Study Guide

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Summary

Overview

In his best-selling book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser makes you feel like you might be a whole lot better off avoiding the drive-through and just going home to cook your own meal. Schlosser covers everything from how McDonald’s got started to how the hamburger giant has affected cultures all around the world. Along the way, Schlosser exposes the cockroaches and rats found in fast food kitchens, the overworked and underpaid employees behind the cash registers, the mauled laborers trying to keep up with an accident-prone speed rate in meatpacking houses, and then, of course, the corporate greed driving the entire industry. Fast Food Nation will open your eyes and possibly make you lose your appetite.

As obesity rates climb, the finger of blame is more and more consistently pointed in the direction of Americans’ addiction to fast food. The burgers and fries taste good, and so they are hard to resist. Schlosser insists that the fast food industry is making sure that Americans remain addicted. Children are lured to fast food chains in a number of ways. Playgrounds have been built around easy-to-access restaurants. Popular toys are handed out with meals. And more tempting yet, fast food is advertised both inside schools and on the sides of school buses. In some states, burgers are even the main item on schools’ cafeteria menus.

But it is not just waistbands that are being affected. Attempting to bring in the best profits possible, fast food corporations have taken over a large portion of the production of potatoes, cattle, and poultry in the United States. Huge corporate farms are swallowing up family-run farms. Although the corporate giants provide a lot of jobs, the wages offered are at extremely low, nonunion rates, and the working conditions are dangerous and sometimes lethal. Lobbyists who are employed by fast food corporations are even affecting U.S. labor laws. And in the past couple of decades, the golden arches and other logos of fast food restaurants have blanketed other countries around the world. There seems to be no limit to fast foods growth and influence.

Schlosser presents all the details he has uncovered in an easy-to-read style, suggests the problems that his findings have exposed, and then lets readers decide what they want to do about them. This is an eye-opening account by a very respected reporter, an account that has sparked scathing rebukes—though no explanations or denials—from the fast food industry.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Extended Summary

Part I: The American Way, the Beginning of the Fast Food Industry
The idea of fast food up until the 1950s meant food stands on the sidewalks of cities. And that was how Carl N. Karcher, one of the pioneers of the fast food industry, started out. He owned four hot dog carts in Los Angeles. He also owned a drive-in barbeque restaurant, which offered patrons the ability to drive up to outside stands and order meals from carhops (a wait staff who delivered food to people in the cars). China plates and real forks, spoons, knives, and glasses were part of the service. There was also the option of sitting down at a table inside the restaurant and placing orders with the wait staff. The drive-in part of the restaurant, though, was a novelty, and Karcher’s business thrived—at least until a new drive-in restaurant started selling 15-cent hamburgers not too far away. That restaurant was called McDonald’s Famous Hamburgers and was run by Richard and Maurice McDonald. Karcher soon discovered how the McDonald brothers could afford such cheap hamburgers. The McDonalds had grown tired of keeping a restaurant staff, having to replace broken dishes, and supplying a variety of food on their menu. So they revolutionized the restaurant business.

First, the McDonalds decided to offer a very limited menu. By doing so, they were able to do away with their wait staff and turn food production into something that resembled an assembly line. There was a cook, an order taker, and someone who wrapped the food. Everything could be eaten with one’s fingers, and all they sold were hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. Their food was cheap and tasted good, and the lines of people waiting to order some made Karcher go back to his drive-in restaurant and do the same.

Karcher’s new-styled restaurant was called Carl’s Jr., which, together with the McDonalds’ no-service restaurant, became the beginning of the fast food fad that would quickly sweep the nation. The success of Karcher and the McDonald brothers soon brought other entrepreneurs into similar businesses. William Rosenberg opened Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston; Glen W. Bell Jr. opened Taco Bell in San Bernardino, California; Keith G. Cramer started Burger King in Florida; Dave Thomas began Wendy’s in Ohio; and Thomas S. Monaghan opened his first Domino’s in Michigan. These were all independent businessmen who saw the potential of a good idea. The idea spread, and fast food chains expanded. By the 1970s, for example, McDonald’s had expanded from less than three hundred restaurants in the early 1960s to more than three thousand nationwide.

The incredible expansion of McDonald’s, however, was not the work of the brothers who had opened the first fast food restaurant. That accomplishment went to Ray Kroc, who took McDonald’s to the next level. Kroc was the man who talked the McDonald brothers into setting up franchises all over the United States. It was also Kroc who lobbied Congress to pass what is now called the McDonald’s Bill—a bill that allowed employers to pay sixteen- and seventeen-year-old employees wages that were 20 percent below the minimum wage. The bill passed. Then Kroc went to work to attract more customers, aiming his campaign mostly at children. First he unveiled his now-renowned mascot, Ronald McDonald, whom many children fell in love with. The next step was to build playgrounds at McDonald’s restaurants. Finally, toys were included with every child’s meal. Attract the kids, Kroc believed, and their parents will be forced to follow.


Part II: Meat and Potatoes

So the setting was established. The staff and the routine were set up. Customers were pouring in. But a new problem presented itself: how could fast food restaurants lower costs and make an even bigger profit?

Americans eat more than thirty pounds of frozen French fries apiece each year. Most of...

(The entire section is 1604 words.)

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

The Founding Fathers

Carl N. Karcher was born in 1917 on a farm in Ohio, but his life would affect the entire world. He lived the American dream, but he also began something that would have dire consequences for years to come. Hard work was the mantra of his German sharecropper home, and Carl (as well as his six brothers and sister) worked hard. After eighth grade, Carl dropped out of school to work long days on the farm. When his uncle offered him an opportunity to move to Anaheim, California, Carl moved west. The tall, twenty-year-old farm boy had never left northern Ohio, and the week-long drive must have been full of doubt and wondering. When he arrived and saw the glorious sights and smells of this foreign land, he thought he was in heaven. Anaheim was a small town then located in southern California’s citrus belt. Nearby Orange and Los Angeles Counties are the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Uncle Ben Karcher owned a feed and seed store downtown, and Carl worked there seventy-six hours a week. One week at church he met Margaret Heinz, and they soon began dating. He often visited her large, lush family farm that included ten acres of orange trees. Carl was mesmerized by the place. Once he had been overjoyed when he received one orange at Christmas; now he was surrounded by them. Soon he began working at a bakery in Los Angeles earning $24 a week. Carl and Margaret were married in 1939 and had a child in their first year of marriage. Carl’s job was delivering bread and buns to restaurants, and he observed the number of hot dog stands all over the city. When he learned a hot dog cart across the street from the Goodyear plant was available, he immediately scrounged the money (a loan from the bank using his car as collateral and $15 from Margaret’s purse) and bought the cart—despite his wife’s misgivings. He continued working at the bakery and hired a couple of young men to work the cart when he was not available. The menu included hot dogs, chili dogs, and tamales (at ten cents each) plus soda for a nickel. World War II broke out five months later and the Goodyear plant was producing—both for the war effort and for Carl. Soon Margaret was manning a second cart.

Southern California was changing, primarily due to the migration of people from the Midwest during the Great Depression. The car became the primary mode of transportation in the sprawling city of Los Angeles, in which nearly eighty percent of the population was not native. There were nearly a million cars in the city by 1940—more than in forty-one other states combined. Cars seemed like the cheapest form of transportation because, unlike the cable and trolley industries, the auto (and oil and tire) industry convinced the federal government to provide and maintain public roads. Many innovations necessitated by...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

Your Trusted Friends

Today there is a shrine in Oak Brook, Illinois. It is the Ray A. Kroc Museum, and it is a celebration of McDonald’s and its founder, located in the McDonald’s Corporate headquarters and only a short shuttle ride from its Hamburger University. Visitors can buy nearly anything there, all with the golden arches prominently displayed. There are some striking similarities between the McDonald’s franchise and the Disney empire, starting with the two founders. Born one year apart, both men were natives of Illinois and neither graduated from high school. They served together in World War II in the ambulance corps, and they each made their way to California and began businesses that...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Behind the Counter

Since 1970, the population of Colorado Springs has more than doubled; as of this book’s writing, it is at nearly half a million. Since the early 1990s, it has “been one of the fastest-growing cities” in the country. Denver is four times larger, but Colorado Springs is bigger. It was once a quiet, quaint town—just like Anaheim, California. Also like Anaheim, Colorado Springs depended on military spending for its survival during World War II, including the building of several military bases and eventually the Air Force Academy. Along with these entities came the technology companies whose products were in demand by the military, and most of these came from California. The city...

(The entire section is 1340 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Success

Franchises have existed in America since the 1800s, when General Motors sold franchises to car dealers to expand its territory to increase sales. It was an ingenious plan in which people paid the company to sell its products. Other industries have used franchising over the years, but the fast food industry made it a business model for retail businesses all over America. McDonald’s mastered the franchise concept in several ways. Early on, the franchise fees for the company were less than a thousand dollars; McDonald’s made money through real estate. The company bought the land and leased it back to the franchisees, essentially serving as their landlord.

Auto parts stores, weight...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Why the Fries Taste Good

A relatively small Simplot plant in Aberdeen, Idaho, processes almost a million pounds of potatoes a day, 320 days a year, around the clock. John Richard Simplot was the potato baron of the American West. Born in 1909 in Dubuque, Iowa, Simplot and his family moved to Idaho about a year later. His father was a homesteader, and as a young man the son worked hard until he left both school and home at age fifteen and found work in a potato warehouse. He was an astute businessman even at a young age, and he leveraged his meager earnings into a potato farm by the time he was sixteen. After growing potatoes, Simplot advanced to sorting, warehousing, then buying and selling potatoes for...

(The entire section is 960 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

On the Range

Ranchers in Colorado Springs are in conflict with environmentalists; however, the truth is that cities and city dwellers do more damage than ranchers. Colorado Springs grew so quickly that little planning was done to ensure the maintenance of its water and land resources. Pavement encroached and diverted the abundant water supplies into fewer and fewer streams and rivers. Ranchers are the ones who have created watersheds and employed other such conservation techniques in an attempt to restore and save the land for future generations. Although the land has been developed and spotted with eyesores such as stock car racing tracks, it is a beautiful place.

Ranchers and cowboys, the...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Cogs in the Great Machine

Greeley, Colorado, is the home of the largest meatpacking plant, and the stamp of that industry is everywhere—the constant smell of rendered cattle, the substandard wages for the plant workers (generally resulting in an influx of migrant workers, both legal and illegal), and an increase in crime, poverty, and homelessness. In addition to the packing plant, Con Agra operates two Montfort feedlots nearby, each holding as many as a hundred thousand cattle at a time. Three months before they are slaughtered, the animals are brought here to be fattened. In that time, each animal consumes more than three thousand pounds of grain and gains four hundred pounds in weight. A typical...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

The Most Dangerous Job

A walk through a meatpacking plant reveals workers herded like cattle, blood and gore, and mindless jobs done with lethal weapons. Meatpacking jobs are now the most dangerous in the country, and one in three slaughterhouse workers are seriously injured each year. Other kinds of packing plants work with animals of similar sizes so the automation and mechanization is greater. Cattle, however, vary in size—often by hundreds of pounds. The cut parts of each animal are transported mechanically, but most of the major work is still done with one simple tool—a sharp knife—on a “disassembly” line. Worker injuries are generally blade related or due to repetitive movement, such as...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

What’s in the Meat

Almost 200,000 Americans get sick each day from food-borne diseases; of those, 900 are hospitalized and 14 die. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one quarter of all Americans suffer from food poisoning every year, and most go unreported or undiagnosed. The number of these illnesses is on the rise, and the effects are much more long lasting than the typical symptoms of diarrhea or intestinal discomfort. Although smaller, more local outbreaks still occur, the centralization of food production is largely responsible for most food contamination. Viruses such as E. coli have been identified, but many other food-borne pathogens have yet to be identified. A 1998 study...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Global Realization

The German city of Plauen is located between Munich and Berlin. It was once just a small market town but gained some notoriety and favor as it created textile mills that exported lace and embroidered fabrics around the world. It became a city of amazing art and architecture as well. The Hitler Youth movement began here in 1923, and during World War II this little city became the Nazi headquarters for the Saxony region. For most of the war it was a town that found favor; when the Allies arrived, though, it became a primary target. Nearly three fourths of the city was in ruins at the end of the war. When Germany was divided, Plauen was part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). A...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear