GROUND BEEF, SWEAT, AND TEARS
SELLING 'EM BY THE SACK
But while Louis Lassen's old tavern seems stuck in time, the hamburger he first constructed in 1900 by throwing together strips of discarded steak has swept across the globe. A trio of new books traces the rise of this sandwich and its profound effect on society. In Selling 'em by the Sack, David Gerard Hogan, who teaches history at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, focuses on White Castle System Inc., the first of the big burger chains. Started by a grill cook in Wichita in 1912, it was soon taken over by a former real estate agent named Billy Ingram. He realized that his chief battle lay in convincing customers that ground beef, often made from meat scraps, was safe.
The name White Castle--signifying purity and strength--was the first marketing move. Ingram then designed all the restaurants to match the name. Targeting the middle class, he emphasized cleanliness and boasted that all his stores served the same miniature burgers cooked in the same way.
The hamburger caught on. By 1929, a character named Wimpy in a new cartoon series starring a spinach-craving strongman ate burgers constantly. What Henry Ford did for the car, Hogan writes, Billy Ingram did for the burger.
Then came the war. Rationing of sugar and beef pounded White Castle, as did Ingram's refusal to hire female and black workers amid a wartime labor shortage. He relented on the former during the late '40s but did not hire blacks in large numbers until the mid-'60s. By the 1950s, after eschewing TV advertising, suburban expansion, franchising, and even french fries, White Castle had lost its lead forever.
It is in the later stages that Hogan's book stumbles, too. His brief history of the American restaurant and White Castle's rise is excellent, despite occasional sloppy or turgid writing. But Selling 'em by the Sack's chief weakness is its account of White Castle's fall. Hogan loses his objective eye, relying too heavily on internal White Castle documents. He says customers were happy to pay higher prices and calls the new competition ''unfortunate.'' By the end, he is defending fast food as an industry that has improved Americans' diet.
Of course, the hamburger industry did not decline with White Castle. In its place sprang up new chains, one of the biggest being Insta Burger King, founded in 1953 in Jacksonville, Fla.
James W. McLamore, the late co-founder of the company that would become Burger King Corp., chronicles the development of the world's second-biggest chain in his autobiography The Burger King. It is a typical compilation of corporate war stories--enjoyable for anyone interested in the industry's details but lacking the perspective of a more balanced history.
After conquering the U.S., burgers have headed abroad in recent decades, with McDonald's leading the charge. With $34 billion in sales across 100 countries in 1997, McDonald's has paved the way for many other U.S. companies. In the process, the burger industry has come under criticism for everything from subverting local customs to depressing wages. A British brochure first circulated in the mid-1980s was typical of the most vitriolic attacks. It charged a McGreedy McDonald's with perpetrating what the brochure called McCancer, McTorture, and McMurder for the sake of McProfits. The work of a fringe environmental group, it was sure to go almost unnoticed.
Then, in 1990, the company made a horrible error. It took advantage of Britain's broad libel laws to sue five of the people still distributing the leaflet. Three capitulated and publicly apologized, but a middle-age ex-postman and single father and a young woman working as a part-time bartender decided to fight back. The result was the longest trial in the history of the British courts. The company, said one London lawyer, ''turned a flea bite on [its] big toe into a pustulating boil all over the body corporate.''
More than 800 newspapers around the world covered the trial, and a ''McSpotlight'' Web site claims to have received seven million hits. The case also spawned McLibel, a well-paced, engaging book by John Vidal, a reporter for The Guardian of London. He is sympathetic to the two defendants, David Morris and Helen Steel. And the refusal of McDonald's to grant him interviews makes the book seem one-sided at times. But Vidal remains a trustworthy raconteur. He lavishly praises a judge resented by Morris and Steel, and he isn't shy about laying out their mistakes, such as a clumsy effort to blame McDonald's for increased pollution.
Vidal has a keen eye for the ironies of history. He notes that Morris was born the same year that Ray Kroc, who eventually bought out the McDonald brothers, became a franchisee. While Morris was still a boy, his family moved to Finchley, the London suburb represented by Margaret Thatcher, a rising advocate of free-market capitalism. It was also home to the first British McDonald's. Vidal falters only when embarking on a lengthy, disconnected discussion of global capitalism today.
Most of the book focuses on the trial--and the many ugly stories the defendants were able to expose.
McDonald's, for example, hired an apartheid-era former South African policeman to intimidate union organizers and environmentalists. An ex-employee, meanwhile, testified to cooking burgers while standing in an overflow of sewage. With Britain in the midst of its mad-cow scare, the health questions struck a chord. Old E. coli tales became news again, including the 1994 death of a 6-year-old girl, whose parents blamed McDonald's.
Because McDonald's had filed such a detailed suit--and then enabled Morris and Steel to countersue by printing a leaflet calling them ''liars''--the corporation was forced to refute almost every aspect of the original pamphlet. It had to argue that high-fat food did not in fact cause cancer or heart disease and that its 1% annual raises of minimum-wage salaries were not ''low.'' On legal grounds, its ace lawyer, Richard Rampton, did this quite well, and in June, 1997, McDonald's emerged as the winner on many, but not all, counts.
By any other measure, though, the case turned out to be an overwhelming victory for the former postman and the bartender--and yet another sign that Louis Lassen's once lowly burger has become a global phenomenon, with all of the privileges and perils that this status entails.
BY DAVID LEONHARDT
Updated Dec. 30, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.