Fond memories and a sense of loss over McDonald's No. 1

Chicago Tribune
February 10. 2018 10:32PM
The first restaurant owned by future McDonald's CEO and chairman Ray Kroc, in Des Plaines, Ill., was demolished after Kroc's death in 1984. It was replaced with a McDonald's museum, which was torn down last month. (CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

CHICAGO - Some of Bob Skaleski's fondest teenage memories are centered around a restaurant with gleaming arches that would later become one of the world's most recognizable trademarks.

Skaleski, 75, was one of the earliest employees of McDonald's No. 1 in Des Plaines, Ill., the first restaurant run by Ray Kroc, who would eventually serve as CEO and chairman of the fast-food empire.

The restaurant, opened in 1955, was demolished after Ray Kroc's death in 1984. That move drew so much ire from history-minded locals that a museum was put in its place, a replica of the original Lee Street restaurant. The museum was torn down last month, with a smaller but no less fierce outcry from devotees who saw the building as a symbol of a golden age gone by, a time when you could leave your bike unlocked while peeling potatoes or grilling cheeseburgers to save up for college, one scoop of pocket change at a time.

"We embrace and celebrate our history as it continues to shape the brand we are today," McDonald's spokesman Terri Hickey said in a statement, referring to the brand as "customer obsessed and focused on transforming the McDonald's experience."

McDonald's has made an effort in recent years, under CEO Steve Easterbrook, to look forward and put less of an emphasis on nostalgia. It will soon leave its longtime Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters for newly designed digs in the Fulton Market district. The so-called Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's in Chicago's River North is getting a major remodeling with an eco-friendly face-lift, and will reopen in the spring without those famous arches. Restaurants worldwide are being redesigned to add kiosks and table service. Mobile ordering and delivery is expanding. And another one of the early McDonald's restaurants, this one in Portland, Ore., is set to be demolished next month.

Some area residents say McDonald's executives' decision to demolish the Des Plaines museum abandons an important part of local history that should be preserved.

"Now their vision is to move on and into the future," said Shari Caine, executive director of the Des Plaines History Center.

Kroc, a former milkshake machine salesman, was in his late 50s when he began building his fast-food mecca, famously convincing McDonald's founders - Manchester, N.H., natives Dick and Mac McDonald - to allow him to open a franchise in Illinois. Kroc had visited the McDonald brothers' unique operation in California because he wanted to see with his own eyes the restaurant that was so busy that it required eight milkshake machines humming at one time.

Former employees of McDonald's No. 1, now scattered across the country, remember the restaurant and the era it operated in as a simpler time.
Rick Netzel worked at Ray Kroc's first McDonald's in Des Plaines, Ill., in the mid-1970s, when he was a teenager. He is now the director of sales and marketing at the Best Western Palm Beach Lakes in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Skaleski, who now lives in Norwalk, Conn., started working at the Des Plaines McDonald's when his parents relocated to the village from Chicago in 1958. At the age of 16, his goal was to save up for college, a tough road at a starting salary of 60 cents an hour. He put in about 30 hours a week at the restaurant during his junior and senior years of high school, riding his brother's bike the 6 miles from his home seven days a week.

Skaleski started at the fry station; peeling and cutting 100-pound sacks of Idaho russets. The process took hours - McDonald's would switch to frozen fries in the mid-1960s - but it was a prestigious job at the restaurant, second only to the man at the grill.

It was a good job, Skaleski said, but dealing with notoriously rigid Ray Kroc was no walk in the park.

"He was grumpy pretty much every day," he said.

Kroc demanded precision, and he had little patience for a lack of it, Skaleski recalls. Kroc's fire also lit when he would catch Skaleski hiding in the restaurant's walk-in freezer to sneak in practice time on his alto saxophone.

Skaleski graduated in 1960, and headed to DePaul University, but his McDonald's experience led him to buy stock in the company a few years later.

When McDonald's first sold shares of stock to the public in 1965, Skaleski bought 300 shares. The shares appreciated so much that at 26, he cashed them in to buy his first house.

By 1969, the company initiated its first major restaurant renovation, moving past the red-and-white buildings in favor of more understated tones that let the signature arches shine.

But No. 1 remained untouched. That year, 15-year old Sean Ward put on the McDonald's uniform and started his tenure at the Des Plaines restaurant. Ray Kroc was gone, having ascended to his corporate post years earlier, but the mystique was still there, Ward, now 63, recalled.

Ward, who now lives in the Detroit area, remembers that other McDonald's restaurants across the U.S. still thought of the Des Plaines location employees as operational experts, and would call them frequently with questions.

"Because we were No. 1, any time a store didn't know how to deal with something, they called us," he said. "We got calls from Oklahoma, and Texas and Missouri. ... the phone was always ringing."


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