the founding fathers
Carl N. Karcher is one of the fast food industry's pioneers. His career extends from the industry's modest origins to its current hamburger hegemony. His life seems at once to be a tale by Horatio Alger, a fulfillment of the American dream, and a warning about unintended consequences. It is a fast food parable about how the industry started and where it can lead. At the heart of the story is southern California, whose cities became prototypes for the rest of the nation, whose love of the automobile changed what America looks like and what Americans eat.
Carl was born in 1917 on a farm near Upper Sandusky, Ohio. His father was a sharecropper who moved the family to new land every few years. The Karchers were German-American, industrious, and devoutly Catholic. Carl had six brothers and a sister. "The harder you work," their father always told them,, "the luckier you become." Carl dropped out of school after the eighth grade and worked twelve to fourteen hours a day on the farm, harvesting with a team of horses, baling hay, milking and feeding the cows. In 1937, Ben Karcher, one of Carl's uncles, offered him a job in Anaheim, California. After thinking long and hard and consulting with his parents, Carl decided to go west. He was twenty years old and six-foot-four, a big strong farm boy. He had never set foot outside of northern Ohio. The decision to leave home felt momentous, and the drive to California took a week. When he arrived in Anaheim -- and saw the palm trees and orange groves, and smelled the citrus in the air -- Carl said to himself, "This is heaven."
Anaheim was a small town in those days, surrounded by ranches and farms. It was located in the heart of southern California's citrus belt, an area that produced almost all of the state's oranges, lemons, and tangerines. Orange County and neighboring Los Angeles County were the leading agricultural counties in the United States, growing fruits, nuts, vegetables, and flowers on land that only a generation earlier had been a desert covered in sagebrush and cactus. Massive irrigation projects, built with public money to improve private land, brought water from hundreds of miles away. The Anaheim area alone boasted about 70,000 acres of Valencia oranges, as well as lemon groves and walnut groves. Small ranches and dairy farms dotted the land, and sunflowers lined the back roads. Anaheim had been settled in the late nineteenth century by German immigrants hoping to create a local wine industry and by a group of Polish expatriates trying to establish a back-to-the-land artistic community. The wineries flourished for three decades; the art colony collapsed within a few months. After World War 1, the heavily German character of Anaheim gave way to the influence of newer arrivals from the Midwest, who tended to be Protestant and conservative and evangelical about their faith. Reverend Leon L. Myers -- pastor of the Anaheim Christian Church and founder of the local Men's Bible Club -- turned the Ku Klux Klan into one of the most powerful organizations in town. During the early 1920s, the Klan ran Anaheims leading daily newspaper, controlled the city government for a year, and posted signs on the outskirts of the city greeting newcomers with the acronym "KIGY" (Klansmen I Greet You).
Carl's uncle Ben owned Karcher's Feed and Seed Store, right in the middle of downtown Anaheim. Carl worked there seventy-six hours a week, selling goods to local farmers for their chickens, cattle, and hogs. During Sunday services at St. Boniface Catholic Church, Carl spotted an attractive young woman named Margaret Heinz sitting in a nearby pew. He later asked her out for ice cream, and the two began dating. Carl became a frequent visitor to the Heinz farm on North Palm Street. It had ten acres of orange trees and a Spanish-style house where Margaret, her parents, her seven brothers, and her seven sisters lived. The place seemed magical. In the social hierarchy of California's farmers, orange growers stood at the very top; their homes were set amid fragrant evergreen trees that produced a lucrative income. As a young boy in Ohio, Carl had been thrilled on Christmas mornings to receive a single orange as a gift from Santa. Now oranges seemed to be everywhere.
Margaret worked as a secretary at a law firm downtown. From her office window on the fourth floor, she could watch Carl grinding feed outside his uncle's store. After briefly returning to Ohio, Carl went to work for the Armstrong Bakery in Los Angeles. The job soon paid $24 a week, $6 more than he'd earned at the feed store -- and enough to start a family. Carl and Margaret were married in 1939 and had their first child within a year.
Carl drove a truck for the bakery, delivering bread to restaurants and markets in west L.A. He was amazed by the number of hot dog stands that were opening and by the number of buns they went through every week. When Carl heard that a hot dog cart was for sale -- on Florence Avenue across from the Goodyear factory -- he decided to buy it. Margaret strongly opposed the idea, wondering where he'd find the money. He borrowed $311 from the Bank of America, using his car as collateral for the loan, and persuaded his wife to give him $15 in cash from her purse. "I'm in business for myself now," Carl thought, after buying the cart, "I'm on my way." He kept his job at the bakery and hired two young men to work the cart during the hours he was delivering bread. They sold hot dogs, chili dogs, and tamales for a dime each, soda for a nickel. Five months after Carl bought the cart, the United States entered World War II, and the Goodyear plant became very busy.
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
- Genres: Nonfiction
- paperback: 383 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0060938455
- ISBN-13: 9780060938451