Life has been good to Daniel Zakos since his humble start flipping burgers out of a small Des Plaines roadside shack.
Fifty years ago Friday, Zakos began the after-school job working for a middle-age, milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc, who thought he could make his fortune selling 15-cent hamburgers at a new restaurant he called McDonald's.
Zakos married and had children. He helped his older sister buy a nice house back home in Greece. And he and his brother owned and operated three successful family-style restaurants in the Chicago suburbs.
But every time he drives by a busy McDonald's restaurant, he can't help but wonder what could have been if he had taken up Kroc on his repeated offers to get more involved in the business.
"That's one thing I regret," said Zakos, 64, who ran the fryer when McDonald's No. 1 opened in Des Plaines on April 15, 1955. "Ray offered to let me into the business when they were building up their corporate offices in Oak Brook, but I had a sports scholarship for college. None of us had any idea what McDonald's would become. Even Ray, he had these great plans, but I don't think he even could have dreamed it would become this worldwide phenomena."
On Friday, McDonald's Corp. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first franchise with the opening of a 24,000-square-foot restaurant, a monumental replica of the Des Plaines store, in Chicago's River North neighborhood.
For McDonald's, the anniversary is a benchmark of the company's longevity, another notch in the belt of the fast food giant and a nice marketing device to underscore the chain's place in modern America.
But for Zakos, one of the first crewmembers Kroc hired, the day marks a high point in his own life story.
Zakos was only 14 when he started at McDonald's. He had dropped by the restaurant weeks before it opened and told store manager Ed MacLuckie that he was 15, the minimum age to be considered for a job, Zakos said.
At the time, Zakos was living with his aunt and uncle in their apartment in Des Plaines, not far from the McDonald's. Zakos had immigrated to the United States only three years before from Tripoli, Greece, after his father had fallen on hard times. His family stayed behind, sending him first to chart the way.
"The first summer I saved up $1,000 and sent it to my sister in Greece to buy a plot of land for her house," Zakos said proudly during a recent interview at his restaurant, Sun Mist, in Addison. "The second summer I sent her another $1,000 I saved to put down on building a house."
Kroc's idea for a fast food chain was born in 1954, not long after he bought the rights to distribute the Multimixer milkshake machine.
That year he went out to California to visit Dick and Mac McDonald, two brothers who used eight Multimixers for their drive-in hamburger stand.
The brothers were doing booming business selling a limited menu based on hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, milkshakes and soft drinks. Kroc persuaded them to give him exclusive rights to sell the McDonald's franchise in North America. By 1961, he had bought them out for a princely sum of $2.7 million.
In the weeks before McDonald's opened, Zakos and another youngster, Bob Cornog, became some of Kroc's first trainees. They learned the ropes from MacLuckie and Art Bender, who Kroc brought from California to get the Des Plaines restaurant working efficiently.
The first crew wore white short-sleeve shirts, white pants and paper hats. Glen Volkman, 66, who stopped by the restaurant on opening day with teammates from his Bensenville High School golf team, said there were only three or four cars parked when they pulled into the lot.
"I remember going back a couple of other times after football games and the lot was packed with cars," said Volkman, of Eau Claire, Wis., who McDonald's invited to be the first customer at the River North store on Friday. "It was like our Happy Days."
Cornog recalled how he and Zakos cut endless blocks of American cheese to learn what was the perfect slice--enough to cover the burger while thin enough to melt sufficiently.
"There must have been hundreds of blocks of cheese," Cornog, 66, said in a telephone interview from Florida.
Perhaps more memorable, Cornog said was the punishment if managers caught you slacking off: lugging 100-pound bags of potatoes from the storage area in the basement to the main kitchen.
As he did with Zakos, Kroc took an interest in Cornog and encouraged him to study hotel and restaurant management as he prepared for college, Cornog said. But Cornog knew he wanted to study engineering; he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"I remember he told me, `We're going to need some bright young men like you,'" said Cornog, who became CEO of Snap-On Inc., the tool manufacturer. "I knew I wanted to be an engineer. I don't have any regret, but I wonder if I should have taken Mr. Kroc's advice."
For Zakos, the fond memories of his first job outweigh any regrets about not staying with McDonald's.
When Kroc opened McDonald's No. 1, he continued selling milkshake machines. Each morning, Kroc drove to McDonald's from his home in Arlington Heights, dropped off his car and took a train to the city. Kroc returned sometime after 4 p.m., and Zakos said he would drive Kroc's car to the station to pick up his boss.
After spending a few hours at the restaurant, Kroc would tell Zakos to make him three hamburgers before he headed home: one for him, one for his wife and one for his daughter.
Zakos said Kroc was a demanding boss and that he could be fanatical about cleanliness. On Saturdays, Zakos often found himself scrubbing yellow parking lines and cleaning garbage cans with Kroc.
"He was the boss, but he wasn't afraid to the do the dirty work," Zakos said.
Jim Barrett, 65, a college placement counselor at St. Patrick's High School on the Northwest Side, worked alongside Zakos. He recalled joining the McDonald's No. 1 staff shortly after the restaurant opened in April 1955 after hearing about the job opening from his friend Cornog.
Barrett worked there for only a few months, but the memories have lasted.
Barrett said he was given a job at the counter. He wrapped hamburgers in white paper and cheeseburgers in yellow, and he ran the register. He liked the job but left for another at a factory that offered more hours.
"The most important thing I learned was getting that first job experience and learning how to deal with the public," Barrett said.
On Friday, Barrett said he plans to stop by a McDonald's for lunch to mark the occasion.
Although Zakos has his own restaurant that sells all the items you can get at McDonald's, he said he still visits one occasionally. Kroc stopped by his first restaurant in west suburban Villa Park in 1965 to see how he was doing, Zakos said, and asked whether he would be interested in buying the franchise rights to Ames, Iowa.
The offer was tempting, Zakos said. But in the end, he told Kroc his family was settled in the Chicago area.
The McDonald's No. 1 in Des Plaines closed in 1983 when the company decided to tear it down in favor of a more modern restaurant. About a year later, McDonald's built a replica of that first restaurant on the original site at 400 Lee St.
The company opens its doors each spring so people can see what the restaurant looked like when it started.
Zakos said he still drives by McDonald's No. 1 occasionally. It looks just like the restaurant did back in 1955, but he has a hard time seeing it as a museum.
"It's sad to look at," he said. "I feel like the restaurant should always be open."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times