By Scott A. Rowan
Twenty years before White Castle opened its first restaurant and more than 50 years before McDonald’s began franchising its menu, Chicago Cubs owner Charles Weeghman became one of the founders of the fast food industry, earning the title “the first fast-food tycoon” and forever changing both the sports we watch and the food we eat.
Many documents incorrectly cite White Castle, founded in 1921, as the first fast-food restaurant. It wasn’t—that business merely took Weeghman’s idea and expanded on it. Other historians incorrectly cite McDonald’s as the first fast- food restaurant, but that is also wrong. During the 1950s, McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc merely made the concept of franchising a worldwide success, taking a single local burger stand restaurant and turning it into a national, and then global, phenomenon.
Kroc, a native of Oak Park, Illinois, grew up a Cubs fan and even tried to buy the team in 1972, but was rebuffed by Philip Wrigley and had to settle for buying the San Diego Padres instead. Wrigley’s refusal to sell did not sit well with Kroc. In his 1992 memoir Grinding It Out, Kroc wrote that, Wrigley’s refusal to even listen to Kroc’s offer made him “madder than hell, because Wrigley is just sitting on that team. He hasn’t done a damn thing to improve them, but won’t give them up and let someone else do it. It’s idiotic.”
It was Weeghman who made fast food popular thanks to his Weeghman’s Lunch Room restaurants and Weeghman’s bakeries. His 15 restaurants throughout Chicago sought to do one thing and do it well: provide quick food service in a clean environment for hard-working Chicagoans. His first restaurant opened in 1901 on the southeast corner of Adams and Wells Streets in Chicago’s downtown Loop neighborhood and was an immediate success. Initially, just a luncheonette that catered to working people during the midday rush, Weeghman’s restaurants eventually became 24-hour businesses averaging 5,000 customers a location per day—with the exception of his main location, which handled many more.
Outfitted with sparkling white tiles to emphasize their cleanliness, Weeghman’s restaurants served only cold food to allow for quick turnaround times on orders. Seating consisted of one-armed school desks in order to squeeze the maximum number of seats into the restaurants. Weeghman also operated bakeries known for their pastries; customers waited in line for his baked goods, as well as his quick sandwiches.
Weeghman often employed new practices that later became standard in the industry. In addition to offering the same food at each location, order tickets were hole-punched to speed up the order-taking and payment processes since customers didn’t need to wait for their bill when they finished their meal. This allowed his most popular restaurant, located at Madison and Dearborn Streets, to serve a staggering 35,000 patrons per day.
Weeghman changed food and sports history thanks to his recognition that everybody needs to eat and nobody likes to wait, whether during their lunch break from work or between innings at a game.
“What Charley really wanted was to continue his move up the social ladder and become a gentleman of society, a sportsman,” wrote author Stuart Shea in his book Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography:
Handsome, rakish, and sporting dandified outfits, gardenias in his lapel, and bowler hats, Weeghman was enthusiastic enough to win over even the most cynical local reporters.
As the money rolled in from his restaurants, Weeghman began to diversify. He owned a theater at 58 West Madison Street in downtown Chicago and also invested in a pool hall, motion picture houses, and even a film production company. Baseball would be next.
In 1911, Weeghman tried and failed to purchase the St. Louis Cardinals. Undaunted, he turned his sights on a minor league, the Federal League, and began a team in Chicago. The team went by several names, including the ChiFeds and the Buns (in reference to Weeghman’s popular pastries), but were officially named the Whales. Always looking to provide the best to his patrons, Weeghman built a new ballpark for the team, then called Weeghman Park but known today as Wrigley Field. It was in this new stadium that Weeghman would continue to change the world.
Having earned his fortune from fast-food eateries, Weeghman installed something new to the game at Weeghman Park: permanent concession stands, an innovation now taken for granted at every stadium in the world. It was Weeghman, the food magnate and visionary, who pioneered the idea.
Weeghman also changed who attended games as much as the amenities they enjoyed when they got there. In 1914, Weeghman was fighting to turn his team and the upstart Federal League into a serious baseball option for fans, competing with the National League’s Cubs and the American League’s White Stockings in Chicago. It wasn’t enough to merely build the best ballpark in baseball; Weeghman had to fill the stands and ensure that fans enjoyed their visit and would return. Pursuing that goal, Weeghman created the promotional idea of Ladies Day, which allowed women to enter free on Fridays. Not only did this expand his fan base and fill seats, it also provided more customers to buy food and drinks at games.
To help ensure fans would enjoy their experience at the game, Weeghman also instituted a new rule that fans take for granted today: they can keep foul balls and home runs that fall in the stands. It was a new and refreshing idea for attendees to be able to keep a souvenir from the game.
The innovations worked. Despite being the third team in a two-league city, Weeghman’s Whales proved to be a concern for their competitors. While the Federal League did not release attendance figures, leaving that choice up to individual owners, Weeghman revealed that despite losing approximately $27,0005 on the 1914 season, the Whales drew an estimated 312,000 fans, the highest attendance figure in the league. That same season the Cubs, who finished fourth in the NL, had only 202,516 in attendance. The White Stockings, playing in a brand-new ballpark (the largest in Chicago), drew 469,290.
First in fast food, concession stands, Ladies Day promotions, and keeping baseballs hit into the stands, the Cubs’ Weeghman etched his name in baseball and business history—which is just the way he wanted it. However, success was only part of Weeghman’s story. His failures would define the Cubs even more than his restaurants or hyperbolic stories of his success. Weeghman’s failures opened the door for another even larger business innovator: William Wrigley.
Stuart Shea, Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography (Herndon, VA: Potomac Books, 2004), 19.
“Timeline,” whitecastle.com, http://www.whitecastle.com/company/timeline, accessed June 27, 20.
Ray Kroc, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 181. Shea, Wrigley, 19.
Robert Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw League 1914-1915 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), 346.
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