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Fast food is an American institution. When traveling, tourists are likely to find a chain restaurant almost everywhere, even in the most exotic locations. The quick service and low prices have become synonymous with such companies. This paper will provide an overview of the history of fast food, its spread and impact on the world as well as speculation about its future.
Fast food is defined by its mass production and quick service. Today, fast food restaurants are present in almost every country on Earth, and their influence has stretched far from the food industry. The earliest examples of fast-food restaurants can be traced back to the early 1900s. Depending on the definition of fast food, the earliest chain was either Automat in 1912 or White Castle in 1921. Their service systems differed from each other. Automat allowed customers to buy pre-cooked meals through coin-operated boxes, while White Castle was a more traditional restaurant. Nevertheless, the White Castle was the first chain to standardize the look and method of food production among its restaurants. It was the first chain that spread across multiple states, and its systems were later adopted by the majority of other companies (Helstosky 250).
The popularity of fast-food restaurants at the time could be associated with the increased numbers of people moving to the city centers during the Great Depression. Fast food restaurants often provided a cheaper meal with an exciting gimmick. The popularization of cars also played a part in their success, with drive-in restaurants becoming places for social interaction among teenagers (Helstosky 249).
The biggest impact on the popularity of fast-food restaurants was the assembly line method of production. In the 1940s, Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a walk-up stand that offered a very simple menu of hamburgers, fries, and non-alcoholic drinks. Unlike traditional restaurants, the food was prepared continuously, without waiting for customers to order it. This allowed the food to be served immediately. Each employee at the diner was tasked with a simple assignment, which allowed anyone to be hired, instead of professional cooks. However, it also reflected on the pay that the employees received. By saving money on the service, the restaurant was able to sell burgers at a much lower price, than a normal diner. This concept was quickly adopted by its competitors (Lang and Heasman 199). By the 1960s, restaurant equipment manufacturer Prince Castle bought out the business from the McDonalds brothers and established the modern McDonald’s Corporation.
In 1971, the McDonald’s Corporation announced that it had restaurants in all 50 states of America. During the early 1970s, a major push for expansion has created thousands of new restaurants across the country, and many companies started seeking options to spread internationally. The first international McDonald’s stores were opened in Japan, Holland, and Australia. Initially, only a few restaurants were opened, but the early success enabled the further spread of the business. The first South American McDonalds was opened in 1979 in Brazil. By 1992, the company opened a restaurant on every populated continent of the world, and currently, it operates in more than 110 countries.
The effect of its globalization was not without controversy, however. The work practices provided by such restaurants were often lower than the country standard. The unhealthy food and the American image of the majority of fast food companies have also gathered a lot of negative attention in countries that suffered from the international policy of the United States. Fast food became a symbol of Americanization and cultural chauvinism (Malik and Ahmad 1). At times, this image has led to violent acts of protest against the corporation. For example, in 1999, Jose Bove assembled a group of activists in France and destroyed a McDonald’s location that was under construction (Northcutt 326). His actions were seen as heroic by the public, despite their illegal nature.
The impact of the international success of these restaurant chains has gone way beyond the food industry. Due to the international nature of McDonald’s a popular business magazine The Economist started publishing a global ranking of the currencies’ purchasing power based on the prices at international McDonald’s restaurants. The so-called “Big Mac Index” allows people to compare the cost of products and labor in various countries due to all the restaurants using the same ingredients and work practices. Unfortunately, a much more dangerous trend has developed along with fast food. The McDonaldization of other industries has become a major problem. The focus on low-skill labor, quick but intentionally uncomfortable service, minimal quality of the product, and its expendable nature have led to a dramatic shift in focus on efficiency over quality in many industries. Such companies often rely on the number of customers served, rather than job satisfaction and customer satisfaction.
Over the years, the fast-food business has gone from drive-in to drive-through restaurants. Their menus have changed many times, with either simplified or expanded selections based on popular trends or cultural differences. Most recently, the negative image of unhealthy fast food forced many of the chains to include healthier options such as salads, vegetarian sandwiches, and others. Whether this will be enough to satisfy the demand for healthy food is too early to tell, as the competition from food trucks and health-oriented restaurants is currently having a significant effect on the profits of fast food companies. However, the brand power of McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King is likely to carry these companies into the future with little loss of market share.
The future for such companies is one of the most concerning issues at the moment. The assembly line foodservice allowed anyone to become a fast-food employee with no skilled labor required. The constant expansion of these companies meant that a lot of people became dependent on them for jobs because they did not require any work experience or education. This situation is likely to change shortly due to the introduction of automated service. Currently, some locations are already experimenting with such systems, and it is only a matter of time when people start losing jobs due to redundancy. After all, the expendable nature of the employees has been a staple of the fast-food industry since the 1940s. With the service industry being one of the top employers in the United States, automated fast-food restaurants are likely to cause a massive wave of unemployment that no economy will be able to withstand (Ford 37).
Fast food was created to feed American cities. Its business practices allowed for cheaper products and easier employment for low-skill laborers. Subsequently, it spread all over the world with more than a hundred countries experiencing the same service with slight regional differences. Shortly, all of the positive aspects of fast food may become negative due to the introduction of affordable and reliable automated service systems that could replace millions of people.
Ford, Martin. “Could Artificial Intelligence Create an Unemployment Crisis?” Communications of the ACM, vol. 56, no. 7, 2013, pp. 37–39.
Helstosky, Carol. The Routledge History of Food. Routledge, 2014.
Lang, Tim, and Michael Heasman. Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets. Routledge, 2015.
Malik, M.Shoukat, and Naveed Ahmad. “Impact of Brand Credibility on Consumer Loyalty : A Case Study of Fast Food Industry in Dg Khan , Pakistan.” Oman Chapter of Arabian Journal of Business and Management Review, vol. 34, no. 2343, 2014, pp. 1–10.
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Northcutt, Wayne. “José Bové vs. McDonald’s: The Making of a National Hero in the French Anti-Globalization Movement.” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History, vol. 31, 2003, pp. 326-345.