One of the great ironies of American barbecue history is that the world’s leading hamburger chain, McDonald’s, got its start as a barbecue restaurant.
Long before the golden arches, barbecue restaurants dotted street corners in cities and towns throughout the South and West. From California to Florida, impromptu barbecue stands had “grown as thick as filling stations” along the sides of highways, reported Collier’s Magazine in 1937. America’s first drive-in chain – the Dallas-based Pig Stand – featured barbecue, and by World War II, pit-cooked meat was a staple of fancy steak and chop houses, too.
So, when brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their drive-in in San Bernadino, California, they naturally built a hickory-chip pit out back. The original menu featured sandwiches with “our famous barbecued beef, ham, or pork” for 35 cents and a barbecue plate for 60 cents. Hamburgers shared second billing, followed by chili, tamales and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
A few years in, the McDonald brothers’ drive-in was barely turning a profit, and they closed down for three months in 1948 to retool. When they reopened, the china and silverware had been replaced by paper wrappers and cardboard cups. The carhops were gone, and customers ordered at windows. Most severe was the menu overhaul: hamburgers only, the toppings limited to cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions and pickles. The price of a burger had dropped to 15 cents. Sides and drinks were limited to french fries, milkshakes, coffee and sodas. The hickory pit was no longer needed.