How McDonald's Makes Money

Efficiently catering to the basic need to eat

When the story of McDonald's is told, it often begins with Ray Kroc, the native Chicago milkshake mixing machine salesman who had the vision to see what the business model deployed by one of his clients, Speedee Service System, could become. Speedee Service System, launched in 1948, was the brainchild of two brothers, Richard James (Dick) and Maurice James (Mac) McDonald, who successfully applied the "drive-in" concept to food delivery and, ultimately, franchising opportunities.

Impressed by what he saw, Ray Kroc became their franchise agent in 1954, opened up the first McDonald's franchise in 1955 and, in 1961, bought out the McDonald brothers for the then hefty sum of $2.7 million. The rest is part of the entrepreneurial lore that is the hallmark of iconic businesses.

Key Takeaways

  • McDonald's makes money by leveraging its product, fast food, to franchisees who have to lease properties, often at large markups, that are owned by McDonald's.
  • Approximately 93% of all McDonald's locations worldwide are franchises.
  • Franchisees are lured by the impressive margins that make McDonald's franchises an almost guaranteed moneymaker.
  • McDonald's remains committed to growth, continuing its aggressive deployment of the three growth accelerators — EOTF, Delivery, and Digital.

McDonald's Today

Almost 80 years later, the enterprise has grown to about 40,000 restaurants globally that serve close to 68 million customers in over 100 countries per day—roughly 1% of the world's population—all wanting a burger, fries, and/or chicken nuggets as quickly as possible. It has, effectively, morphed into the most popular family restaurant that appeals to children and adults alike and emerged as the dominant force in the "Quick Service Restaurant (QSR)" end of the market.

The QSR category contains a number of popular franchises, including McDonald's Corp (MCD), KFC and Taco Bell (YUM), and Wendy’s (WEN). In 2022, McDonald's once again ruled as one of the most valuable QSR (i.e., fast-food) chains worldwide with a brand value nearing $40 billion (Starbucks edges out McDonald's for the #1 spot). McDonald's has, consistently, been among the leaders of this market segment in terms of brand recognition, overall sales, and number of restaurants globally, along with Starbucks (SBUX), KFC, Domino's Pizza, and Subway.

On the way to serving hundreds of billions of people, McDonald's has blazed multiple corporate trails since its 1955 incorporation, such as franchising and institutionalized training. McDonald's even had a mission statement long before mission statements were a thing. "Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value" is self-explanatory, and McDonald's has set standards for at least the first and fourth of those qualities. As legendary Michelin chef, Ferran Adria, once said of the Big Mac: "Ferran Adria and the 100 best chefs in the world cannot do better for the price."

40,000

McDonald's has over 40,000 locations in more than 100 countries around the world.

Business Model

Essentially, McDonald's makes money by leveraging its product, fast food, to franchisees who have to lease properties, often at large markups, that are owned by McDonald's. As reported in their 2021 10-K, of the 40,031 restaurants McDonald's locations as of year-end 2021, 37,295 (93%) were franchised.

The advantage of this model is that the revenue stream (rent and royalty income received from franchisees) is far more stable and, most importantly, predictable, while the operating costs are measurably lower, allowing for an easier path to profitability. McDonald's, because it has control over the land and long-term leases, can leverage its market position to negotiate deals. As has been noted by analysts, this is akin to a subscription, where the subscriber (the franchisee) pays a fixed amount each month.

According to industry analysts, McDonald's keeps about 82% of the revenue generated by franchisees, compared with only about 16% of the revenue from its company-operated locations, which is further trimmed by the costs incurred in operating these units.

Why McDonald's Franchises Are in Demand

McDonald's has notoriously strict criteria for its franchisees (net worth, liquidity, etc.). Additionally, the franchisees are also responsible for paying salaries, ordering supplies, and paying rent/owning the premises. So, why become a franchisee? The lure is that McDonald's provides them with an almost guaranteed moneymaker due, in large part, to the impressive margins.

The restaurant industry is infamous for its turnover, and as any restaurateur will tell you, one major reason for this is that the margins can be thinner than a slice of processed American cheese. Yet, McDonald's operating margins are Double Quarter Pounder thick—north of 40%! How is that possible in a business whose very purpose is providing inexpensive food? The answer lies in the fact that some food and drink items—coffee, for instance—are quite inexpensive to prepare, and then sold for a few times their price.

MCD Financial Picture

McDonald's operates with the following global business segments: U.S., International Operated Markets, and International Developmental Licensed Markets and Corporate. Each sector accounted for 38%, 53%, and 9% of revenues, respectively, as of the company's most recent annual report. 

McDonald's has a track record of paying dividends on its common stock for 46 consecutive years.

Financial Statements

According to McDonald's 10-K, 2021 free cash flow was $7.1 billion, a 46% increase over 2020, and 1,500 new stores were opened worldwide.

McDonald's Income Statement
  2021 (Dec. 31) 2020 (Dec. 31)
Total Income $23,223 $19,208
Costs of Goods Sold ($10,712) ($9,489)
Operating Income (EBIT) $9,773 $7.162
Net Income $75,45 $4,731
EPS (Basic) $10.04 $6.31
Dividends per Common Share $2.60 $2.54
MCD 10-K | Data in millions except EPS & Dividends
McDonald's Balance Sheet
  2021 (Dec. 31) 202 (Dec. 31)
Assets    
Total Current Assets $7,149 $6,243
Total Other Assets $1,856 $1,356
Net Property & Equipment $38,273 $38.786
Total Assets $53,854 $52,627
Liabilities & Shareholders' Equity    
Total Current Liabilities $4,020 $6.181
Total Shareholders' Equity ($4,601) ($7.825)
Total Liabilities & Shareholders' Equity $53,854 $52,672
MCD 10-K | Data in millions
McDonald's Statement of Cash Flows
  2021 (Dec. 31) 2020 (Dec. 31)
Operating Activities    
Cash Provided by Operations $9,142 $6,265
Investing Activities    
Cash from (used for) Investing ($2,166) ($1,546)
Financing Activities    
Cash Used for Financing ($5,596) ($2,249)
Free Cash Flows (FCF) $7,102 $4,624
MCD 10-K | Data in millions

Growth Strategy

McDonald's has a long-term goal of franchising approximately 95% of its locations. The Company will continue to make progress toward this long-term goal primarily by re-franchising restaurants to conventional licensees. As a result of the continued evolution of the Company’s business model, several organizational changes to its global business structure have been implemented that are designed to continue the Company's efforts toward efficiently driving growth as a better McDonald’s through the Velocity Growth Plan."

The Velocity Growth Plan, first introduced in 2017, is McDonald's customer-centric strategy that focuses on the key drivers of the business, namely food, value, and customer experience.

  • Retaining Existing Customers: Focusing on areas where it already has a strong foothold in the Informal Eating Out (IEO) category, including family occasions and food-led breakfast.
  • Regaining Customers Who Visit Less Often: Recommitting to areas of historic strength, namely quality, taste, quality, and convenience of its product: food.
  • Converting Casual to Committed Customers: Building stronger relationships with customers so they visit more often, by elevating and leveraging the McCafé coffee brand and enhancing snack and treat offerings.

McDonald's remains committed to continuing its aggressive deployment of the three growth accelerators. The growth accelerators are:

  1. Experience of the Future ("EOTF"): Restaurant modernization and technological upgrades to transform the restaurant service experience and enhance customer's perception of the brand.
  2. Digital: By evolving the technology platform, McDonald's is expanding choices for how customers order, pay, and are served through additional functionality on its global mobile app, self-order kiosks, and technologies that enable conveniences such as table service and curbside pick-up.
  3. Delivery: McDonald's has expanded the number of restaurants offering delivery and it is now available in over half of the global system. McDonald's has been, and intends to be, quite proactive in keeping up with the current trends when it comes to expanding its brand and business. In recent years, McDonald's announced it would partner with Uber Eats for home delivery for the first time in the U.S and followed that up by adding Doordash and GrubHub. These partnerships are part of a strategy to keep up with the newer generations who prefer home delivery over pickup.

Key Challenges

McDonald's has managed to stay comfortably ahead of its main competitors, like Burger King, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc., in the fast food arena, but its key challenge might just be a consumer who demands healthier, organic menu choices coupled with fast-food convenience.

Over the past few years, another restaurant model, one that offers consumers freshly-prepared, higher-quality food in an informal setting and with efficient counter service, has been making a bid to garner the attention of the consumer, or more appropriately, their palates. Dubbed as fast-casual restaurants, these entities—Chipotle (CMG), Shake Shack (SHAK), and Cheesecake Factory (CAKE), among others—have been making inroads into the space long dominated by QSR's like McDonald's.

Fast-casual differs from fast food in that its aim is to provide consumers with healthier selections but with fast food convenience at a slightly higher price point that consumers would be willing to pay. The growing consumption trends for food that is healthy, economical, and available with minimal wait times have begun to eat into the market share of leading QSRs.

This didn't go unnoticed by McDonald's. In 2018, it announced that it was removing all preservatives, fake colors, and other artificial ingredients from seven of its burger selections. Its menu features a Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad, and you can get apple slices with a kid's Happy Meal.

What's Included in a McDonald's Franchise Agreement?

According to the company, McDonald's provides franchisees with a long-term lease for the location and the owner is then responsible for all equipment, seating, décor, and signage. Franchisees are also responsible for reinvesting capital back into their businesses over time to make improvements and modernize.

How Much Does a McDonald's Franchise Cost?

In order to acquire a McDonald's franchise, you will need quite a bit of start-up capital. The initial investment in the franchise itself can be more than $2 million (depending on the location), There is then a $45,000 franchise fee, along with ongoing 4% royalties. Franchisees also often pay rent to McDonald's for their locations.

How Much do McDonald's Franchise Owners Make?

According to the company, McDonald's franchise owners in the U.S. can expect to make over $150,000 in profits in a year; however, industry research shows that many franchisees actually earn less than this projection.

The Bottom Line

Fast food should be as stable an industry as any. People need to eat and they want their food fresh and fast without having to spend unnecessarily. That said, the industry does face challenges relating to a shift in demand toward healthy eating. A restaurant chain that sells familiarity and consistency needs to recognize that those qualities themselves are enormous assets. Even when McDonald's has an under-performing year, it's still profitable. When operating at its peak, it's a must-have stock in any comprehensive portfolio, especially since it has similarities with REITs as well.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
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  2. United States Census Bureau. "U.S. and World Population Clock."

  3. McDonald's. "Our Company: Home."

  4. McDonald's. "2021 Annual Report."

  5. Statista. "Leading restaurant brands worldwide in 2022, by brand value."

  6. QSR. "Ranking The Top 50 Fast-Food Chains in America."

  7. McDonald's. "Our History."

  8. McDonald's. "Franchising Overview."

  9. Wall Street Survivor. "McDonald's Real Estate: How They Really Make Their Money."

  10. Forbes. "Why McDonald's Got Rid Of Artificial Additives In Its Burgers."

  11. ICSID.org. "How much do mcdonalds franchise owners make a year?"

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