The Innovations That Launched a Hamburger Empire

Stop by your local movie theater sometime in the next few weeks and you may have the chance to catch a rare cinematic glimpse into the history of the foodservice industry. The Founder, released on Jan. 20, stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a discouraged salesman struggling to find buyers for his Multimixer milkshake machine. A surprise order for eight of his mixers lures him to California where he meets the McDonald brothers, whose burgers-and-fries concept is an example of service efficiency that Kroc, and indeed most of the rest of the world, had never seen the likes of before.

The audience watches, sometimes aghast, as Kroc’s ambition conflicts squarely with the human ideals of fairness and empathy as he executes his ambitious plans to pepper the United States with McDonald’s franchises. The Multimixers we see Kroc tote from restaurant to restaurant early in the film quickly serve their purpose as catalyst to the story and fade from viewers’ minds as the drama heats up, but the company that produced the machine, Prince Castle, had established deep roots in the industry well before Kroc called on the McDonald brothers.

Ice Cream Kingdom

Nearly thirty years before Kroc took his historic trip west to meet the McDonalds, Earl Prince and Walter Fredenhagen laid the foundation to their own fast food empire. The pair teamed up to sell ice cream at Prince Ice Cream Castle in DeKalb, Ill., selling ice cream that was made at Fredenhagen’s nearby ice cream factory. In 1930, Fredenhagen sold his ice cream company and helped Prince begin expanding his shops into a network that would include dozens of locations at its peak. Subsequent locations would open under the moniker “Prince Ice Cream Castles,” while later locations would be dubbed Prince Castle Hamburgers & Ice Cream and Cock Robin.

Prince Castle’s signature creation was an extra-thick malted milkshake, marketed as a “One-In-A-Million” malt, made with a generous portion of ice cream and just a splash of milk. The commercial mixers available at the time had trouble handling the thick shakes in the volumes the shops needed to turn out, so Prince and Fredenhagen invented their own milkshake mixer with a powerful motor that could mix up to five drinks at a time. They named their invention the Multimixer.

Another of Prince and Fredenhagen’s innovations was to mix milkshakes directly in the paper cups they were served in, cutting out the step of transferring each shake from a steel container. A salesman with the Lily-Tulip Cup Co. who called on Prince Castle saw the Multimixer’s potential and convinced the owners to give him the right to sell the machine to other foodservice operators. That salesman was Ray Kroc, who established the “Prince Castle Sales Company” to distribute the Multimixer nationwide.

Kroc’s career as a Multimixer salesman lasted for 17 years. He sold his products to booming drug store soda fountains and fledgling quick-serve chains across the country. Multimixer sales began to sag as the conclusion of World War II pulled droves of young families into the suburbs and away from the corner drugstores that were fundamental to Kroc’s business. The pressure from competitors’ cheaper machines also took a toll on his bottom line.

Kroc sold his remaining interest in Prince Castle Sales Company shortly after becoming involved with McDonald’s in 1955. Prince and Fredenhagen soon realized that they had lost control over their concept’s original name and began the process of renaming all Prince Castle Ice Cream Shops to Cock Robin. In the meantime, Prince Castle Sales developed into an important equipment supplier to the foodservice industry that manufactured some of the most important tools and equipment in McDonald’s stores.

French Fry Scoop

Several years after Kroc paid the McDonald brothers nearly 3 million dollars for full control of the McDonald’s brand, his company, McDonald’s System, Inc., filed a patent for a “means of filling containers.” One of a handful of inventions patented by the company in the 1960s, this simple but brilliant device would be recognized by just about anyone who has peered behind the counter or worked a fast food restaurant as a “french fry scoop.”

This indispensable device is designed to scoop a load of fries from a disorganized heap, line them up neatly, and guide them into the opening of a french fry bag. This method is quicker and easier than filling a fry bag using tongs, a process described accurately in the original patent.

“The use of tongs for filling containers is also awkward. Particularly is that so when line-bottom bags having openable mouths are used. In using tongs it is also difficult to dispense generally uniform predetermined quantities of segments such as elongated frenchfried potatoes without weighing each filled container.”

Prince Castle was the first company to mass produce the fry scoop. The tool has become such an icon of the fast food industry that there’s an original Prince Castle version in the Work and Industry: Occupations collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The fry scoop’s original patent illustration shows a right-handed scoop. Nowadays, the ambidextrous scoop with a handle on each side is also common. The french fry scoop is now made by a number of vendors, and many operators have come to prefer an all-plastic version, but the overall design of the tool remains virtually unchanged from the tool described in the original patent. The metal french fry scoop is still one of Prince Castle’s bestsellers.

Bun Toaster

Watch The Founder and you’ll see that a toasted bun was a primary component of a hamburger well before Kroc stepped into the picture. At some point since then, the preferred method of caramelizing that bun on a hot griddle alongside the hamburger patties gave way to using a specialized bun toaster that removes the time variable that could cause the bun to be under- or over-toasted.

Early bun toasters were complex machines that used an intricate series of gears and chains to pull buns across a succession of heating elements. Not only were those units expensive to procure and service, they also required an inordinate amount of counter space. A patent filed in 1968 and assigned to McDonald’s System Inc. makes improvements to that equipment in leaps and bounds.

The brilliance of the 1968 design is that it takes buns from the top and down a vertical path through the toaster, depositing toasted buns at the bottom. This design requires less counter space than the earlier horizontal toasters. The toaster is also easy to open and clean, an important feature in an industry where cleanliness is a top priority.

Anyone familiar with the modern version of the equipment will recognize at a glance how the machine described in 1968 patent is practically identical in form to the current Prince Castle vertical contact toaster, although the company holds several more recent patents related to the inner workings of the equipment.

The work of these bun toasters made news in 2015 when McDonald’s announced its turnaround plan to win back customer loyalty would include a 5-second extension to the bun-toasting procedure, along with a plan to increase the sear time on burger patties. That step is intended to raise the temperature of the bun by an additional 15 degrees to hopefully make the product more appetizing to diners.

What became of the Multimixer?

Although Prince Castle no longer markets the Multimixer, you can still purchase a unit from Sterling Multi Products, the Prophetstown, Ill., factory that has always made the machine. The company manufactures a smaller, three-spindle version, but the five-spindle model #9B5 remains aesthetically unchanged from the product that led Kroc to the McDonalds’ doorstep in 1955.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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