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Burgers and fries and improving children’s lives: Local businessman is McLoving it

By Stefan Yablonski

The owner of 15 McDonald’s stores in the area has done more than flipping burgers during his more than 50 years with McDonald’s — he has been instrumental in creating and sustaining the Ronald McDonald House program. We recently spoke with him.

Q: You are an original founder of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central New York. Tell us about how that came to be.

A: Growing up, my little brother was partially paralyzed and I told myself that when I got older, if I had the opportunity to give back to those that couldn’t do for themselves that I would. I was part of the building committee for the first Ronald McDonald House in Central New York in 1982 and have continued to stay involved with the organization ever since.

Q: How do you raise funds?

A: I raise funds both on a personal level and through my restaurants with the Round-Up Campaign. The campaign allows customers to round up their change or otherwise donate a dollar amount to RMHC when they cash out. Collectively, my 15 restaurants recently passed generating $1.5 million for Round-Up to support RMHC of Central New York.

Q: Why do you do all this?

A: I do this because it’s what I love. I feel fulfilled having been able to make a difference in my community through RMHC and in my restaurants seeing success in people and how their lives have evolved.

What resonates with me the most is being part of change in my community and supporting the people I work with. I’ve had my hand in being part of people living good lives and that is most meaningful to me. Of course, every job comes with learning opportunities. Making tough business decisions when needed can be difficult; although I can confidently say the positives have outweighed the negatives.

Q: When did you start your business?

A: “I started the program to become an owner and operator and had my first McDonald’s store in Nedrow in November of 1973 and we grew from there one store at a time. I started when I was 28 years old and I was one of the youngest owner-operators in the system at the time.

Q: The ‘program’?

A: “You don’t just walk up to the front door of a McDonald’s and say, ‘OK I got the money, here ya go. I’m ready to start tomorrow.’ There’s a significant amount of training that they have for franchisees, so that took about a year to get through. It’s like going back to school — and like going to school, you don’t get paid, either.

Q: How much did it cost back then?

A: The cost to get started in 1973 was about $200,000. Today, the approximate cost to start a new McDonald’s restaurant exceeds $2 million.

Q: Was it tough to get going?

A: Yes. In 1974, I came so close to going bankrupt. The first restaurant I opened didn’t meet the sales expectations that McDonald’s had set for us. Then, we had a gas crisis. You could only buy gas on every other day. People’s lives changed — business wasn’t as good as we expected it to be.

Q: So, what happened?

A: McDonald’s made me an offer — to take over a store in Fulton. That restaurant was probably one of the lowest volume restaurants in the United States at the time. Over the next year and a half, it became one of the highest volume restaurants in the Central New York area.

Q: How did you do that?

A: Some things were just the way life works out. Miller Brewery came to town, Huhtamaki expanded. It was like all the right ingredients went into the job and poof!

Q: So, things have gotten better over the years?

A: Business is not easy and a successful business is even harder. You’re always trying to do better than you did before.