time, Sanders embarked on an ambitious journey, tirelessly signing up franchises nationwide in the ensuing years.

In 1964, he relinquished ownership of the company, selling it to a consortium of investors for a handsome sum of $2 million. Nevertheless, Sanders remained an invaluable brand ambassador, assuming a salaried role.

However, as time progressed, Sanders grew disenchanted with the franchise’s product, ultimately leading him to take legal action against the company, filing a lawsuit for a staggering $122 million. Although the specifics of the suit were resolved through an out-of-court settlement, it demonstrated Sanders’s unwavering commitment to quality and his fervent belief in his brand.

While Col Sanders earned acclaim as the emblematic figure behind KFC, history reveals a lesser-known facet of his persona. Renowned for his fiery temperament, Sanders found himself entangled in a feud with Matt Stewart, a rival station owner, during his tenure as a gas station proprietor. Stewart took offence at Sanders’s practice of painting signs promoting his business on barns in the vicinity. This had an unsavory dénouement.

Sanders’s life, until his demise in 1980 at the age of 90, was a fascinating tapestry of culinary achievements and personal tribulations. His indomitable spirit and commitment to excellence left an indelible imprint on the fast-food industry, immortalising him as the emblematic Colonel behind Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice, embarked on their culinary journey in 1948 with the establishment of their first restaurant, McDonald’s Famous Barbeque, situated along a roadside in San Bernardino, California. Recognising the popularity of hamburgers, they temporarily shuttered their doors to streamline operations and enhance efficiency. This led to the creation of the innovative Speedy Service System, a kitchen assembly line that revolutionised the fast-food industry by delivering complete meals to customers in under 30 seconds.

Initially, customers accustomed to carhop service at other fast-food establishments were hesitant to embrace the new system, which required them to leave their cars and place orders at a counter. However, within a few months, McDonald’s began attracting a steady stream of customers and the brothers soon enjoyed annual profits of around $100,000.

In 1952, the McDonald brothers seized the opportunity to offer franchises, providing aspiring entrepreneurs with an operating manual, the guidance of a counter employee for a week to demonstrate store management, and blueprints for a distinctively designed red-and-white tiled restaurant adorned with iconic golden arches.

When they encountered Ray Kroc, a salesman specialising in milkshake mixers, they had successfully established franchises across six to 20 locations, depending on the source. In 1954, Kroc convinced the brothers to expand the business, leading to the opening of his first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955.

Conflicts arose between the McDonald brothers and Kroc as they fought for control of the company. In 1961, Kroc acquired the business and the McDonald’s name for $2.7 million. He changed the original design of the golden arches after the acquisition. However, the deal didn’t include the rights to the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino. This angered Kroc who opened a McDonald’s franchise nearby and forced the original restaurant, renamed The Big M, to close down.

Kroc then positioned himself as the founder of McDonald’s. This upset the McDonald brothers. Richard McDonald expressed his dissatisfaction in a 1991 interview. His grandson revealed that discussing their family legacy was discouraged. Despite this, Richard McDonald had a mostly friendly relationship with Kroc until his death.

It is purported that during the 1961 sale, Kroc offered the McDonald brothers a handshake deal that entitled them to a half-percent royalty on all future McDonald’s earnings. The family asserted that Kroc failed to fulfill his commitment, resulting in no payment reaching their coffers. In 2017, this non-payment amounted to approximately $100 million annually. Nevertheless, French affirmed that the family harboured no resentment towards Kroc, stating, “My grandfather never harboured bitterness regarding this matter. Why should we hold a grudge when he himself did not?”

Fast food marketing has influenced popular culture, shaping food preferences and contributing to the globalisation of Western diets. The standardisation of fast-food menus and flavours has led to a homogenisation of food choices in many communities.

Overall, fast food’s social impact is complex. There is convenience and economic opportunities as well as cultural influence on the one hand and health concerns and labour issues on the other.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Fast food through a historical lens