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One fast food fanatic’s quest to make his chicken chain the next McDonald’s

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

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Albert Okura’s wardrobe seems to consist exclusively of polo shirts with the name of his fast food chain, Juan Pollo, embroidered over his heart. The shirt and a pair of sunglasses are his uniform. Okura, 65, wears a black version of the polo in photos posted to the Juan Pollo website; he sports a striped one for a photo in The San Bernardino Sun while holding a rotisserie spit stacked tight with whole chickens; another while standing in front of the dusty McDonald’s museum he opened in downtown San Bernardino, California.

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Less than three miles from the museum, one of Okura’s Juan Pollo chicken restaurants is set on a dusty four-lane road with few trees, kitty-corner from one of San Bernardino’s many pawn shops. Though West Fifth Street was once part of historic Route 66, not much about it looks pull-off-the-road-and-read-a-plaque-worthy today. In July, the one-hundred-plus-degree days let off so much heat here that it looks like you’re driving into a mirage. Yet Okura has tried to turn this restaurant, the second location in a chain of more than two dozen, into a tourist destination of sorts. If Okura gets his way, someday people might visit the McDonald’s museum, then pop over to see the place where the grand chicken empire of Juan Pollo began.

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Juan Pollo has all the hallmarks of a kitschy local chain. There are framed newspaper cutouts from the three decades Okura’s been in business, photos of Okura smiling with generations of Miss Juan Pollos in bikinis, heels and tight dresses, and Polaroids of guests with their testimonials written in Sharpie. (“I eat here all the time. I should be ½ owner,” reads one.) The tables are brightly painted with murals of a pastoral countryside. It’s the kind of roadside spot that travelers are tempted to stop at simply to see how a place so thoroughly un-Instagramable could have stayed in business for so long.

The secret is all in the chicken.

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These birds aren’t fried or covered in batter. Each one is mopped with marinade then slow-cooked in a rotisserie for three hours. It was a process of trial and error to get the Juan Pollo recipe just right, after Okura’s brother-in-law Armando Parra took him to Mexico to taste chicken the way it is done south of the border.

Okura wasn’t a chef or a businessman before opening the first restaurant in 1984. He admits that he didn’t even like chicken growing up. But he has always loved fast food.

In 1961, ten-year-old Okura, who grew up in Wilmington, California, delivered the San Pedro News Pilot from his bicycle for a dollar a day and then rode to the best fast food restaurants, sometimes two or three miles away, where hamburgers were 29 cents each. Soon a McDonald’s opened up nearby. Their burgers were an unheard-of fifteen cents, and their marvelous golden fries cost only a dime. It was a pivotal point for young Okura. He says that he “ate every hamburger that ever was.” The fast food industry was exploding in Southern California and he was on the frontline. He drank it all in like a milkshake.

During college, he went to work for Burger King and stayed for eight years. Then he switched to Del Taco where he was a manager and training supervisor for three years.

It’s difficult to look at San Bernardino today and imagine it as a thriving city, much less the birthplace of modern, assembly-line style, fast-food franchising. In the 2010 census, it ranked as the second poorest large city in the nation – coming in behind only Detroit. Roughly 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line and crime rates are high.

But Okura has tied his destiny — and, in many ways, Juan Pollo’s — to the city that birthed the most famous fast food chain in history.

* * *

Before the global branding and the Happy Meal toys, before the franchise and before the Fish Filet, Dick and Mac McDonald built their “Speedee Service System” of fast food into a national phenomenon. Their first restaurant was a barbecue spot with the carhops and window-side service typical of fast food in the 1940s. But the brothers realized two things: most of their sales came from hamburgers, and the carhops attracted too much flirting and lingering. In 1948, they overhauled their entire business. American Restaurant Magazine put the McDonald brothers on their cover four years later with an article titled, “Twelve x Sixteen Foot Restaurant Space Sells One-Million Hamburgers and 160 Tons of French Fries a Year.”

Meanwhile, before Ray Kroc ever got out of his car in San Bernardino in 1954, he had spent seventeen years as a paper cup salesman and worked at sometimes seedy establishments as a piano player before acquiring rights to sell a six-spindled milkshake maker called the Multimixer. This product would lead Kroc on the path that changed his life.

“Danny Dreamer” was Kroc’s nickname as a child. He was always up in his head thinking, scheming about a new project. “I never considered my dreams wasted energy; they were invariably linked to some form of action,” Kroc wrote in his business memoir “Grinding It Out”. When he thought about a lemonade stand, it wasn’t long before he was running a successful one. He dreamed about starting a music store with his friends and opened one — though it didn’t do well. Dreams were part of Kroc’s DNA and, according to at least one prophetic phrenologist, food was too. In 1906, Kroc’s father took him to a man who read the bumps on young Ray’s head. The man predicted Kroc would one day become a chef or work in food service. McDonald’s was Kroc’s destiny through and through.

The day Kroc first visited the McDonald brothers’ restaurant in San Bernardino, he signed a contract that allowed him to franchise new locations throughout the United States. He’d charge each new franchise $950 per store and they’d pay 1.9 percent of profits as a service fee. Of this, 0.5 percent went to the McDonald brothers, the rest to Kroc.

* * *

Thirty years later, Okura, who had no entrepreneurial experience, opened the first Juan Pollo with help from his brother-in-law and an uncle by marriage, who owned a property in Ontario, California, one county over from Los Angeles.

Since Okura could no longer live with his parents and commute to the new restaurant, he purchased a small one-room trailer, which he set up in the parking lot behind Juan Pollo, and moved in. A few times a week, he was woken up at seven a.m. by the chicken delivery truck. After working until nearly midnight at the restaurant, Okura had to get out of the trailer to unload the truck and hoist box after box filled with whole chickens into the walk-in cooler. It was not glamorous work, but day after day Okura kept loading, marinating and cooking chickens. “When things start falling apart, I focus on chicken,” Okura says of his business strategy. Who cares about sides or bigger soda portions if the meat is dry, tough, greasy, or somehow all three? Other companies focus on margins and cost cutting. For me, it’s all about chicken.”

Okura had been running the first Juan Pollo in Ontario for a few years when the opportunity came up to open a restaurant in San Bernardino. The location had housed three unsuccessful chicken restaurants, giving Okura a rare chance to get a fully operational, permitted store for only $2,200, as well as a “real cheap lease.” It was in a low-income area and locals were mistrustful of outsiders. On the jacket of his book, “The Chicken Man with the 50-Year Plan”, Okura is wearing his trademark pair of sunglasses, which he says helps to hide the fact that he’s a Japanese-American running a chicken chain called “Juan Pollo.”

Seven months after it opened in 1986, sales were still mediocre when a food critic from the San Bernardino Sun happened to wander into Juan Pollo. There were no other customers. Looking around, writer Norman Baffrey wasn’t expecting much. But the chicken was heavenly. Baffrey returned the next day, just in case what he’d tasted had been a fluke. It wasn’t.

Though Baffrey didn’t usually review fast food chains, he made an exception for Juan Pollo, which he described as “the juiciest, tenderest, most succulent chicken I have ever eaten . . . Haven’t you always wished the rest of the chicken tasted as good as the first bite? Well, this one does.” Baffrey warned Okura to get ready for a surge of customers on August 3, 1986 when the article came out. That day they had waits of up to two hours and completely sold out of chicken by seven p.m. Their monthly sales doubled. Everything was falling into place.

Okura got to planning.

In 1993, he wrote out a fifty-year plan in decade-long increments. By 2050, he decreed, he would become the “#1 seller of chicken in the world.”

* * *

Back in the 1950s, Ray Kroc wasn’t the only one trying to franchise fast food. Burger King, A&W, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen, and many others had already started spreading their operations throughout the United States. But there was one thing that set McDonald’s apart: rather than cashing in quickly by giving a franchise to anyone who asked, Kroc demanded commitment, control and quality from his franchisees. These policies worked well for his franchisees, but left Kroc struggling. Many stores were making $200,000 or more in sales. Kroc was leveraged with debt he’d taken on to provide hands-on service to his new franchisees. As John Love wrote in “Behind the Arches”, a history of McDonald’s, “Everyone was making money on McDonald’s except Ray Kroc’s company.”

Kroc’s resentment against the McDonald brothers began to grow. He found his contract stifling. But when Kroc asked them what price it would take to hand the full rights to McDonald’s over to him, the brothers’ answer was staggering: $2.7 million dollars, in cash — and the San Bernardino store with its annual profits of $100,000 wouldn’t be part of the deal. The McDonald brothers planned to give it to two of their longtime employees.

Kroc was furious. “I was so mad I wanted to throw a vase through the window. I hated their guts,” he recalled. While Kroc’s fledgling company managed to find investors willing to lend them the $2.7 million, Kroc didn’t forget this anger. The man now known as the founder of McDonald’s was happy to move through the world on handshake agreements, trust and a good feeling about someone’s potential, yet he was slow to forget what he perceived to be a betrayal. Kroc had given years of his life to the brothers and time and time again, he believed, they’d mistrusted and mistreated him.

Well, Kroc wasn’t above taking revenge.

The brothers may not have even cashed their checks before Kroc was on a plane to Los Angeles, driving from the airport to San Bernardino, and buying up property just a block away from the brothers’ famous store. He started construction on a new McDonald’s – soon to be the only one in town since the brothers had sold the rights to their own name. They had to take down their sign and rename the drive-in “The Big M.”

After five years of this competition, the drive-in that had once sold $400,000 a year in fifteen-cent hamburgers and ten-cent fries couldn’t even break $100,000 in sales. In 1968, the longtime employees sold it to a fast food chain specializing in hamburgers and tacos. That soon failed too. Meanwhile, the McDonald’s chain was booming. Had they not sold their stake, by the end of the 1970s Kroc would have been paying the brothers over $15 million a year for their 0.5-percent stake in franchise sales.

Residents of San Bernardino had more important things to worry about than maintaining their fast food legacy. Major employers like the steel plant and Norton Air Force Base closed. Downtown businesses shuttered. Federal and state courts moved to nearby Riverside, taking local law offices with them. The economy went into a drastic decline.

The McDonald brothers’ iconic building was bulldozed in the 1970s and turned into a music store. It too went out of business, and in 1998, the lot was in foreclosure when Albert Okura saw an article about it in the local paper.

* * *

Like any fast food empire hopeful, Okura knew the legend of Ray Kroc. When “Behind the Golden Arches” was published in 1986 he learned the famed chain had started a little more than two miles from his San Bernardino location. In “The Chicken Man”, Okura spends a chapter discussing the lessons he learned from the McDonald’s story. “Ray refused to take well-meaning advice from those in the restaurant business because he realized that they could only take him as far as they have been,” Okura wrote. He mentions that Kroc invested in people, promoted from within, and was a “visionary who saw the potential of McDonald’s.”

Okura knows that it was fate that pushed him to purchase a Sunday newspaper that weekend in 1998. The article reported that the lot, building and dregs of history were all for sale for the low price of $135,000. Okura was in escrow the next day. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he says. “I knew you couldn’t put a restaurant there, but I was based in San Bernardino and thought I’d turn it into the Juan Pollo office.”

When he closed on the building, local radio stations and newspapers jumped to cover the story. “I just kept talking and talking when people came to interview me,” Okura says. “The more you talk, the more they write.” Almost as an afterthought he adds, “I try not to be boring. Nobody wants that.” In the midst of all this talk, he mentioned that he was thinking about turning the building into a McDonald’s museum. The idea stuck.

Okura started buying old Happy Meal toys to fill the museum with and opened it on December 12, 1998 — the fiftieth anniversary of the original McDonald’s drive-in. One of his longtime employees, Jack Marcus, was quickly convinced to become a tour guide and curator for the museum. “Everything was fresh and new and we were just trying to figure out how to make everything work,” Marcus says. “Albert had all these ideas and I just followed his lead.”

Marcus has tracked down objects from the McDonald brothers’ original store. Through old photos, the local library, and some strategic phone calls, Marcus even found some carhops from the days before the McDonald brothers developed their Speedee Service System, back when they still sold barbecue and their female carhops wore uniforms that made them look like band majorettes. One day a woman in a wheelchair came in and told Marcus she had something for him. “It was an authentic straw from the barbeque era,” he says. Another elderly woman brought an unmarked old mug that she said she stole from the carhop when she was in high school. “I took this home with me but it belongs to the brothers,” she told Marcus.

The walls of the McDonald’s museum are filled with scrawled, cursive memories from employees and visitors of the original McDonald’s. The museum itself is covered in a mural depicting San Bernardino – past and present. Of course, Juan Pollo gets a mention, but no major signs announce, “Juan Pollo owns this.” Okura explains that people appreciate when branding stays in the background. “They’re not going to the museum for Juan Pollo; they’re going for McDonald’s. But every article that’s written about the McDonald’s museum has to include Juan Pollo because it’s part of the story.” He pauses, then adds, “Everything is working out the way it should work out.”

“To grow big, especially with social media, you need a backstory,” Okura says. Okura’s story is that of a nobody who simply followed opportunities as they presented themselves, worked hard, and built a reputation over thirty years. He’s worked every holiday and personally cooked over one million rotisserie chickens. “If I’m around Juan Pollo, people come in and want to shake my hand. They think more of me than I really am most of the time.”

It’s hard to say whether it’s Okura’s destiny to achieve world domination with his chicken. While McDonald’s quickly started adding one hundred stores a year once Kroc took over, the newest Juan Pollo opened up three years ago. In 2011, there were 32 Juan Pollo locations. Today there are 25. Of course, the fast food landscape is different now. Chains that do well are often the sustainability and health-conscious brands. Most doctors may still believe chicken is better for you than red meat but Juan Pollo’s food is comforting; it’s not something women would eat after a Pilates class.

But Albert Okura doesn’t care who believes in his destiny. He lives by a simple philosophy: “If it’s something you want, it’s true. Believe it.”

 

 

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