Every day, Americans come across thousands of items we take for granted, such as parking meters and coffee machines, subway turnstiles and salads in restaurants. No one pays much attention to them, or thinks about their parts and ingredients: springs in the meters, dials on the coffee machines, clickers that count customers passing through the turnstiles.
And croutons on the salads. But we're paying attention - at least to those crunchy little toasted bits of bread.
Many quick-service restaurants, including McDonald's and Burger King and Denny's, serve salads - prepackaged, delivered by a server, or available from a salad bar. And uncounted millions of the croutons that top those salads come from a single factory in Chicago.
Back in 1987, George Johnson and David Moore were selling beer to restaurants, so they knew a few people in the business. One day, Johnson got a call from McDonald's, informing him that it was going to start selling salads and wondering if they'd like to get into the crouton business.
McDonald's was looking for a minority-owned firm but could find none that made croutons. Johnson and Moore, who were black, jumped at the chance, even though Johnson confessed that he hated croutons.
They happily formed what was then called the Quality Crouton Corporation, found an old pork-packing plant in a poor part of Chicago, and before long were supplying 85 percent of the croutons served by McDonald's around the world.
Johnson died shortly thereafter, but Moore still runs the operation that slices tens of thousands of loaves of bread into bite-sized morsels, adds seasoning, then toasts, packages and ships them to all sorts of restaurants.
In fact, in fast-food circles, Moore may be America's Crouton King.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.