McDonald’s came to Australia in 1971. It was part of a large expansion for the company, and a transformational moment for local cuisine.
The first McDonald’s was a casual restaurant, started in San Bernadino, California, in 1940.
Richard and Maurice McDonald were brothers and aspiring entrepreneurs, and had already tried other businesses, before turning to hospitality.
They had mixed success at first. The first iteration of their restaurant focused on barbeque, and had an extensive menu; overheads were high, and profits marginal.
In 1948, they revamped.
Having realised that hamburgers were their most popular item, they streamlined the menu to concentrate on these. A few different types of burger were offered, alongside potato chips and drinks.
The biggest innovation was in the kitchen.
Modelled on the production line of the Ford Motor Company, and taking inspiration from an early burger chain, White Castle, the brothers conceived the ‘Speedee Service System’ to produce a fresh burger as quickly as possible. This simple idea is the foundation of modern fast food; it improved both food quality, and wait times, while keeping prices down.
In 1954, a milkshake maker salesman, Ray Kroc, visited the McDonald’s restaurant. He was very taken with what he saw.
The brothers had been interested in franchising, and had made a start; six other McDonald’s had opened in the surrounding area. Kroc was more ambitious. He talked his way into a business partnership, and began selling McDonald’s franchises across the country. Kroc’s first franchise opened in Chicago, in 1955.
Initial progress was slow; by 1958, Kroc had sold only 33 more franchises, about ten a year. But he was energetic, and momentum was building. Just a year later, in 1959, 68 new McDonalds opened, and the franchise arm now overshadowed the original business.
Kroc bought the McDonalds out in 1961.
Depending on which version of history you prefer, he was either an unscrupulous shark who pushed the brothers out of their own company, or a hard worker who created a corporation that outstripped their own modest ambitions.
Either way, with the McDonalds brothers gone, Kroc could now give full rein to his ideas. The ‘Golden Arches’ logo was introduced in 1962. Ronald McDonald in 1963. Cheaper ingredients were sourced, to maximise profits.
The company went public in 1965, making Kroc and his new partners extremely wealthy. But all those shareholders demanded return on investment, and the easiest method was via continued expansion.
The first McDonald’s outside of America opened in 1967, in Canada. By the end of the decade, there were 1 000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide, and the corporation was eager for new territories.
Food culture in Australia was slow to get started.
It was originally defined by two things; British colonial settlement, and the country’s thriving agricultural sector. The British settlers brought the crops and farm animals they were familiar with, and this lead to a local diet similar to what they had known at home.
Primarily red meat, and English vegetables. The lack of variety could be a challenge for other new arrivals:
‘No other country on earth offers more of everything needed to make a good meal, or offers it more cheaply, than Australia; but there is no other country either where the cuisine is more elementary, not to say abominable.’
– Edmond Marin la Meslée, French immigrant
Meaningful change would not come until World War II.
Around this time, large numbers of European migrants, mostly Italian and Greek, would relocate to Australia, fleeing the war and its chaotic aftermath.
One of the gifts of Australian multiculturalism was an improvement in local cuisine. Dishes largely unknown in Australia – pasta, giros, many others – would all make their debut. Toto’s Pizza House, reportedly Australia’s first, opened in Carlton in 1954.
The war also popularised hamburgers in Australia. The dish had first appeared sometime in the 1930s, but its consumption boomed alongside the arrival of American troops.
Australian hamburgers had their own unique spin, often including beetroot, and/or a fried egg. Why we make them this way, remains a point of conjecture.
Eggs were an agricultural staple, and beetroot was the first canned vegetable to be widely available in Australia. Both were easily sourced and cheap, and popular, so it probably made sense to include them on local burgers.
But a more amusing explanation is also available.
American soldiers were surprised to find hamburgers in Australia, thinking them a fundamentally US item. According to legend, as a gag, a local cook added the most unlikely items he could think of to a burger, beetroot and egg, and then calmly told his US customers that this was how we did things here.
Their gullible acceptance of this, entrenched these ingredients as a local burger staple.
McDonald’s arrived in Australia in 1971.
The first store opened in Yagoona, in Sydney’s western suburbs, December 30, 1971. The event was accompanied by a parade down the main street, headed by Ronald McDonald himself.
Customers were offered a piece of a giant hamburger, cooked for the occasion, billed as the largest ever made in Australia.
The day was a huge success, and the restaurant instantly popular.
The menu was slightly different to the McDonald’s we are familiar with.
Notable items include ‘Fish and Chips’, and a ‘Chicken Dinner’. Neither of these were on the American menu at the time, and were included for Australian audiences due to their local popularity.
Fish and Chip shops were one of the first wide spread takeaway options in Australia. The idea was British, but many local fish and chip shops were run by migrants, especially Greeks, who arrived in the WWII wave.
The chicken dinner – a quarter chicken, chips and slaw – was likely a response to Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had opened its first shop in Australia in 1967. Chicken itself was a popular staple, and consumption of it was increasing at the time.
Then, as now, McDonald’s responded to trends, and moves by its competitors.
McDonald’s proved popular in Australia.
Their second store opened in Sydney, in Fairlight, early in 1972. The first Melbourne store came the following year, opening on Springvale Road, Glen Waverley, in October 1973. Recording this historic event, a time capsule containing newspapers, currency and McDonald’s cooking equipment was buried under the restaurant.
Fish and chips and chicken dinners did not last long on the local menu.
But the company has tried other Australian items over the years, most notably the egg and beetroot oriented ‘McOz’, which has come and gone several times, and which local patrons have a love-hate relationship with.
The Springvale Road site proved durable, and the first Melbourne McDonald’s continued in operation until 2016, when it was demolished and rebuilt. A much slicker version of the restaurant now stands on the same spot. Reportedly, no sign of the time capsule was found.
There are currently more than 9 000 McDonald’s restaurants in Australia.