Paul Wilson: A Sign Past Its Time – Billions of burgers

McDonald's gave up counting burgers two decades ago, but the big number's still up there at Hamilton's vintage Delta location.
The Golden Arches at Hamilton's Delta location go back to a time when every burger got counted for the world to see. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Today’s installment of A Sign Past Its Time takes us to that curious wedge-shaped chunk of land where the main lower-city arteries meet, The Delta.

Thousands of cars pass there every day, heading east on Main, west on King. So it makes sense to plop a fast-food place right there.

A&W did it first, back in the 1960s, when you rolled down your window and a carhop came running. But it turned out people were starting to like the McDonald’s way. You got out of your car, walked to the counter, and there was a burger in your hand in 40 seconds.

It's been two decades since this was the right burger count. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

So McDonalds began to muscle in. It opened its first “foreign” store in Richmond, B.C. in 1967. And the outlet that took over the A&W site at the Delta would not have been far behind.

Of course, McDonald’s was born in America. This fall, the chain becomes a senior citizen. 

Forget the BBQ

Sixty-five years ago this month, October of 1948, McDonald brothers Mac and Dick stripped 25 items from their BBQ menu, deciding to concentrate on their best sellers: hamburgs, shakes, fries and apple pie. That burger was ready in an instant, and sold for 15 cents – half what you’d pay in a standard diner.

That was a smart move. It was not a smart move when the brothers later sold the operation to a sharp operator named Ray Kroc for $2.7 million.

Kroc knew how to move product. In 1963, the chain sold its billionth burger. Kroc himself served it on national TV. In 1969, McDonald’s sold its five billionth burger. 

The oldest operating McDonald's is this one in Downey, California, which opened in 1963. (flickr.com)

And it was then that the Billion Served count began on signs across the land. Head office kept track of the pounds of ground meat purchased, divided it by the weight of a patty. (Big Macs counted as two.)

And every time another five billion burgers was sold, word would go out to franchisees to update their signs. McDonald’s hit 20 billion in 1976, 50 billion in 1984, 65 billion in 1987, 80 billion in 1990. 

Signs stuck on 99

Not many years after that, all those signs got stuck at 99 Billion. At a McDonald’s in the spring of 1994, the chairman said the count was over.

It’s not clear why. It could be that it was getting hard to calculate. After all, McDonald’s had spread out across the world. (It now has some 35,000 locations and nearly two million employees.)

Or it could be that big wasn’t necessarily better anymore. American domination and all that. 

A blogger made it his business to continue the burger count that McDonald's abandoned. In the spring of 2010, he was up to 247 billion. (overhowmanyserved.blogspot.ca)

In any case, the numbers are missing from today’s generation of McDonald’s signs. But not at the Delta. Store management says at least one of those Golden Arches – they’re at both the King and Main entrances – is original. And the other one goes way back too.

Some have missed the count. One guy even started a blog about it. He explained that when he was young, he would have a hamburger in the knowledge that he “had contributed in some way” in making that number under the arches climb.

Hortons doesn't know

So he worked out a set of calculations, using McDonald’s public revenue figures, to continue the count on his own. That went on for some time, and as of April 2010, he had it up to 247 billion. For some reason, he stopped after that.

But not long ago the Wall Street Journal took one more crack at his count, and figured that McDonald’s was on track this year to hit 300 billion burgers.

Hortons has no idea how many doughnuts they've sold in 50 years. Maybe you can tell them. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Next year, Hortons hits 50. There are now 4,300 stores. I asked head office if they knew how many doughnuts had been sold since that first store opened on Ottawa Street North – not far from the Delta – in the spring of 1964.

Hortons headquarters doesn’t have a clue, but says it would love to know. Is there a math whiz out there with a formula to count all that deep-fried dough? A dozen fritters to the person who convinces us they’ve got that number nailed. 

A Sign Past Its Time pops up every now and then on CBC Hamilton. If you’ve spotted an old sign that needs its story told, do let me know.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC


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