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Recalling Who Killed Cock Robin

Just as there would be no McDonald's without Dick and Mac McDonald, even if Ray Kroc is credited with being the franchise's founder, there would be no McDonald's without Cock Robin. And in true villainesque fashion, Ray Kroc is Cock Robin's father. Let's start at the beginning and untangle this grease-splattered web.

Our story begins in what was then the quiet outpost of Naperville, where a man named Walter Fredenhagen owned the Naperville Creamery. After selling the milk route portion of his business to Borden's, he switched his focus to ice cream. While he had several small shops in the area that bought his ice cream, they weren't exactly timely with their payments. Walter decided to eliminate the middleman and sell his ice cream direct to customers himself, joining forces with boyhood friend Earl Prince.

Along the way, they invented the tools that would change the history of not only ice cream marketing but also casual dining as we know it. First, they invented (and manufacture) the glass-topped ice cream display cabinets you now find at almost any ice cream store. Ice cream sells better if you can see it. Originally mass-produced in two-gallon metal cans, it was a challenge to both store and display the product without it spoiling. So they invented the first glass-covered display cabinet that was later adopted and mass-marketed by Kelvinator.

They also invented the first square ice cream scoop, primarily as a means of improved portion control. The square scoop was not only a visual novelty but provided a richer, more consistent scoop than round ones. (Most ice cream stores sold a one-scoop cone for a nickel. Walter and Earl sold a cone with two smaller, square scoops for a nickel. The square scoop was a hit.)

But most importantly, they invented the first multi-spindle milk shake machine - the Multimixer after their customer base kept requesting that the malted milk machine churn more slowly to produce a thicker malted-milk shake. The regular breakdowns of the standard Hamilton-Beach single-spindle mixer in the heat of lunch rush didn't help either.

By this time, Walter and Earl had expanded into burgers and fries at their stores, called Prince Castles, as they were ostensibly shaped like little castles, insisting on high quality, locally sourced ingredients, actually manufacturing most of their offerings (including their beef patties) at their Naperville-based factory.

Enter Ray, Dick And Mac

Ray Kroc, born and raised in Oak Park, met Walter and Earl on his route as a sales rep for Lily Tulip paper cups (while moonlighting as a lounge singer). Spotting the Multimixer and grasping its potential, he convinced the pair to make him their sole Multimixer sales rep.

One of his customers: Dick and Mac McDonald, to whom he sold eight Multimixers for their new and improved hamburger "bar" in San Bernardino. Eight mixers was an unusually large sale, so Ray flew out to California to see what the McDonald brothers were up to.

Ray was astonished. The McDonalds had basically invented the fast-food restaurant, eliminating car-hops, indoor seating and silverware. They called their formula the "Speedee System." It was brilliant. And the engine (and profit-generator) of the Speedee System was the Multimixer.

The volume of milk shakes moved right along with the burger and fries. And popular legend is true: Shakes are primarily air. Many low-cost units at a time create the potential for high-volume sales in the right system (even now most franchises are of systems more so than of settings).

Part of Ray's genius was recognizing genius, and this instance he not only recognized the genius of Dick and Mac but also Walter and Earl.

Robin's Roost

When Ray found both pairs, he found both leading successful regional hamburger chains, each demonstrating a flair for creating popular items at high volume and low cost, each relatively successful enough in their own rights before Ray ever came along. Neither pair cared much for more work or more success. Ray was projecting his ambition onto them and it didn't fit well.

The McDonalds were already franchising regionally and did not want to do the road work (on which Kroc thrived) necessary to manage a large chain well. Not only did Ray offer to franchise Walter and Earl, he pitched them on investing in the McDonald's chain. In their 60s by then, they didn't want the bother of either.

So they consciously uncoupled with. But due to an apparent provision in their contract, that left Ray with the Prince Castles name, foreshadowing his coming acquisition of the McDonald's name.

But the folks who had been running Prince Castles didn't just go away, so they had to find a new name for their operation. By the time they did, Earl had passed on and the business was being run mostly by Walter and his family. Walter's son, Ted, told the producers of One in a Million: The Cock Robin & Prince Castles Story that the new name came about from a time limit and desperation. They came up with hundreds of names they all laughed off.

Then, one of the employees, in exasperation, suggestion naming it Robin Roost after his vacation home on a lake. Everyone laughed again until Walter said "ENOUGH!" and gave the staff another week. For reasons that remain a mystery to us, the name transmuted in that time to the name we came to know and love (or loathe).

Thus: Ray Kroc fathered Cock Robin.

Cock Robin is the burger joint I remember with the Steakburgers, One in a Million shakes and square ice cream. I had no idea it was a chain - let alone one with such a backstory - until one day as a kid on the BNSF with my family I spotted a Cock Robin in Brookfield. I was disappointed to learn it wasn't just a local joint.

To wit, the Cock Robins of Brookfield and Melrose Park:

Mystery Solved

But that name! It comes from the name of a central character in an old English nursery rhyme, "Who Killed Cock Robin?"

Taking the question literally, the market eventually killed Cock Robin. As was the case with Marshall Field's, Cock Robin was caught in a pincer between the high- and low-ends of the market. They couldn't maintain their fresh quality standards at the volume their new corporate competitors were realizing after having farmed out their sourcing. Competitors like McDonald's.

Thus: Ray Kroc killed Cock Robin.


Comments welcome.


1. From Tom Chambers:

Those places were great! The shakes and malts really were the best. I remember the one on Cermak in Berwyn.

My uncle said something about a deal where the Prince Castles in the city were allowed to keep their name, while the ones in the suburbs had to change.

McDonald's? Um, no.


Posted on March 23, 2020

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