Trail Of The Unexpected: Old McDonald's in Indiana

Back to the fast-food future in Kokomo, Indiana
  • @SimonCalder

The comfort of breakfast in an American diner: the choices included cinnamon swirl French toast, two sunny-side-up eggs and bacon, or a bone-in strip steak breakfast platter ($9.99). Yet, this was part of the world's most visible fast-food franchise. Five years ago I found myself sitting in the very first retro, chrome-plated McDonald's With a Diner Inside. Which meant I was just off Highway 31, in the middle of the most middling Midwest state, in the town of Kokomo – the place that bolts "extra" on to the front of "ordinary".

When Starbucks wanted to see if coffee culture could thrive outside its big-city constituency, the corporation chose Kokomo for its pilot scheme. Similarly, the Cracker Barrel chain had always clung to the ramps of Interstate highways until it tested the water many miles from the nearest freeway, in central Indiana. If it works in Kokomo, the marketeers maintain, it'll work across America. So when McDonald's tested the Diner concept, the good folk of Kokomo provided the test bed.

I arrived in unusual fashion: in a pickup truck driven by Gary Botkins, and in the company of his grown-up son Greg. The Botkins are from Indianapolis, in the south of the state. They make a living by delivering the suitcases that go astray while in the care of Amtrak, the American passenger train operator. And, when the Cardinal train from Washington, DC, rolls into town five hours late – long after the only bus of the day has departed for Kokomo – the Botkins are also deployed to chauffeur passengers.

"Wait there," the helpful Amtrak lady at Indianapolis station had instructed. Ten minutes later, the Botkins arrived in their truck and squeezed me and my bag into the cab. We quickly shrugged off the stately offices and steely skyscrapers of the state capital, and set off north along Highway 31. The closest Indiana gets to a "mother road", Highway 31 bisects the state between its capital and South Bend, on the shores of Lake Erie. For a couple of hours or so, it also makes an excellent journey into the kind of America that you imagine existed in the 1950s but probably didn't.

The highway ripples over gentle hills strewn with placid woodland and dotted with clapperboard houses.

The in-cab conversation was a delight, revealing the cheerful innocence of middle America. At one point, we were discussing foreign travel, and Greg observed: "Mexicans can't even speak English, and I think their currency's different, too."

After 60 smooth and agreeable minutes, the traffic on the highway started to stutter. Kokomo has two nicknames. The one that the city fathers prefer is "City of Firsts" – not because of its prominence on the fast-food test-marketing circuit, but because it is claimed to be where stainless-steel cutlery was invented and the push-button car radio perfected.

Truck drivers, however, have a different name for Kokomo: "Stoplight City", because of the 15 sets of traffic signals along the highway.

At what I think was set number six, we turned off the highway and into 1955. That was the year the McDonald's franchise was born. "Look at this, Greg!" exclaimed Gary as we walked into McDonald's With a Diner Inside; after a convivial hour in the pickup, the least I could do was treat them to lunch.

The mood was much more intimate than a regular McDonald's, with comfortably padded scarlet seating in almost conspiratorial booths. Each had a telephone, on which you relayed your order.

Twenty-first century customers would be forgiven for thinking that this was how McDonald's used to be. In fact, it never was: the restaurant originally tried to win business from traditional diners by offering speed and standardisation; seating did not arrive until 1966.

Harold Easterday, the Diner's chef, told me he had gone to Chicago to be trained for the new McDonald's. He recommended the meatloaf.

It took a good few minutes – "Everything is cooked to order," he said – and the result was good, honest American food.

One big difference between the McDiner and the traditional "Mom & Pop" diner: no tipping. "We don't need the tip," Easterday said. "Here you just relax and enjoy your meal." We did.

"This competes with Steak 'n' Shake," announced Gary, who had already displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of American fast-food chains. Would Greg take a date here, I wondered? "Yes, definitely."

"We'll have to bring Mom up here," Gary concluded.

I don't know if they ever did, but the Kokomo pilot failed to set the corporation's national agenda. What McDonald's had described as "the relaxing diner experience when you're kicking back" was not in fact what America ordered.

I wasn't there the day this particular diner died, but I understand it has now reverted to being a regular McDonald's. That's what they seem to like in Kokomo, to borrow a soft-drink slogan: the real thing.

State lines: Indiana

Population 6 million
Area five times the size of Wales
Capital Indianapolis
Date in Union 11 December 1816
Flower Peony
Motto "The crossroads of America"
Nickname Hoosier State