×
Home Culture Culture News

Fast-Food Nation Part One: The True Cost of America’s Diet

After four decades, our obsession with fast, cheap food has transformed our towns and farms and flooded the labor market with low-paying, dead-end jobs. Is this a healthy menu?

A fast food meal of french fries and a burger

A fast food meal of french fries and a burger.

Carmen Martínez Banús/Getty Images

Cheyenne Mountain sits on the eastern slope of Colorado’s front range, rising steeply from the prairie and overlooking the city of Colorado Springs. From a distance, the mountain looks beautiful and serene, dotted with rocky outcroppings, scrub oak and ponderosa pine. And yet Cheyenne Mountain is hardly pristine. One of the nation’s most important military installations is located deep within it, housing operational units of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the United States Space Command and the Air Force Space Command. In the mid-1950s, high-level officials at the Pentagon worried that America’s air defenses were vulnerable to sabotage and attack. Cheyenne Mountain was chosen as the site for a top-secret underground combat-operations center. The mountain was hollowed out, and about 700,000 tons of rock were removed. Fifteen buildings, most of them three stories high, were erected amid a maze of tunnels and passageways extending for miles. The four-and-a-half-acre underground complex was designed to survive a direct hit by a ten-kiloton atomic bomb. Now officially called the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, the facility is entered through massive steel blast doors that are three feet thick and weigh twenty tons each. Pressurized air within the complex prevents contamination by radioactive fallout or biological weapons. A heavily armed quick-response team guards against intruders. The place feels like the set of an early James Bond movie, with men in jumpsuits driving little electric vans from one brightly lighted cavern to another.

Fifteen hundred people work inside the mountain every day, maintaining the facility and collecting information from a worldwide network of radars, spy satellites, ground-based sensors, airplanes and blimps. The Operations Center tracks every man-made object that enters North American air-space or that orbits the earth. It provides early warning of missile attacks. It detects the firing of a long-range missile, anywhere in the world, before that missile has left the launch pad. Much of the work performed at the center is top-secret. The hallways of its inner sanctum are painted slate gray, the ceilings are low and there are combination locks on every door. The complex was built to be self-sustaining for one month. Its generators can produce enough electricity to power a medium-size city. Its underground reservoirs hold 6 million gallons of water; workers sometimes traverse them in rowboats. Inside the mountain there is a fitness center, a chapel, a hospital, a dentist’s office, a barber shop and a cafeteria. When men and women stationed at Cheyenne Mountain are tired of the food in the cafeteria, they often send somebody over to the Burger King at Fort Carson, a nearby Army base. Or they call the Domino’s on South Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs.

Almost every night of the week, a Domino’s deliveryman winds his way up the lonely Cheyenne Mountain Road, past the stern No Trespassing signs, past the security checkpoint at the entrance to the base, driving all the way up to the fortified North Portal, tucked behind chain-link and barbed wire. At the spot where the road heads into the mountainside, the deliveryman drops off his pizzas and collects his tip. And should Armageddon come, should a foreign enemy someday shower the United States with nuclear warheads, laying waste to the continent, entombed within Cheyenne Mountain, along with the high tech marvels, the pale-blue uniforms, comic books and Bibles, future archeologists may find other clues to the nature of our civilization – Big King wrappers, hardened crusts of Cheesy Bread, Barbecue Wing bones, and the red, white and blue of a Domino’s pizza box.

During the last four decades, fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society. An industry that began with a handful of modest hot dog and hamburger stands in Southern California has spread to every corner of the nation, selling a broad range of foods wherever paying customers may be found. Fast food is now served not only at restaurants and drive-thrus but also at stadiums, airports, college campuses and elementary schools, on cruise ships, trains and airplanes, at Kmarts, Wal-Marts, gas stations and even hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food. Last year they spent more than $100 billion on fast food. Americans now spend more money on fast food than they do on higher education, personal computers, software or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music – combined.

The rapid growth of the fast-food industry has been driven by fundamental changes in the U.S. economy. The hourly wage of the average American worker peaked in 1973 and then steadily declined until last year. Women entered the work force in record numbers, often motivated less by feminism than by a need to help pay the bills. In 1975, about a third of American mothers with young children worked outside the home; today about two-thirds of such mothers are employed. As the sociologists Cameron Lynne Macdonald and Carmen Sirianni have noted, the entry of women into the nation’s work force has greatly increased demand for the types of services that housewives traditionally performed: cooking, cleaning and child care. The fast-food industry has benefited from these demographic changes, supplying at low cost the meals no longer prepared in the home and hiring at low wages millions of young women in need of extra income.

The McDonald’s Corp. has become a powerful symbol of America’s service economy, the sector now responsible for ninety percent of the country’s new jobs. In 1968, McDonald’s operated about 1,000 restaurants. Today it has about 23,000 restaurants world-wide and opens roughly 2,000 new ones each year. An estimated one of every eight Americans has worked at McDonald’s. The company annually trains more new workers than the U.S. Army. McDonald’s is the nation’s largest purchaser of beef and potatoes. It is the second-largest purchaser of poultry. A whole new breed of chicken was developed to facilitate the production of McNuggets. The McDonald’s Corp. is the largest owner of retail property in the world. Indeed, the company earns the majority of its profits not from selling food but from collecting rent. McDonald’s spends more money on advertising and marketing than does any other brand, much of it targeted at children. A survey of American schoolchildren found that ninety-six percent could identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus. The impact of McDonald’s on the nation’s culture, economy and diet is hard to overstate. Its corporate symbol – the Golden Arches – is now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.

Almost twenty-five years ago, the farm activist Jim Hightower warned of “the McDonaldization of America.” He viewed the emerging fast-food trade as a threat to independent businesses, as a step toward a food economy dominated by giant corporations and as a homogenizing influence on American life. Much of what he feared has come to pass. The rise of the fast-food industry has been accompanied by important changes in how America’s food is produced. The centralized purchasing decisions of large restaurant chains and their need for standardized products have given a small number of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation’s food supply. Moreover, the success of the fast-food industry has encouraged other industries to adopt its business methods, filling America’s main streets and malls with Gaps and Coconuts, Maid Brigades, Pawn Marts and Hobby-Town USAs. Franchises and chain stores have in the last twenty-five years gained a forty percent share of all retail spending in the United States. Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised. From the maternity ward at a Columbia/HCA hospital to an embalming room owned by the Houston-based Service Corporation International – “the world’s largest provider of death-care services,” which since 1968 has grown to include 3,012 funeral homes, 365 cemeteries and 156 crematoriums, and which today handles the final remains of one of every nine Americans – a person can now go from the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business.

The key to a successful franchise, according to many texts on the subject, can be expressed in a single word: uniformity. Franchises and chain stores must reliably offer the same product or service at numerous locations. Customers are drawn to familiar brands by an instinct to avoid the unknown. A brand offers a feeling of reassurance when its products are always and everywhere the same. “We have found out. . . that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists,” declared Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald’s, angered by some of his franchisees. “We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. . . The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization…”

One of the ironies of America’s fast-food industry is that a business so dedicated to conformity was founded by iconoclasts and self-made men, by entrepreneurs willing to defy conventional opinion. Few of the people who built fast-food empires ever attended college, let alone business school. In many respects, the fast-food industry embodies the best and the worst of American capitalism at century’s end – its constant stream of new products, its innovative technology, its sophisticated mass-marketing techniques, its widening gulf between rich and poor. While a handful of fast-food workers manage to rise up the corporate ladder, the vast majority lack full-time employment, receive no benefits and constantly float from job to job. The only Americans who earn lower wages today than fast-food workers are migrant farm workers.

In the fast-food restaurants of Colorado Springs, behind the counters, amid the plastic seats, in the changing landscape outside their windows, you can see all the virtues and destructiveness of our fast-food nation. The recent growth of Colorado Springs parallels that of the fast-food industry; during the last three decades, the city’s population has more than doubled. Subdivisions, malls and chain restaurants are appearing in the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain and in the plains rolling to the east. The Rocky Mountain region as a whole has the fastest-growing economy in the United States, mixing high-tech and service industries in a way that may define America’s work force in the century to come. And new restaurants are opening there at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country, an onslaught of new Subways, Schlotzky’s, Waffle Houses, Popeye’s and Taco John’s.

The sociologist George Ritzer has attacked the fast-food industry for celebrating efficiency ahead of every other human value, calling the triumph of McDonald’s “the irrationality of rationality.” Others consider the industry proof of the nation’s continued economic vitality, a quintessentially American institution that appeals worldwide to millions who admire our way of life. As McDonald’s loses market share to competitors like Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box, more is at stake than stock options and dividends. Perhaps no other industry offers, both literally and figuratively, so much insight into the nature of mass consumption. The typical American consumes about three hamburgers and four orders of French fries every week. Roughly a quarter of the nation’s population buys fast food every day – and yet few people give the slightest thought to who makes it or where it comes from.

The changes prompted by fast food have occurred so quickly and have been so all encompassing that it is now hard to conceive of a world without hamburgers served in brightly colored paper boxes, without drive-thru windows, without the same restaurants making the same food the same way in almost every American city and town. The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today’s service economy, spreading identical retail environments throughout the country like a self-replicating code. The value meals, two-for-one deals and low prices on the menu disguise the real costs of fast food. As the old saying goes: You are what you eat.

The Founding Fathers

Carl N. Karcher is one of the fast-food industry’s pioneers and, at age eighty-one, perhaps the last of its founding fathers. His career extends from the industry’s modest origins in postwar Southern California to its current dominance of the American diet. His life story seems at once to be an old-fashioned tale by Horatio Alger, a fulfillment of the American dream and a warning about unintended consequences.

Karcher was born in 1917 on a farm near Upper Sandusky, Ohio, His father was a sharecropper. Carl had six brothers and a sister. Their father always told them, “The harder you work, the luckier you become.” Carl dropped out of school after the eighth grade, working twelve to fourteen hours a day on the farm. In 1937, an uncle offered him a job in Anaheim, California. He was twenty years old and six feet four, a big, strong farm boy who had never set foot outside northern Ohio. The drive to California took a week. When he arrived in Anaheim – a small town surrounded by orange groves, lemon groves, ranches and modest farms – Carl said to himself, “This is heaven.”

His uncle’s business, Karcher’s Feed and Seed Store, was located in the middle of downtown Anaheim. Carl worked there seventy-two hours a week, delivering goods to the local farmers who raised chickens, cattle and hogs. During Sunday services at St. Boniface Catholic Church, he met an attractive young woman named Margaret Heinz, who had grown up on a local farm. Carl became a frequent visitor to the Heinz farm, which had ten acres of orange trees and a Spanish-style house. After returning briefly to Ohio, Carl went to work for the Armstrong Bakery in Los Angeles. The job soon paid twenty-four dollars a week, six dollars more than he had earned at the feed store. Carl and Margaret were married in 1939 and had their first child within a year.

Carl drove a truck for the bakery, delivering bread to restaurants and markets in West L.A. He was amazed by the number of hot dog stands that were opening and by the number of buns they went through each week. When Carl heard that a hot dog cart was for sale on Florence Avenue, across from the Goodyear factory, he decided to buy it. Margaret strongly opposed the idea and wondered where he’d find the money. Carl borrowed $311 from the Bank of America, using his car as collateral, and persuaded his wife to give him fifteen dollars in cash from her purse. “I’m in business for myself now,” he thought after buying the cart. “I’m on my way.” Five months after Carl bought the cart, the United States entered World War II and the Goodyear plant became very busy. He soon had enough money to buy a second hot dog cart, which Margaret often ran by herself while their daughter slept nearby in the car.

Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s gave birth to a new lifestyle that revolved around the automobile. “People with cars are so lazy, they don’t want to get out of them to eat!” said Jesse G. Kirby, the founder of an early drive-in restaurant chain. Kirby’s first “Pig Stand” was in Texas, but the chain soon thrived in Los Angeles alongside countless other food stands offering “curb service.” Drive-ins like Stan’s, Paul’s, Tiny Naylor’s and Bob’s Big Boy featured waitresses carrying trays of food to customers in their parked cars. The waitresses, known as car hops, often wore short skirts and skimpy uniforms. The drive-ins fit perfectly with the youth culture emerging in Los Angeles: They offered a combination of girls and cars and late-night food.

By the end of 1943, Carl Karcher owned four hot dog carts in Los Angeles. In addition to running the carts, he still worked full time for the Armstrong Bakery. When a restaurant across the street from the Heinz farm went on sale, Carl decided to buy it. He quit the bakery, bought the restaurant, fixed it up and spent a few weeks learning how to cook. On January 16th, 1945, his twenty-eighth birthday, Carl’s Drive-in Barbeque opened its doors. The restaurant was small and rectangular, with red tiles on the roof. During business hours, Carl cooked, Margaret worked behind the cash register and car hops served most of the food. After closing time, Carl cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors. When World War II ended, business at Carl’s Drive-in Barbeque boomed, along with the economy of Southern California. Carl soon added grills to his hot dog carts and began serving hamburgers topped with a “special sauce.” Every week, Carl made the sauce on his back porch, stirring it in huge kettles and pouring it into one-gallon jugs.

Carl and Margaret bought a house in Anaheim five blocks from the restaurant, adding new rooms as the family grew. They eventually had twelve children. Anaheim slowly became less rural and more suburban. Walt Disney bought up thousands of acres of local orange groves and started to build Disneyland. Carl’s Drive-in Barbeque prospered. And then Carl heard about a restaurant in the “Inland Empire,” fifty miles east of Los Angeles, that was selling high-quality hamburgers for fifteen cents – twenty cents less than what Carl charged. He drove to E Street in San Bernardino, a working-class, largely agricultural town, and saw the shape of things to come.

Brothers Richard and “Mac” McDonald had run a successful San Bernardino drive-in for years. By the end of the 1940s, however, Richard and “Mac” had grown dissatisfied with the drive-in business. They were tired of constantly looking for new car hops and short-order cooks as the old ones left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. They were tired of replacing the dishes and silverware their teenage customers broke or ripped off. The brothers thought about selling the restaurant. Instead, they tried something new.

The McDonalds fired all their carhops in 1948, closed their restaurant, installed a larger grill and reopened three months later with a radically new method of preparing food. They eliminated almost two-thirds of the items on the menu. They got rid of every item that had to be eaten with a knife, spoon or fork. The only sandwiches now sold were hamburgers and cheeseburgers. The brothers got rid of their dishes and glassware, replacing them with paper cups, bags and plates. They divided the food preparation into separate tasks performed by different workers. The guiding principles of the factory assembly line were applied to the workings of a commercial kitchen. The new division of labor meant that a worker had to be taught how to perform only one task. Skilled and expensive short-order cooks were no longer necessary. All of the burgers were sold with the same condiments: ketchup, onions, mustard and two pickles. No substitutions were allowed. The McDonald brothers now aimed for a family crowd, refusing to hire any female employees, who might attract teenage males. In Behind the Arches (1995), a history of McDonald’s, John F. Love notes the real significance of the new self-service system: “Working-class families could finally afford to feed their kids restaurant food.”

After visiting San Bernardino, Carl Karcher decided to open his own self-service restaurant. The first Carl’s Jr. Restaurant opened in 1956 – the same year that McDonald’s launched its first major franchising drive and America got its first shopping mall. Carl instinctively grasped that the car culture would change America; he saw what was coming. The star atop his drive-in sign became the mascot of his fast-food chain: a smiling star in little booties, holding a burger and a drink.

Other entrepreneurs across the country were starting their own fast-food chains. The fast-food business seemed risky, but the start-up costs were low. Anyone willing to work hard had a shot. William Rosenberg was an eighth-grade dropout who delivered messages for Western Union, drove an ice cream truck and then in 1946 opened a doughnut shop in Quincy, Massachusetts, that he would call Dunkin’ Donuts (“You pluck a chicken,” he said, “you dunk a doughnut”). Glen Bell was a former Marine in San Bernardino who ate at the new McDonald’s and decided to copy it, using the assembly-line system to make Mexican food. His first Taco Bell opened in 1962. Thomas S. Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, spent his childhood in a Catholic orphanage and in a series of foster homes, got kicked out of school in the tenth grade, joined the Marines, bought a pizzeria for $900 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the early 1960s, and met his wife while delivering a pizza to her college dorm room.

For every fast-food idea that swept the nation, there were countless others that never caught on. There were chains with homey names like Sandy’s, Carroll’s, Henry’s and Winky’s. There were chains with futuristic names like the Satellite Hamburger System and Kelly’s Jet System. Most of all, there were chains named after their main dish: Burger Chefs, Burger Queens, Burgerville USAs, Yumy Burgers, Twitty Burgers, Dundee Burgers, Biff Burgers, O.K. Big Burgers and Burger Boy Food-O-Ramas. Biff Burgers were “roto-broiled” beneath glowing quartz tubes that worked just like a space heater.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the fast-food chains spread nationwide, opening near strip malls in the new commercial districts of the suburbs. Between 1968 and 1974, the number of McDonald’s restaurants tripled. Wall Street began to invest heavily in the business, and many of the early fast-food pioneers gave way to corporate management. The hamburger wars in Southern California were especially fierce. One by one, the old drive-ins closed, unable to compete against inexpensive fast-food joints.

Carl Karcher opened Carl’s Jr. restaurants up and down the state of California, locating them near freeway offramps. In 1976, the new corporate headquarters of Carl Karcher Enterprises were built on the same land in Anaheim where the Heinz farm had once stood. Carl Karcher now controlled the largest privately owned fast-food chain in the United States. His nickname was Mr. Orange County. He considered many notable Americans to be his friends, including Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Art Linkletter, Lawrence Welk and Pat Boone. He was a benefactor of Catholic charities, a Knight of Malta, a strong supporter of pro-life causes. He attended private masses at the Vatican with the pope. And then, despite all the hard work, Carl’s luck began to change.

During the 1980s, CKE went public and opened Carl’s Jr. restaurants in Texas. The new restaurants fared poorly, and the value of CKE’s stock fell. In 1988, Carl was charged with insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had sold large blocks of CKE stock right before its price tumbled. He vehemently denied the charges but agreed to a settlement with the SEC and paid almost $1 million in fines. A few years later, some of Carl’s real estate investments proved unwise. When new subdivisions in Anaheim and the Inland Empire went bankrupt, Carl was saddled with many of their debts. He suddenly owed more than $70 million to various banks. The falling price of CKE stock hampered his ability to repay those loans.

Carl searched for ways to save his company. He proposed selling Mexican food at Carl’s Jr. restaurants, but a number of top executives at CKE opposed the plan. Carl thought that CKE was being run into the ground. It now felt like a much different company from the one he founded. A new management team had ended the longtime practice of starting every executive meeting with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi and the pledge of allegiance. Carl insisted that his Mexican-food idea would work and demanded that the board of directors vote on it. When the board rejected the plan, Carl tried to fire its members.

Instead, on October 1st, 1993, the board voted 5 to 2 to fire him. Only Carl and his son Carl Leo opposed the firing. Carl felt deeply betrayed. He had known many of the board members for years; he had made them rich. In a statement released after his dismissal, Carl described the board as “a bunch of turncoats” and called it “one of the saddest days” of his life. At the age of seventy-six, after more than five decades in the business, Carl N. Karcher was prevented from entering his own office, and new locks were put on the doors.

The headquarters of CKE are still located on the property where Margaret Heinz’s family once grew oranges. Today there are no orange groves in sight. The population of Anaheim is now about 275,000, almost thirty times larger than it was in the years before World War II. On the corner where Carl’s Drive-in Barbeque once stood, there’s a strip mall. Near the CKE headquarters there’s an Exxon station, a discount mattress store, a Shoe City, a Las Vegas Auto Sales store and an offramp of the Riverside Freeway. The CKE building has a modern, Spanish design, with white columns, red-brick arches and dark plate-glass windows. When I visited recently, it was cool and quiet inside. After passing a six-foot wooden statue of St. Francis of Assisi on a stairway landing, I was greeted at the top of the stairs by Carl N. Karcher.

Carl looked like a stylish figure from the big-band era, wearing a brown checked jacket, a brown tie and jaunty two-tone shoes. He was tall and strong, and seemed, in remarkably good shape. The walls of his office were covered with plaques and mementos. He removed a framed object from the wall and handed it to me. It was the original receipt for $326 confirming the purchase of Carl’s first hot dog cart.

Eight weeks after being locked out of his office in 1993, Carl engineered a takeover of the company. Through a complex series of transactions, a partnership headed by financier William P. Foley II assumed some of Carl’s debts, received much of his stock in return and took control of CKE. Foley became the new chairman of the board. Carl was named chairman emeritus and got his old office back. Almost all of the executives who opposed him left the company. His Mexican-food plan was adopted and has proved a tremendous success. During the past few years, Carl’s Jr. has become one of the nation’s most profitable fast-food chains. The value of its stock has risen from about $7 a share to $46 a share. In July 1997, CKE purchased Hardee’s for $327 million, thereby becoming the nation’s fourth-largest hamburger chain. Carl’s Jr. restaurants will soon open all over the country, and the little star in booties may become a national icon.

Carl seemed amazed by his own life story as he told it. He has been married to Margaret for fifty-eight years. He has lived in the same Anaheim house for forty-eight years. He has twenty granddaughters and twenty grandsons. He shares the genial