Fast Food

views updated Jun 08 2018

Fast Food

Even more than hotdogs and apple pie, the hamburgers and french fries found at ubiquitous fast food restaurants represent America's quintessential food and, in many ways, America's quintessential culture.

The rise of the fast food restaurant would not have been possible without concomitant changes in American culture. Beginning in the 1920s, thanks in large part to developments in technology and industry, the American lifestyle began to change. Formerly distinctive regional and ethnic cultures were now meeting up with each other, blurring differences in identity. More people were moving off the farm and into the city in search of lucrative and exciting careers. In addition, the widespread use of inventions like the telephone and the increasing acceptance of mass media meant that there was a larger degree of cultural interaction.

The development of an affordable automobile and the simultaneous governmental support of new road systems physically reinforced this cultural melding, enabling car owners, especially, to go to places they had never been before. This sparked a boom in the tourist industry: travelers who once went by rail, boat, or horse, were now moving faster by car, and began to value things such as speed and convenience as part of their trips. Not only did they need affordable and reliable places to stay, but they also needed similarly reliable places to eat.

While local diners and eateries offered good, wholesome home-cooked meals, they were often located far away from main thoroughfares, making them inconvenient for the interstate traveler. Travelers, however, were not the only ones eating on the run; private dining, once a formal ritual among family members and close friends, was becoming a thing of the past, and eating in public was becoming much more acceptable for everyone. The increased pace of life, especially in urban areas, meant that people no longer ate as a group around the table, but favored sandwiches and other foods that could be eaten quickly and on the go. Food carts had been familiar urban sites since the late 1800s, eventually evolving into more permanent "short order" joints and diners. Cafeterias like Horn and Hardart in Philadelphia featured Automat systems in the early 1900s that allowed people to extract foods such as pies, sandwiches, and entrees from vending machines for a penny or nickel. Food was becoming merely a fuel, like gasoline, for the human working machines.

The need for fast, reliable, affordable, and convenient food, along with an increasing acceptance among Americans of a more homogenous culture, led to the rise of the fast food industry, and in particular, of the hamburger's and french fries it served. Purveyors of fast food sprang up in both urban areas and along the nation's highways. During the 1920s, the hamburger experienced a complete change of identity that attested to Americans' collective willingness to accept the new culture of food service. At the beginning of the decade the humble meat patty, served between layers of bun and often garnished with onions, ketchup, and mustard, was considered a lowly, working-class food held largely in disrepute. At this time, most hamburger stands were located close to factories and in working-class neighborhoods. By the end of the decade, however, the hamburger had come into its own, gaining widespread popularity and being considered a staple food, as evidenced by the overwhelming success of the "hamburger stand." The cartoon Popeye even featured a character, Wimpy, who gorged himself on nothing but hamburgers.

The most successful of these stands quickly multiplied, taking advantage of the growing popularity of this new "fast" food and applied industrial principles of standardization to its development. White Castle, founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921 by Billy Ingram and Walt Anderson, is considered the first fast food restaurant. Anderson had originally been a fry cook who perfected one version of the hamburger—square with small holes for better cooking, topped with fried onions and placed on a bun of soft white bread. Ingram recognized the potential of this relatively simple food, devised a limited menu around it, and standardized its production so that the White Castle hamburger could be found in many different cities, but would be uniform. While White Castle was never the largest of the fast food chains, it was the first and most influential, beginning the franchise system that inspired many imitations, including White Tower, White Clock, Royal Castle, and White Palace.

The methods and success of White Castle outlets had many implications for business and culture. They sold their five-cent burgers "by the sack," and encouraged carry-out for those customers on the go. They also developed standard floor plans and architectural designs that could be easily duplicated wherever a new White Castle was to be erected. They standardized the operations of the cooks so that even human workers behaved like machine mechanisms. All of these things were implemented in order to produce a uniform product and to divest the hamburger of its formerly negative reputation as a working-class foodstuff made of dubious ingredients. In order to implement these ideas, White Castle even adopted a system of vertical integration: the company produced the white porcelain and steel panels used for its buildings, owned the bakeries that made its buns, and even started a company to make the disposable paper hats and aprons worn by its employees.

White Castle hamburgers were so tasty, affordable, and increasingly ubiquitous that there was a marked increase in beef production in addition to the mass consumption of hamburgers. As historian David Hogan has remarked, "White Castle advanced food production and distribution to the volume demanded by the expanding population, and it gave an American democracy an accessible, egalitarian, and standardized style of eating. It also supplied America with a distinctive ethnic symbol: people the world over now readily identify fast-food hamburgers as the food of Americans." By the end of the decade, White Castle had brought their burgers and cultural ethos to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago, and finally to the east coast in 1929, inspiring successful imitators wherever they went, and making "White Castle" almost a generic name for hamburgers by the end of the 1920s.

The hamburger fulfilled economic as well as cultural needs. During the Depression, affordable food like that found at the local hamburger stand was a godsend, especially to those who were unemployed; White Castle's hamburgers, for example, cost just five cents each until 1946, when the price doubled due to beef shortages caused by World War II. At the end of 1930, the company had sold over 21 million hamburgers; at the end of 1937, this number had increased to over 40 million.

Even though the first drive-in restaurant, Royce Hailey's Pig Stand in Dallas, Texas, was opened in 1921, it was not until nearly three decades later that the drive-in restaurant enjoyed a degree of success. Drive-ins, another fast food institution, celebrated the cultural importance of the automobile, allowing the car itself to be a dining room of sorts, from which people could order their food and eat it in the open air without having to unbuckle their seatbelts. "Car hops," as they were also called, became familiar congregation centers for teenagers as well.

At the same time, various businessmen, impressed by the enduring success of hamburger stands, especially White Castle, capitalized on these cultural shifts by developing sophisticated franchise operations to run new fast food companies. The franchise was a distinct business strategy that standardized not only the specific product sold, but the very institution that sold it. This form of organization exploited economies of scale and therefore was highly successful; as one entrepreneur remarked, there was "more money to be made selling hamburger stands than hamburgers."

Franchises were not unique to the 1950s; they had been around since the early decades of the twentieth century, patronized by a public increasingly used to and insistent upon the supposed reliability and trustworthiness of branded goods. White Castle was one of the first successful franchises, but was quickly followed by A & W Rootbeer in 1925, and Howard Johnson's, which began operations in 1935. But it took the ideals of postwar culture to wholly support the fast-food franchises and make many of them into companies worth billions of dollars. The idea of the franchise operation itself was attractive, melding otherwise conflicting postwar desires: after the War, the big business economy was a reiteration of American power; that this economy was made up of small businesses simultaneously expressed traditional American values.

McDonald's, the most successful fast food franchise, was started in 1955 by Ray A. Kroc (1902-1984), a Chicago milk shake machine salesman. While Kroc did not invent the hamburger, nor the concept of the hamburger stand, nor even the franchise system, he combined these elements in such an astute way as to make both his name and his company synonymous with fast food. When Kroc sold some of his milk shake equipment to Richard and Maurice McDonald of San Bernardino, California, for their popular hamburger stand, he was so impressed with their operation that he joined them in partnership in 1955. The first McDonald's outlet opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, that same year. By 1960, Kroc had opened 228 of these "golden arches" drive-ins, selling fifteen-cent hamburgers, ten-cent french fries, and twenty-cent milkshakes; in 1961 Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers, name and all. Original McDonald's architecture was red and white tile with a golden arch abutting each end of the building. Criticized as too gaudy, McDonald's moved to a more modest brown brick design with a shingled mansard roof in the mid 1960s, but kept the golden arches, now attached to form an "M," as their widely recognized logo.

Kroc's success lay in his approach not specifically to cooking individual food items, but in conceiving of his franchise operation in its entirety. His outlets were food factories—everything was systematized to ensure sameness, even the smiles on the clerks' faces. Kroc did not promise the best burger in the world, but the same burger throughout the world; indeed, the public came to accept this dictum, preferring predictability over quality. Every McDonald's had the same menu and the same general layout (with minor variations to acknowledge regional differences). The workers, all dressed alike, used the same techniques and equipment to prepare the food in the same way. In addition, Kroc established these as "family" restaurants that were clean, well-lit, and free from pay phones and pin ball machines that would encourage loitering.

McDonald's periodically introduced new products in response to perceived consumer demand and competition from other chains. The Filet-O-Fish entered the menu in 1962 in at attempt to attract Catholic customers on Fridays. The "Chevy of Hamburgers," the Big Mac, appeared in 1967 to directly compete with Burger King's The Whopper. In 1971 McDonald's introduced the Egg McMuffin, and developed an entire breakfast line from it. Chicken McNuggets were added in 1981.

The 1960s through the 1990s was considered the "golden age" of fast food, and saw the explosion of various fast food chains and the subsequent creation of "the strip" in almost every town—the piece of road or highway flanked by franchise after franchise—which became a trademark feature of the suburban landscape. Fast food restaurants along the strip sold not only hamburgers, but also hotdogs, fish, pizza, ice cream, chicken, and roast beef sandwiches. Their brightly colored, neon signs advertised such various businesses as A & W, Arby's, Big Boy, Blimpie, Burger Chef, Burger King, Carrol's, Church's Chicken, Dairy Queen, Domino's Pizza, Hardee's, House of Pizza, Howard Johnson's, Jack in the Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut, Ralley's, Red Barn, Roy Roger's, Royal Castle, Sandy's, Shakey's Pizza, Taco Bell, Taco Time, Taco Tito's, Tastee Freez, Wendy's, White Castle, White Tower, and many others.

McDonald's experienced its stiffest competition in the 1960s from Burger Chef, which was eventually sold to General Foods and absorbed by Hardee's in the early 1970s. Burger King was a more enduring rival. It began in 1954 as a "walk-up" called InstaBurger King, and offered no interior seating. Dave Edgerton and Jim McLamore, its Miami founders, shortened the name to Burger King in 1957. While the business featured hamburgers, similar to McDonald's and White Castle, it set itself apart by offering the "flame-broiled" Whopper—a much larger hamburger (one quarter of a pound compared to the 1.6 ounce McDonald's hamburger)—and instituted an advertising campaign that promised people could "Have It Your Way," by letting customers choose their own toppings.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, also a viable competitor to McDonald's, took a different approach by offering stereotypical southern food—buckets of fried chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and biscuits and gravy. Founded by "Colonel" Harlan Sanders (1890-1980) in 1954, the franchise that made chicken "Finger Lickin' Good" consisted of over 300 outlets by 1963 and was enjoying revenues of over $500,000; by 1966 KFC had a gross income of $15 million.

There were other fast food franchises that bear mentioning. Arby's first appeared in 1964 in Boardman, Ohio, and was the brainchild of Forrest and Leroy Raffel, who tried to attract a more discriminating clientele by offering roast beef sandwiches, using an old west decor, and featuring more expensive menu items. Dairy Queen, started in 1944 by partners Harry Axene and John McCullough of Davenport, Iowa, sold hotdogs and ice cream, and had 2,500 outlets by 1948. Domino's, with delivery-only pizza service, was founded by Tom Monaghan, who opened his first shop in 1960 and turned to franchising in 1967. At the end of 1986, Domino's sold over 189 million pizzas, accruing sales of $2 billion. Hardee's, largely an imitation of Burger King, began in Greenville, North Carolina in 1961, and its outlets numbered over 900 by 1975. Howard Johnson's, named for its founder and known for its bright orange rooftops and homemade ice cream, started out as a set of franchised roadside restaurants in 1935. By 1967 "HoJo's" boasted over 800 restaurants, but was a victim of the "burger wars" in the 1980s, eventually going out of business.

Expanding into "ethnic food," Taco Bell originated in 1962 in San Bernardino, California. Even though it came from the idea of Glen Bell, a telephone repairman, John Martin better merchandised the company beginning in 1983, and was responsible for much of its success. Among other things, Martin omitted all ethnic symbols to counteract the negative associations people made with Mexican restaurants; he even changed the logo from a sleeping Mexican with a sombrero to a pastel-colored bell. Wendy's, specializing in bigger, better, and more expensive hamburgers, introduced the first drive-thru windows at their restaurants, which were so popular that Burger King and McDonald's had to follow suit. Founded in 1972 by R. Dave Thomas in Columbus, Ohio, it had 9 outlets and sales of $1.8 million at the end of that same year.

McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken remained the most successful fast food chains at the end of the twentieth century, edging out most of their competitors during the "burger wars" of the late 1970s and 1980s, a time when large companies bought up fast food franchises and either made them more successful or put them out of business. There were other factors that also led to many franchise downfalls. Beginning in the 1970s, these operations were faced with increasing criticism about everything from employees' working conditions and the nutritional value of the food they served, to the impact the "fast food" mentality was having on the public at large.

Franchise success was almost wholly based on the principles of standardization and a machine ethic. This included the laborers working within, who were treated as parts of the machine meant to run as efficiently as possible. Training was based on the idea that basic skills substituted for high turn-over rates—the guarantee that the food could still be made the same even from unskilled hands. The short order cook of the early diners, who was considered an artisan of sorts, was replaced by teenager working for minimum wage and no benefits.

Nutritionists targeted the composition of the meals themselves, identifying them as laden with too much fat, cholesterol, and sugar, and not enough vegetables. They worried that people eating a steady diet of fast food would go without basic nutriments, and also become too accustomed to unhealthy meals. Historian David Hogan underscored this point by remarking that "Americans consumed 50 percent more chicken and beef in 1976 than they had in 1960, mainly because the fast-food chains usually served only those two meats."

Critics coined the pejorative phrase "fast food culture" as a metaphor for the quick-service industries and excessive standardization seen in late-twentieth-century culture and consumption. This homogenization, they believed, not only affected American culture, erasing once vibrant ethnic and regional traditions, but also was beginning to influence the entire world—a cultural imperialism enacted on an international level.

The major franchises tried to combat these critiques to greater and lesser success. They hired older workers in an attempt to seem beneficent, giving job opportunities to those past retirement age while never addressing the real issue of wages. To counter the protests of nutritionists, they introduced salad bars and "lean" burgers, which were largely ignored by fast food customers. They tried to soften their image in a number of ways, chiefly by marketing themselves as family restaurants.

They also targeted children, creating loyal future consumers as well. Most chains had mascots. McDonald's had Ronald McDonald, a clown who debuted in 1963. (Ronald was so successful that a study conducted in 1973 found that 96 percent of American children recognized him, second only to Santa Claus). Ronald's friends who lived in "McDonaldland" with him included Grimace, the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Captain Crook, and the Professor. McDonald's also built brightly-colored playgrounds at their restaurants beginning in the 1980s. Burger King's mascot was the Magic Burger King. Kentucky Fried Chicken used the colorful Colonel himself as a spokesman long after he had sold the rights to his company. Most fast food franchises also introduced specially packaged children's meals that contained prizes; many were even sites for children's birthday parties. In addition, these franchises openly founded or contributed to charitable organizations. McDonald's established Ronald McDonald houses which provided lodging to parents whose children were getting treatment in nearby hospitals. Both Burger King and Wendy's supported programs for needy children, and Colonel Sanders was an outspoken supporter of the March of Dimes.

By the final decades of the twentieth century, Americans had fully embraced their "fast food culture." In 1994 alone, fast food restaurants in the United States sold over 5 billion hamburgers, making it a favorite meal and an important commodity. In 1996, seven percent of the population ate at the 11,400 McDonald's each day; males from their mid-teens to their early 30s comprised 75 percent of this business. By this time, fast food had become a cultural phenomenon that reached beyond America's borders. In 1996 McDonald's owned over 7,000 restaurants in other countries, including: 1,482 in Japan; 430 in France; 63 in China; two each in Bulgaria and Andorra; and one in Croatia. These outlets acknowledged some cultural differ-ences—in Germany they sold beer, in France they sold wine, and in Saudi Arabia they had separate sections for men and women and closed four times a day for prayers. But for the most part the fast food fare was the same, homogenizing culture on an international level. The overwhelming success of the fast food culture invasion, and of McDonald's in particular, was realized when that chain opened its first store in India in 1996, and sold no hamburgers at all.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Boas, Max, and Steven Chain. Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald's. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1976.

Dicke, Thomas S. Franchising in America: The Development of a Business Method, 1840-1980. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Fishwick, Marshall, editor. Ronald Revisited: The World of Ronald McDonald. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.

Hogan, David. Selling 'em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food. New York, New York University Press, 1997.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kroc, Ray. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1977.

Love, John. McDonald's: Behind the Arches. New York, Bantam Books, 1995.

Luxenberg, Stan. Roadside Empires. New York, Viking, 1895.

McLamore, James W. The Burger King: Jim McLamore and the Building of an Empire. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Monaghan, Tom. Pizza Tiger. New York, Random House, 1986.

Pearce, John. The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast Food Empire. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1982.

Fast Food

views updated May 17 2018


Fast food is an umbrella term, encompassing a broad category of foods, a type of restaurant delivery, and a style of eating. Fast food includes many different types of relatively inexpensive foods, ranging from pizza to hamburgers to ethnic specialties, which are sold and packaged in similar manners. Usually served freshly prepared and hot, fast foods are commonly packaged for off-site, or "to-go," consumption, either in aluminum foil, waxed paper, or a cardboard box. Customers usually purchase fast food across a counter, or through a drive-up window, though table service is occasionally available when seating space is provided for customers. Popularly called "fast food," these foods and delivery formats are known in the restaurant industry as quick-service foods. Hamburgers remain the dominant food product in this quick-service market, but a plethora of other offerings, such as chicken, fish, hot dogs, pasta, burritos, and roast beef, now compete for consumer dollars. The aggregate sales of the fast-food industry in the United States consistently represent an increasingly larger percentage of overall consumer dollars spent on food, reflecting fast food's growing role in American society.

History does not document the precise origins of modern fast food. In ancient cities, food vendors sold prepared wares on the streets to both urban residents and travelers. Though the precise food offerings varied depending on area and time period, such street foods were usually inexpensive and simple, designed for easy and immediate consumption. Immigrants arriving from Europe, Africa, and Asia carried a multitude of different foods to America, including many of these simple street foods. Reserving elaborate and labor-intensive cooking for holidays and celebrations, most of these immigrants groups favored a few simple food items for their daily fare, usually being the common "peasant" or street foods of their homelands. Mexicans still ate beans and tortillas, Italians ate pasta and flat breads, Asians ate rice-based dishes, and Germans ate dark breads and fatty sausages. Daily fare for virtually all immigrant groups was simple, inexpensive, and familiar.

Many of these immigrant favorites became the "fast foods" of the early twentieth century. Pushcart vendors sold ethnic fare such as meatballs, sausage, or stew at factory gates, catering to the needs and tastes of hungry workers. These pushcart food items proved to be popular among the male immigrant factory workers, but they never gained a popular mainstream following.

Appearing at the beginning of the twentieth century, urban diners were a transitional link between pushcart food vendors and our modern era of fast food. Diners were small neighborhood restaurants, usually offering very limited seating, and an equally limited menu, featuring items cooked and served on a "short-order" basis. Catering to primarily working-class customers, urban diners became popular by offering hearty fried meals for an inexpensive price. In addition to being known for their good food, diners were also distinctive in that they were often fabricated from old rail- or streetcars. In addition to diners, hot-dog stands became popular in New York in the 1890s, beginning in resort areas and later spreading throughout the city and beyond. Though the hot dog would consistently remain behind the hamburger in fast-food popularity, it became a mainstay of baseball parks, street cart vendors, and outdoor picnics throughout the twentieth century.

Modern Fast Food

Modern fast food began in the early 1900s with the introduction and effective marketing of the recognizable hamburger sandwich. Prior to the twentieth century, ground meat was not mainstream fare in America, usually served only in the form of meatballs wrapped in bread by food vendors at county fairs and other summer festivals. Conflicting regional stories exist as to who exactly invented the hamburger sandwich, but its most verifiable originator was Wichita fry cook Walt Anderson, who began selling a flattened ground-beef patty on a bun in 1916. His hamburger sandwiches proved popular among hungry customers, quickly allowing Anderson to open additional hamburger stands. Partnering with Edgar "Billy" Ingram in 1921, he formed the White Castle System of Eating Houses, a restaurant chain that became the prototype for modern fast-food companies. Over the next decade, Anderson and Ingram's White Castle System spread from Wichita to most of the major cities in the midwest and on the east coast. Different from earlier short-order restaurants, White Castle offered a very streamlined menu, with only hamburgers, Coca-Cola, coffee, and pie. Throughout the company there was a standardized architecture for all its buildings, uniform food-quality rules and preparation methods, and strict guidelines for employee performance and hygiene. White Castle stressed high-quality ingredients, permanence, and meticulous cleanliness, deliberately attempting to overcome commonly held negative views about ground meat and transient, unsanitary food vendors. Anderson and Ingram encouraged customers to buy their burgers in large quantities, "by the sack," on a carry-out "to-go" basis. They were successful wherever they opened new restaurants, frequently with customers lined up for blocks waiting to buy their burgers. Other entrepreneurs observed this overnight success and rapid growth across the northeast and immediately opened their own hamburger restaurants, often closely copying White Castle's architecture, name, products, and marketing campaigns. Cities throughout the United States quickly became saturated with new hamburger chains, soon making the hamburger sandwich America's single most-consumed food. In fact, by 1930, the president of the American Restaurant Association proudly proclaimed that apple pie and the hamburger were the two truly "American foods."

Continued popularity for the hamburger during the 1930s guaranteed that it was not just a passing fad. Despite the economic hardships of the Great Depression, and the closings of countless businesses, the fast-food hamburger industry continued to grow. Most chains sold their burgers for five cents, making them still affordable for all but the most destitute. The 1930s was also an era of innovations in the fast-food industry, introducing new products and delivery strategies. On the West Coast, Bob Wian's Big Boy Restaurants featured a multilayered, two-patty hamburger sandwich, while the midwest Kewpee Hamburger chain constructed special windows in the sides of their restaurants, designed to serve food to motorists driving by in their cars. Men remained the mainstay of fast-food restaurant labor, but some companies began hiring young women as "car-hop" waitresses. Customers seemed to appreciate these innovations, buying an ever-increasing number of hamburgers each year throughout the decade.

This growth in the fast-food industry abruptly halted with the beginning of World War II. Extreme labor shortages and food rationing devastated all types of restaurants, and hamburger chains were especially hard hit by worker and meat scarcity. Major chains, with hundreds of outlets, either shrank to a fraction of their former size or closed down entirely. The federal government diverted large amounts of needed sugar, beef, pork, and coffee to the U.S. troops overseas, leaving consumers limited, and often only rationed access to these items. With millions of men off serving in the military, hamburger companies reluctantly hired women in their remaining restaurants, but after doing so, they quickly realized that these female replacements proved to be far superior workers. By 1945, company closures caused by supply and labor problems had temporarily crippled the restaurant industry, but also created a void to be filled by new chains in the postwar years.

The American economy regained a more normal peacetime footing within a few years after the war. Sporadic food shortages remained common, largely due to the United States needing to supply starving, war-torn nations around the world. Several of the surviving, but cash-strapped leading prewar fast-food chains remained in their original urban neighborhoods, either failing to see the profit potential in the growing suburban market, or simply lacking the necessary capital to expand their operations. In fact, all types of restaurateurs were slow to enter the suburban marketplace, possibly wary about consumer buying patterns in these new and untested communities

Fast Food in the Suburbs

By the mid-1950s, new restaurants chains began directing their marketing efforts at the burgeoning suburban areas. The McDonald's hamburger chain led the expansion into these new bedroom communities, opening hundreds of restaurants across the United States. Offering a streamlined menu of hamburgers, French fries, soda, and milk shakes, this California-based chain became an overnight success and soon was the benchmark for fast-food chains everywhere. All McDonald's restaurants served their burgers in an unerringly identical fashion; a 1.6-ounce meat patty between a soft bun, topped with catsup, mustard, onions, and a pickle. Suburban customers seemed especially attracted to this safe level of predictability: their meals were the same each time, and the same as everyone else's. Avoiding urban areas, McDonald's exclusively targeted suburbia, building their walkup stands near busy intersections and shopping areas. Though convenient for motorists, these locations were often inaccessible to pedestrians.

Brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald founded the company in 1939, in San Bernardino, California, but salesman Ray Kroc directed its rapid growth in the 1950s. Kroc devised a plan to aggressively expand with very little capital investment. Rather than building company-owned stands, Kroc sold strictly controlled franchises to local investors. By purchasing a franchise, franchisees bought use of the trademarked McDonald's company name, license for its distinctive sloped-roofed architecture and "golden arches," food item preparation methods, and national advertising support. Kroc's successful sale of franchises enabled his chain to grow to over 1,000 units by the end of the decade, making it the largest restaurant company in the country. Suburbanites fueled this successful growth by responding to McDonald's with enthusiasm, turning virtually every new franchise into an overnight financial success.

Closely following McDonald's into the suburban marketplace was Miami-based Insta-Burger King. Founded in 1954 by Jim McLamore and David Edgerton, Insta-Burger King spread throughout Florida, then to larger southeastern cities. Shortening his company name to Burger King, McLamore sought to have a restaurant in every town in the United States by the close of the 1950s. Falling short of that goal, he succeeded in franchising over 700 units, building a chain second only to Kroc's. Direct competition between McDonald's and Burger King became fierce in many areas, with each company often building restaurants either next door or across the street from the other. Both stressed low-priced hamburgers and efficient customer service in their advertisements. McLamore made his Burger King products distinctive by "flame broiling" hamburgers to customer order, instead of McDonald's more usual method of frying. Despite McLamore's claim of better quality, suburban consumers seemed to prefer McDonald's simple and standardized fare.

The fast growth and financial success of both Burger King and McDonald's encouraged even more national competition in the fast-food hamburger market. Soon a multitude of other fast-food restaurants appeared in suburban shopping areas, vying for consumer dollars. Most new chains were regional in scope, but some became national contenders. The Burger Chef chain appeared in the late 1950s and quickly saturated the eastern half of the country with franchises by the early 1960s. Burger Chef never achieved the level of national following enjoyed by McDonald's and Burger King, even though it did license over 1,000 active franchises by 1968. Even Wendy's, a popular Columbus, Ohio–based chain begun in 1969 by entrepreneur Dave Thomas, never ventured past a third-place standing. New fast-food chains featuring other food items, such as chicken, tacos, and pizza, however, posed the greatest threat to the two fast-food giants in the late 1960s.

By the end of that decade, McDonald's and Burger King competed for customers with newcomers Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Arby's. Many fast-food consumers preferred these alternative meals, and the market continued to diversify, welcoming other new chains, such as Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, and Roy Rogers. In addition to this increased variety of food offerings, a plethora of regional hamburger chains expanded quickly in the late-1960s, further saturating the fast-food industry. By the early 1970s, however, the bubble of franchise chain expansion finally burst, resulting in the demise of the smaller fast-food chains, and a further consolidation of market share by McDonald's, Burger King, and, soon after, Wendy's. This power distribution in the fast-food industry remained constant for the remainder of the twentieth century. Several new chains appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, and several others closed down, but the industry leaders remained firmly entrenched.

The growth of the fast-food industry, especially since World War II, reflects many drastic changes in American society. As mentioned earlier, the modern fast-food industry grew up in the midst of new suburban communities. Many of these new suburbanites had grown up in urban ethnic enclaves, maintaining strong ties to their countries of origin. Once in the suburbs, a prevailing norm of conformity encouraged many to shed or downplay their ethnic identities. Portraying themselves as purely American and demonstrating economic prosperity through purchasing consumer goods became a strong focus in their lives. Fast food became these new suburbanites' culinary "common ground," allowing everyone to dine together on what they perceived to be a genuinely American food. In a sense, eating fast-food hamburgers at these new franchised chain restaurants became a rite of acceptance into nonethnic suburbia.

The success of fast food also reflects a change in American lifestyles. Though originally marketed to a walking-city customer base, fast food became inexorably linked to the automobile soon after World War II. As cars proliferated to the point of several per family, American society became increasingly automobile dependent. This enhanced transportation resulted in greater time expectations, with people cramming increasingly more activities into each day. By the 1960s, many women had entered the full-time workforce, reducing the amount of time that traditional homemakers spent preparing daily meals. Rather than cooking meals and consuming them together, many families on increasingly tight schedules opted to purchase quickly available prepared fast foods. As leisure time became scarce, fast food became more convenient to the eating habits of the average American. In fact, fast food restaurants even became the central focus of leisure time, often the congregating spots for senior citizens in the morning and groups of teenagers later in the day.

Criticism of Fast Food

While fast food, and especially the fast-food hamburger, has become a staple of the modern American diet, may critics charge that it causes a variety of public health problems, different environmental concerns, and an excessive homogenization of both American culture and other societies throughout the world. Many medical researchers contend that fast food typically gives consumers excessive fat and little nutritional value, leading to numerous obesity-related health problems. Recent national outbreaks of E. coli contamination and other serious pathogens have led to public scrutiny of meat purity. Still other research questions issues such as steroid and antibiotic use in cattle production, and its potentially deleterious effects on human health. Though fast food is part of the mainstream, eaten by millions of Americans each day, health-care professionals almost uniformly condemn its regular consumption as an unsafe dietary practice.

Second to the health-related criticisms have been the environment concerns, especially about harmful packaging and the destruction of rain forests to produce lower-cost beef. A controversy ensued in the 1980s, when environmental groups condemned the fast-food industry for its use of excessive and nonbiodegradable packaging. Chains found the petroleum-based plastic and Styrofoam packaging to be advantageous because they better retained heat and cold and were significantly more moisture resistant. Environmentalists contended that the same qualities that made these substances moisture resistance also made them virtually impossible to decay in garbage landfills. Under growing public pressure, several of the leading chains attempted to appease critics by recycling used packaging into other plastic products, but eventually they returned to using primarily paper and cardboard containers.

Perhaps the most abstract criticism of fast food is a testament to its rampant popularity. Social critics condemn the saturation of fast food in American society and its spread throughout the world as a breakdown in cultural and culinary diversity, and to a greater extent the imposition of generic American consumer culture on developing nations. "McDonaldization" has become a common term for an overwhelming homogenizing force that destroys the unique and wonderful aspects of diverse cultures. Although fast food in itself is not the sole "McDonaldizing" phenomena, nor does it seem to be an orchestrated conspiracy, it is often the most obvious symptom of a spreading American consumer culture. Golden arches appearing on a busy city intersection in the developing world often becomes the scapegoat for a much larger onslaught.

See also: Coffee Houses and Café Society; Diners; Dining Out


Boas, Max. Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald's. New York: Mentor, 1976.

Emerson, Robert. Fast Food: The Endless Shakeout. New York: Lebhar-Friedman Books, 1979.

Jakle, John and Keith Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Mariani, John. America Eats Out. New York: Morrow, 1991.

David Gerard Hogan

Fast Food

views updated May 29 2018


FAST FOOD. What is termed "fast food" in the United States today most commonly consists of hot, freshly prepared, and wrapped food items, served to customers across a counter or through a drive-up window. Known as both "fast food" and "quick-service food" in the restaurant industry, these items are routinely sold and delivered in an amount of time ranging from a few seconds to several minutes; they now vary widely in food type, encompassing virtually all kinds of meats, preparation methods, and ethnic cuisines. Inexpensive hamburgers and french fried potatoes are still the products most readily identified as fast food, but the list of items sold in the format continually increases. Fried fish and shellfish, hot dogs, chicken, pizza, roast beef, and pasta are commonly sold at quick-service outlets. In addition to these staples, many quick-service restaurants sell a broad menu of Americanized Mexican, Greek, and Chinese foods. Some fast-food outlets offer specialty items, such as sushi, clams, or ribs, and others even sell complete "home-cooked" meals over their counters. Though menus and delivery formats vary greatly, fast food's chief common denominators include immediate customer service, packaging "to go," and inexpensive pricing.

The precise origins of fast food are vague, probably predating written history. Hungry people are as old as civilization itself, as are entrepreneurs eager to satisfy their hunger. Food vendors in ancient cities sold prepared items to passersby on the street. The actual foods varied greatly, depending on period and culture, but they generally comprised simple, inexpensive fare sold to people of modest means.

Immigrants brought a variety of food styles to America, often preserving these for decades as a comforting connection with their ethnic past. Though many immigrant foodways were elaborate and ritualistic, most groups had one or two simple items that they consumed on a daily basis. As a rule, immigrant groups preferred their indigenous grains: corn from the Americas, rice from Asia, and wheat from Europe. Often these served as the basis for the "peasant" foods of their homelands. Pasta and flat breads came over with Italians; tortillas, beans, and tamales arrived with northbound Mexicans; and Germans brought dark breads, along with a variety of fatty sausages (which later mutated into the hot dog). Asian immigrants continued to eat rice as the basis of their diet.

In the early twentieth century fast food remained primarily the fare of the masses. Vendors wheeled their pushcarts daily to factory gates, selling their wares to hungry workers. Often catering to the tastes of the particular factory's dominant ethnic group, they charged customers pennies for basic items such as sausages, meatballs, or stew. Though popular among male industrial workers, this pushcart version of fast food never became mainstream cuisine.

The urban diner was the transitional phase between the vendor's pushcart and modern fast food. Most early diners were small restaurants, with limited seating, sometimes constructed out of converted railway carriages or streetcars. They served simple foods to working-class customers on a "short-order" basis, usually cooking each meal individually when ordered. Menus varied, but fried foods were common. Though diners often emphasized speed in delivering food, customers routinely lingered before and after eating.

The hamburger still stands out as the single most important American fast food, though the precise origin of this meat sandwich is the subject of historical disagreement. People have eaten chopped beef throughout the ages, and it was long a fixture in many world cultures. The lineage of the American hamburger seems to point directly, as its name indicates, back to the German city of Hamburg. First appearing on American restaurant menus in the mid-nineteenth century, ground beef patties bore the title "hamburg steak." By the century's close, vendors regularly sold meatballs wrapped in slices of bread at county fairs and summer festivals. Regional legends attribute the invention of this snack to several different individuals, but its true originator remains a mystery.

The Rise of Modern Fast Food

Our modern image of the fast-food restaurant dates back to 1916, when Walt Anderson began selling "hamburger sandwiches" from an outdoor stand on a Wichita street corner. Anderson simply flattened a meatball and placed it between two halves of a bun. His sandwich quickly became popular, attracting long lines of hungry buyers. By 1921, Anderson had joined local insurance broker Edgar "Billy" Ingram to form the White Castle System. After opening several identical restaurants in Wichita during their first year, the partners quickly spread their business to neighboring cities, then to nine major urban areas throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast. What separated the White Castle System from earlier short-order restaurants was its very streamlined menu, comprising only hamburgers, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pie; a uniform architectural style; and strict standardization of food quality, preparation methods, and employee performance. By the close of the 1920s, White Castle's aggressive marketing and rapid spread had made the hamburger one of the most popular foods in America.

Other entrepreneurs soon noticed White Castle's success in the hamburger business. Very closely copying White Castle's products, architecture, and company name, competing new chains also thrived, carrying the hamburger craze across the nation to smaller cities and towns. The White Tower chain appeared in 1925, eventually challenging White Castle's dominance in several northern cities. Krystal's, opened in 1929 in Chattanooga, soon became the hamburger powerhouse of the southeastern states. White Castle's hamburger sandwich, along with its many imitators, became a daily staple for many working-class Americans. It proved so successful, in fact, that by 1930 the president of the American Restaurant Association identified the fast-food hamburger as the most important food item in the nation.

Hamburgers became even more a mainstream food during the 1930s. The larger restaurant chains began marketing their products to middle-class buyers, and even more Americans became burger lovers. Despite the harsh economy of the Great Depression, most fast-food chains continued to thrive, and in many cases grew considerably. Most continued selling the White Castlestyle hamburger, but late in the decade the Big Boy chain spread east from California, introducing its new double-decker hamburger sandwich along the way. By the end of the Depression, America was a solidly hamburger-eating culture.

After prospering in the Depression, however, the fast-food industry suffered a serious setback during World War II. Shortages of necessary foodstuffs, such as meat, sugar, tomatoes, and coffee, meant limited menu offerings and often a significant loss of business. Attempting to continue providing meals to their customers, fast-food restaurants experimented with different items that were still in abundance, including soy patties, chili, and french fried potatoes. Even more damaging than commodity shortages was the very low unemployment rate, which meant that most workers bypassed the restaurant industry in favor of higher-paying work. Adjusting to this labor shortage, chains soon replaced their all-male workforce with women and teenagers, two groups who would become their most common employees. Despite attempts to find palatable alternative foods, and despite the shifts in workforce, much of the fast-food industry was a casualty of the war; by 1945, more than half of America's restaurants had closed down, including several of the major fast-food chains.

Rebuilding the fast-food industry after the war proved a slow process. No single chain emerged to claim dominance, and little innovation occurred. Individual companies struggled to restore their prewar prosperity, and new regional chains tried to gain a foothold. Suffering the effects of escalating costs and still under the threat of continued shortages due to unstable food supplies in war-torn countries, fast-food restaurants often had to double prices to remain in business.

As population shifted from America's cities to suburbia during the 1950s, the fast-food industry quickly followed. Early chains such as White Castle and White Tower, resisting moving to the suburbs, were quickly eclipsed by upstart franchised chains. Burger King and McDonald's outlets became common fixtures at suburban crossroads, selling burgers, fries, and shakes to hungry families. Burger King's Jim McLamore and McDonald's Ray Kroc each sought to build one of his restaurants in every American town, and they opened hundreds of new Burger Kings and McDonald's each year in the 1960s. To accomplish this rapid expansion, they relied heavily on franchise investors, enforced strict product uniformity throughout their chains, and aggressively advertised in every newly opened territory. With McDonald's and Burger King's success, Burger Chef outlets soon appeared nearby. Arby's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell were not far behind. By the late 1960s, fast food no longer meant just hamburger restaurants, but had diversified to include quick-service pizza, roast beef, chicken, and tacos. To give an idea of the dimensions to which the fast-food industry has grown, in 1999 Americans consumed over 26 billion pounds of beef, much of it as hamburgers. In that year McDonald's alone had more than ten thousand restaurants in the United States, from which it grossed in excess of $13 billion in revenue.

Criticism of Fast Food

Despite the widespread popularity of fast food in modern American culture, critics abound. Since the 1930s, articles and books have condemned the industry, exposing allegedly poor sanitary conditions, unhealthy food products, related environmental problems, and unfair working conditions. Whether it warrants the attention or not, the fast-food industry is still regularly cited for exploiting young workers, polluting, and contributing to obesity and other serious health problems among American consumers. American beef consumption, and more specifically the fast-food hamburger industry, is often blamed for the burning of the Amazon rain forests to make way for more grazing lands for beef cattle. Early foes of fast food cited the deplorable filth of many hamburger stands, in addition to claiming that the beef ground for their sandwiches was either spoiled, diseased, or simply of low quality. In fact, many critics maintained that much of the meat used in fast-food hamburgers came from horse carcasses. The high fat content of fast food was also controversial. Despite deceptive industry claims about the high quality and the health benefits of their products, in the 1920s and 1930s concerned nutritionists warned the public about the medical dangers of regular burger consumption. This distrust and criticism of fast food continue today, extending even further to include dire warnings about the industry's use of genetically modified and antibiotic-laden beef products. Most major chains have responded to recent attacks by prominently posting calorie and nutritional charts in their restaurants, advertising fresh ingredients, and offering alternatives to their fried foods. Despite a few more health-conscious items on the menu, fast-food chains now aggressively advertise the concept that bigger is better, offering large "super-size" or "biggie" portions of french fries, soft drinks, and milkshakes. Critics point to this marketing emphasis as a reason for an excessive and greatly increasing per-capita caloric intake among fast-food consumers, resulting in fast-growing rates of obesity in the United States.

Increased litter is another problem that critics have blamed on the fast-food industry. Selling their products in paper wrappings and paper bags, early outlets created a source of litter that had not previously existed. Wrappers strewn about city streets, especially those close to fast-food restaurants, brought harsh criticism, and often inspired new local ordinances to address the problem. Some municipalities actually forced chains to clean up litter that was imprinted with their logos, but such sanctions were rare. Fast-food wrappers became part of the urban, and later suburban, landscape. Since bags and wrappers were crucial in the delivery of fast food, the industry as a whole continued to use disposable packaging, superficially assuaging public criticism by providing outside trash receptacles for the discarded paper. Years later, environmentalists again attacked the industry for excessive packaging litter, criticizing both the volume and the content of the refuse. By the early 1970s, the harshest criticisms focused more on the synthetic materials used in packaging, and less on the carelessly discarded paper. Critics derided the industry's use of styrofoam sandwich containers and soda cups, claiming that these products were not sufficiently biodegradable and were clogging landfills. Facing mounting opposition from a growing environmental movement, most of the major chains returned to packaging food in paper wrappings or small cardboard boxes.

Labor activists have criticized fast-food chains' tendency to employ inexpensive teenage workers. Usually offering the lowest possible wages, with no health or retirement benefits, these restaurants often find it difficult hiring adults for stressful, fast-paced jobs. Many critics claim that the industry preys on teenagers, who will work for less pay and are less likely to organize. Though these accusations may have merit, the industry's reliance on teenage labor also has inherent liabilities, such as a high employee turnover rate, which result in substantial recruiting and training costs. Companies have countered criticism about their use of teenage workers with the rationale that they offer young people entry-level work experience, teaching them: both skills and responsibility.

Despite the relentless attacks, hundreds of millions of hungry customers eat fast food daily. The media constantly remind American consumers about its supposed evils. Most are conscious of the health risks from fatty, greasy meals; most realize that they are being served by a poorly paid young worker; and if they choose to ponder it, most are aware that the excessive packaging causes millions of tons of trash each year. But they continue to purchase and eat fast food on a regular basis. Fast food remains central to the American diet because it is inexpensive, quick, convenient, and predictable, and because it tastes good. Even more important, Americans eat fast food because it is now a cultural norm. As American culture homogenized and became distinctively "American" in the second half of the twentieth century, fast food, and especially the hamburger, emerged as the primary American ethnic food. Just as the Chinese eat rice and Mexicans eat tamales, Americans eat burgers.

And fast food has grown even beyond being just a distinctive ethnic food. Since the 1960s, the concept has extended far beyond the food itself, with the term becoming a common descriptor for other quick-service operations, even a metaphor for many of the negative aspects of mainstream American life. Theorists and pundits sometimes use the term "fast food" to denigrate American habits, institutions, and values, referring to them as elements of a "fast-food society." In fact, "fast-food" has become a frequently used adjective, implying not only ready availability but also superficiality, mass-produced standardization, lack of authenticity, or just poor quality.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, fast food gained additional economic and cultural significance, becoming a popular American export to nations around the world. Some detractors claim that it is even deliberately used by the United States, as a tool of cultural imperialism. The appearance of a McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on the streets of a foreign city signals to many the demise of indigenous culture, replacing another country's traditional practices and values with American materialism. In fact, the rapid spread of American fast food is probably not an organized conspiracy, rather more the result of aggressive corporate marketing strategies. Consumers in other countries are willing and able to buy fast-food products, so chains are quick to accommodate demand. Thought of around the world as "American food," fast food continues its rapid international growth.

See also Cattle ; Fish and Chips ; Food Politics: United States ; French Fries ; Hamburger ; Meat ; Obesity ; Packaging and Canning ; Potato ; Sandwich ; Slow Food ; Take-Out Food .


Boas, Max, and Steve Chain. Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald's. New York: Dutton, 1976.

Emerson, Robert, L. Fast Food: The Endless Shakeout. New York: Lebhar-Friedman, 1979.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books, 1993. Chapter 11 discusses the origins of the McDonald's empire.

Hogan, David Gerard. Selling 'em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Langdon, Philip. Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants. New York: Knopf, 1986.

McLamore, James, W. The Burger King: Jim McLamore and the Building of an Empire. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Mariani, John. America Eats Out. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Tennyson, Jeffrey. Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger. New York: Hyperion, 1993.

Witzel, Michael Karl. The American Drive-In: History and Folklore of the Drive-In Restaurant in the Car Culture. Osceola, Wisc.: Motorbooks International, 1994.

David Gerard Hogan

Fast Food

views updated May 11 2018

Fast Food

In many ways, fast food seems the perfect companion to Americans' "on the go" lifestyle. Prior to the rise of fast food in the 1920s, most Americans ate together at home most of the time. As the United States became more modernized and industrial, the pace of life sped up, helped in part by the growing use of automobiles. By the 1920s, more Americans were busier going from home to work and to all kinds of leisure activities than they ever were before. This made it harder to find time for home-cooked meals. The fast-food industry slowly emerged to take advantage of, and to promote, this trend.

The first fast-food restaurant is generally considered to be White Castle, founded in 1921 by Billy Ingram and Walt Anderson. They offered cheap hamburgers (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3), sold by the sack, and French fries (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3). As they expanded to more locations, they pioneered the use of standardization, which meant that each of their restaurants looked the same, used the same equipment, and served exactly the same food. Although this approach lacked variety, it lowered their costs and gave people something they wanted: predictability. No matter which White Castle customers stopped at, they could be sure of what to expect. White Castle was a big success, especially during the hard times of the Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) in the 1930s. White Castle burgers cost only five cents, and they stayed at that price until 1946. White Castle also helped pioneer the use of franchising—selling people the right to open their own White Castle restaurant, with the parent company providing the information, equipment, recipes, and support for success.

This formula was so successful that many other imitators sprang up to take advantage of a growing taste for fast food. In the 1950s, fast food really took off as Americans enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and as American culture became even more mobile and fast paced. The most successful fast-food restaurant during that time and afterward was McDonald's (see entry under 1940s—Food and Drink in volume 3), whose first store opened in the late 1940s. Entrepreneur Ray Kroc (1902–1984) joined with the McDonald brothers of San Bernadino, California, to spread the hamburger restaurant across the United States. By 1960, there were more than two hundred McDonald's restaurants. Kroc did not really do anything new with fast food; in fact, he used many of the same techniques pioneered by the White Castle chain. What he did do was take those techniques to a greater level of success than had ever been seen before. The restaurant's signature sign, the "Golden Arches," forming a big yellow "M," has become the symbol for fast food the world over. Over the years McDonald's added new innovations to its menu and restaurants, including Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, Chicken McNuggets, and outdoor playgrounds for kids.

While McDonald's was becoming the leading fast-food restaurant, it was not without competition. Burger King (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3), begun in Miami in 1954, was the closest competitor to McDonald's, offering bigger hamburgers and allowing customers to choose their own toppings. Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) offered southern-style chicken, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. Taco Bell, begun in 1962, brought Mexican-style food to the world of fast food. Arby's, started in 1964, offered higher-quality roast-beef sandwiches. Wendy's, begun in Columbus, Ohio, in 1972 by Dave Thomas (1932–2002), pioneered the use of drive-through windows. Despite their variations in food and style, all these chains stayed close to the original fast food recipe for success: cheap, uniform food, served quickly and available almost everywhere.

By the 1990s, these restaurants were almost everywhere, mostly in the United States, but also in other countries, notably Japan. But by the 1990s, it was becoming increasingly clear that fast food was bringing other things to American culture besides quick, cheap hamburgers. Critics complained, with good evidence, that fast food was full of fat, cholesterol, salt, sugar, and other chemicals, contributing to rising levels of obesity and heart disease. Indeed, American consumption of beef was rising, in no small part due to fast food. Fast-food restaurants were also blamed for contributing to suburban sprawl—an ugly mishmash of restaurants and stores lined American roads, each in its own building, contributing to greater dependence on the car. Furthermore, fast food seemed to be part of a larger trend toward uniformity in American life. Regional differences were disappearing as much of America looked the same no matter where you were.

Restaurants are not the only suppliers of fast food in America, of course. The invention of the TV dinner (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3) in 1953 brought fast food to the American home. Since that time, American grocery stores have expanded their offerings of convenience foods to allow consumers to purchase a variety of meals that can be prepared quickly at home, often in microwave ovens. By the twenty-first century, fast food had become one of the principle staples of the American diet, for better and for worse.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Hogan, David. Selling 'em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation ofAmerican Food. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Kroc, Ray. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977.

Luxenberg, Stan. Roadside Empires: How the Chains Franchised America. New York: Viking, 1985.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Food, Fast

views updated Jun 11 2018


FOOD, FAST. Fast food is what one eats in the vast majority of America's restaurants. The term denotes speed in both food preparation and customer service, as well as speed in customer eating habits. The restaurant industry, however, has traditionally preferred the designation "quick service." For hourly wage earners—whether factory hands or store clerks—take-out lunch wagons and sit-down lunch counters appeared at factory gates, streetcar stops, and throughout downtown districts in the late nineteenth century. For travelers, lunch counters also appeared in railroad stations nationwide. Fried food prevailed for its speed of preparation, as did sandwich fare and other fixings that could be held in the hand and rapidly eaten, quite literally, "on the run." Novelty foods, such as hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, came to dominate, first popularized at various world's fairs and at the nation's resorts. Soft drinks and ice cream desserts also became a mainstay. Thus, "fast food" also came to imply diets high in fat and caloric intake. By the end of the twentieth century, the typical American consumed some three hamburgers and four orders of french fries a week. Roughly a quarter of all Americans bought fast food every day.

The rise of automobile ownership in the United States brought profound change to the restaurant industry, with fast food being offered in a variety of "drive-in" restaurant formats. Mom-and-pop enterprise was harnessed, largely through franchising, in the building of regional and national restaurant chains: Howard Johnson's, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Tico. Place-product-packaging was brought forcefully to the fore; each restaurant in a chain variously shares the same logo, color scheme, architectural design motif, and point-of-purchase advertising, all configured in attention-getting, signlike buildings. Typically, fast food restaurants were located at the "roadside," complete with driveways, parking lots, and, later, drive-through windows for those who preferred to eat elsewhere, including those who ate in their cars as "dashboard diners." Critical to industry success was the development of paper and plastic containers that kept food hot and facilitated "carry-out." Such packaging, because of the volume of largely nonbiodegradable waste it creates, has become a substantial environmental problem.

In 2000, McDonalds—the largest quick-service chain—operated at some 13,755 locations in the United States and Canada. The company's distinctive "golden arches" have spread worldwide, well beyond North America. Abroad, fast food came to stand as an important symbol of American cultural, if not economic, prowess. And, just as it did at home, fast food became, as well, a clear icon of modernity. Historically, fast food merchandising contributed substantially to the quickening pace of American life through standardization. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it fully embraced mass production and mass marketing techniques, reduced to the scale of a restaurant. Chains of restaurants, in turn, became fully rationalized within standardized purchasing, marketing, and management systems. Such a system depends on a pool of cheap, largely unskilled labor, the quick service restaurant industry being notorious for its low wages and, accordingly, its rapid turnover of personnel.


Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Pillsbury, Richard. No Foreign Food: The American Diet and Place. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

John A.Jakle

Convenience Foods

views updated May 18 2018

Convenience Foods

Convenience foods are foods that have had preparation steps incorporated into their processing, or have been completely prepared during processing. This decreases preparation steps and time for the consumer. The "convenience" can mean the premixing of the ingredients for a cake or offering a fully prepared frozen meal. The term convenience food is generic and can apply to just about any food, but it is generally used in reference to canned items, instant foods or mixes, frozen foods or meals, and fast foods. Although they can be more costly than home-cooked meals, the trend is toward their increased use throughout the world.

see also Dietary Trends, American; Dietary Trends, International; Fast Foods.

Judith C. Rodriguez


Anderson, J., and Deskins, B. (1995). The Nutrition Bible. New York: William Morrow.

Labensky, S.; Ingram, G. G.; Labensky, S. R. (1997). Webster's New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

fast food

views updated Jun 11 2018

fast food • n. food that can be prepared quickly and easily and is sold in restaurants and snack bars as a quick meal or to be taken out: [as adj.] a fast-food restaurant.

Fast Food

views updated May 18 2018

Fast Food ★ 1989

A supercheap, strangulated attempt at low comedy, wherein an entrepreneurial hamburger peddler invents a secret aphrodisiac sauce. Look for former pornstar Traci Lords. 90m/C VHS, DVD . Clark Brandon, Tracy Griffith, Randal Patrick, Traci Lords, Kevin McCarthy, Michael J. Pollard, Jim Varney; D: Michael A. Simpson; W: Clark Brandon.

convenience foods

views updated May 21 2018

convenience foods Processed foods in which a considerable amount of the preparation has already been carried out by the manufacturer, e.g. cooked meats, canned foods, baked foods, breakfast cereals, frozen meals.

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Convenience foods