How we eat
McDonald's ( MCD) is among those rare companies that can take direct credit (or blame) for permanently changing American culture.

Ray Kroc, after getting into the burger game in 1948, launched the first official McDonald's restaurant in Illinois in 1955.

The concept was as simple as it was forward-thinking: to build a chain of restaurants that could serve hot food fast with a level of quality consistent from location to location.

It wasn't so much the food itself that made McDonald's a phenomenon; it was the cultural backdrop it inserted itself into.

The 1950s -- well into the '60s -- saw the automobile hit its stride among consumers. As advertisements touted the freedom of the open road, the public increasingly demanded the highway infrastructure that made such cruising a reality. Paired with the rise of suburbia, Americans were no longer tied to their hometown business district or local diner. As they roamed, McDonald's was there to feed them in a familiar way.

This led to a chain reaction of sorts. The success of McDonald's led to similar concepts, including Burger King ( BKC), Bob's Big Boy, Yum! Brands' ( YUM) Kentucky Fried Chicken and A&W eateries and a long list of others, under the ever-growing umbrella of fast food. As these restaurants became more popular, they ate away at traditional family dinners, which, in turn, led an even greater number of families to rely on takeout.

A greater amount of disposable income also led to growing families (the post-war baby boom endured into the 1960s), something McDonald's capitalized on over the years by introducing Ronald McDonald, Happy Meals and in-store playgrounds. Ever since, restaurants (as well as a wide range of other enterprises) have kept cash registers ringing by empowering kids to dictate how their parents spend.

As a less desirable impact on culture, by creating the template for American mealtime McDonald's is blamed by many for the poor eating habits and obesity that plague much of society.

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