'Franchise' Tracks The Rise And Role Of Fast Food In Black America

Jan 25, 2020

Let's talk about fast food — and I bet you have a jingle in your head right now, because according to a new book, on any given day in America, an estimated one third of all American adults is eating something at a fast food restaurant.

But fast food doesn't mean the same thing to everyone everywhere. For some, owning a franchise has been a path to wealth, but fast food restaurants are hyper-concentrated in some of the country's lowest-income and most segregated areas. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans are more likely to eat fast food than any other racial group in America — which is why fast food is also seen as the culprit for the high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among black people.

So how did that happen? And is fast food the hero or the villain in black America? In her new book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, history professor Marcia Chatelain traces what she calls the hidden history of the relationships between the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast food industry.

Chatelain says that as a child, she constantly noticed that museums and cultural sites in her home town of Chicago had signs indicating they'd been sponsored by the local black McDonald's operators association. "And so this book really explores the relationship between black America and McDonald's, to help us understand where other parts of our society has failed, McDonald's has unfortunately had to pick up the slack."

McDonald's is a big part of this conversation, and we should mention here that the estate of Joan Kroc — the widow of McDonald's Corporation founder Ray Kroc — is among NPR's financial supporters.


Interview Highlights

On how come McDonald's franchises became so important to black owners

Ray Kroc was not a racial progressive, but what he was was a person who was very much committed to the expansion of McDonald's. And while he initially concentrated on expansion in the suburbs after the uprisings that followed Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, the business community saw an opportunity, because there were deep demands for more commerce. The federal government was underwriting minority business initiatives that supported the growth of franchises. And even more importantly, the civil rights establishment started to pivot towards black capitalism as its priority. And those forces all came together to bring McDonald's to black America.

On the unrest of 1968

Well, 1968 is such a critical moment in the story, because I think we often forget about the impact of economic white flight in the inner city. We often focus on residential white flight and the impact on schools and tax bases. But many people left the inner city because they were afraid of future uprisings and they no longer wanted to deal with the questions of accountability that black consumers were making on them. And so as this exodus was happening, McDonald's saw an opportunity to install African American franchise owners in the abandoned stores. But they also saw the drop in the value of property in these neighborhoods, and their ability to expand at cheaper rates also helped with the expansion of their restaurants in this community.

On the first black McDonald's franchise owner, Herman Petty

I think any time we have communities that have to rely on a business to be the place of refuge, to be the place for wifi, to be the sponsor of youth sports, to be the place where the youth job program happens, for the college scholarships to emanate from, then we have a problem. - Marcia Chatelain

Herman Petty represents, I think, a lot of the men who were early in African-American franchising. There were these men who had opportunities through military, some of them were college educated — but they all had to contend with the roadblock of discriminatory lending practices, so was hard to get bank loans. They wanted to create businesses in their community and see opportunities. And they also trusted black women to be able to execute and really do the hard work in the stores. And so while women had been kind of banished from McDonald's after the McDonald brothers really wanted to focus on mechanization and thought they were flirting and they would be too much of distraction, what Herman Petty understood was that these jobs were ideal places for black women who were trusted in the community and who could deliver on the incredibly demanding needs of a McDonald's franchise.

On whether McDonald's has been a net negative or a net positive in the black community

McDonald's provides us a prism for wondering why does McDonald's have to have such an important role in certain communities, and in others it can just be a place to eat? I think that for African Americans who chose franchising as the path forward, it's very easy for us to belittle them. But we know how this story ended, of the 1960s and the 1970s. I think what McDonald's has provided is an opportunity for some, at the expense of far too many ... not just the health effects; I think any time we have communities that have to rely on a business to be the place of refuge, to be the place for wifi, to be the sponsor of youth sports, to be the place where the youth job program happens, for the college scholarships to emanate from, then we have a problem.

This story was produced for radio by Janaya Williams and Tinbete Ermyas, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk about fast food now. And admit it - I bet you have a jingle in your head right now. Because according to a new book, on any given day in America, an estimated one-third of all American adults is eating something at a fast-food restaurant.

But fast food doesn't mean the same thing to everyone everywhere. For some, owning a franchise has been a path to wealth. But fast-food restaurants are hyper-concentrated in some of the country's lowest-income and most segregated areas. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans are more likely to eat fast food than any other racial group, which is why fast food is also seen as the culprit for high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among black people.

So how did that happen? And is fast food hero or villain in black America? In her new book, "Franchise: The Golden Arches In Black America," historian Marcia Chatelain traces what she calls the hidden history of the relationship between the struggle for civil rights and the expansion of the fast-food industry. And Marcia Chatelain is with us now. She's a professor of history in African American studies at Georgetown University, and she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MARCIA CHATELAIN: Thank you for asking me.

MARTIN: You know, it's just so interesting that you chose McDonald's because McDonald's really is everywhere. And, I mean, it's even here because, you know, I think many people know that the estate of Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's Corporation founder Ray Kroc, is among NPR's financial supporters. I mean, her gift was a huge - made a huge difference in the life of this corporation. So, I mean, it is literally everywhere. So I have to ask - you know, why McDonald's? What made you turn your scholarly attention to it?

CHATELAIN: Well, growing up in Chicago, the presence of African American franchise owners was everywhere in my life. And I remember every time I would go to a museum or a cultural site, I would see these signs that said, you know, paid for by the Black McDonald's Operators Association of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana. And I thought to myself, what does it mean for this group of people to have facilitated my first contact with African American history? And what did it mean for so much of black life to be underwritten by franchise owners? And so this book really explores the relationship between black America and McDonald's to help us understand, where other parts of our society has failed, McDonald's has unfortunately had to pick up the slack.

MARTIN: So in a way, it was like hiding in plain sight, right? I mean, you never worked at McDonald's.

CHATELAIN: I didn't, but boy, did I eat it. I have eaten almost, I think, at every McDonald's in black America. I remember all of the ephemera that was created around the Martin Luther King holiday that was paid for by black franchise owners. I remember the Bud Billiken Parade, a huge part of Chicago's back-to-school celebration, and a lot of black franchise owners being at the helm of that event.

MARTIN: So Ray Kroc was not exactly some big racial liberal.

CHATELAIN: No (laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, how did it happen that McDonald's became so important on the franchise side? In fact, the first black-owned franchise was, in fact, in Chicago, right?

CHATELAIN: Absolutely. So Ray Kroc was not a racial progressive, but what he was was a person who was very much committed to the expansion of McDonald's. And while he initially concentrated on expansion in the suburbs, after the uprisings that followed Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, the business community saw an opportunity because there were deep demands for more commerce. The federal government was underwriting minority business initiatives that supported the growth of franchises. And even more importantly, the civil rights establishment started to pivot towards black capitalism as its priority. And those forces all came together to bring McDonald's to black America.

MARTIN: So you tell some very interesting stories about this first black franchise owner, Herman Petty. He was an innovator in his own right. For example, you say - there were so many interesting stories in your book. I mean, we just don't have time to explore them all. But, you know, you pointed out that, for example, the early - some of the early owners didn't want women working in the stores because they thought they were a distraction. And he was one of the first people to bring women back into the stores. But also, he was a military guy, and the kind of the mechanistic work style was very familiar to him, right?

CHATELAIN: Absolutely. Herman Petty represents, I think, a lot of the men who were early in African American franchising. They were these men who had opportunities through military. Some of them were college educated. But they all had to contend with the roadblock of discriminatory lending practices. So it was hard to get bank loans. They wanted to create businesses in their community and see opportunities.

And they also trusted black women to be able to execute and really do the hard work in the stores. And so while women had been kind of banished from McDonald's after the McDonald's brothers really wanted to focus on mechanization and thought they were flirting and they would be too much of a distraction, what Herman Petty understood was that these jobs were ideal places for black women who were trusted in the community and who could deliver on the incredibly demanding needs of a McDonald's franchise.

MARTIN: But you also point out that these stores were hugely profitable.

CHATELAIN: Yes, they were.

MARTIN: I mean, you say in the book that black stores, as they were - were they really called black stores?

CHATELAIN: They called them black stores - different time.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. That black stores, as they were called, on average, grossed 25% more profits than white stores. I would think that these people should have been heroes within the organization, right?

CHATELAIN: Well, I think their value was noted, but being valued doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be respected. And so one of the reasons why African Americans outperformed in this system is that they had a more captive market. They had less competitors. And during the oil embargoes in the 1970s, they had a consumer base that was more likely to walk or use public transportation to go to restaurants, while folks in the suburbs were not going to use precious oil to drive and get a Big Mac.

MARTIN: This is so fascinating. So on the one hand, it's been a symbiotic relationship, right? I mean, these franchises offered opportunities and offered a dignified experience. I mean, one of the things you pointed out - in fact, you open the book with McDonald's in Ferguson, Mo., where people would go when a lot of the other businesses were not open, wouldn't open. And other people have written about the fact that, in some communities, McDonald's is the only place you can sit down and have a meal.

CHATELAIN: Or Wi-Fi.

MARTIN: Or Wi-Fi.

CHATELAIN: Or coffee when you're a senior citizen in the morning.

MARTIN: It's a gathering place for a lot of people. On the other hand, you point out that some of the same kind of racial dynamics that affect all other areas of American life have been present here. So I'm going to ask you, Professor Chatelain.

CHATELAIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Has McDonald's been a net negative or a net positive in the African American community?

CHATELAIN: And I'm going to answer this way. McDonald's provides us a prism for wondering, why does a McDonald's have to have such an important role in certain communities, and in others, it can just be a place to eat? I think that for African Americans who chose franchising as the path forward, it's very easy for us to belittle them. But we know how the story ended of the 1960s and the 1970s. I think what McDonald's has provided is an opportunity for some but at the expense of far too many. And at the end of the day...

MARTIN: And why do you say that, the expense in terms of what, the health effects?

CHATELAIN: Not just the health effects. I think anytime we have communities that have to rely on a business to be the place of refuge, to be the place for Wi-Fi, to be the sponsor of youth sports, to be the place where the youth job program happens for the college scholarships to emanate from, then we have a problem.

MARTIN: How is the current political environment affecting the black franchise owners at McDonald's? Because as we know, there is a lot of interest in the health effects - the negative health effects of eating fast food. And there's been a lot of reporting on this, even in the black community and black-oriented media outlets.

You know, on the other hand, there is still a lot of interest in black capitalism. I mean, you see some other, you know, prominent figures like let's say Jay-Z and Beyonce, you know, the interest in them is equally their business practices as well as their artistic output, right? So how is this current focus affecting black franchise owners, do you know?

CHATELAIN: I think it's really complicated because they're living in an age where there's more competition just in terms of food to eat. I think the category of fast casual has complicated this because often that food is marketed as healthier even if it's not. So that the space is larger. Some of them are contending with the consequences of gentrification in the neighborhoods that they first started in. And so in addition to those issues, we are in another cycle in which black franchise owners are having a lot of problems with McDonald's and feeling that they're being advocated for. So that cycle of tension continues.

But I think that part of the critique of the quality of the food has led the black franchise community to do more health initiatives. So in this very strange way, they are both the problem, but then they're trying to offer the solution with free health screenings or initiatives that promote, you know, making broader choices or eating the healthier items off the menu. But again, it's always a conundrum when you have a corporation, I think, in the position to dictate so many different directions in people's lives.

MARTIN: That is Marcia Chatelain. She is a professor of history in African American studies at Georgetown University. Her latest book, "Franchise: The Golden Arches In Black America," is out now Professor Chatelain, thanks so much for talking to us.

CHATELAIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.