Inspired by the crowds lined up at the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, Neal T. Baker and Glen Bell became part of a wave of fast-food pioneers linked by friendship and geography.
On the outskirts of town, Baker helped Bell, who was his best friend in high school, build a hamburger stand in 1948 that would evolve into the Taco Bell chain. Two miles east of the first McDonald’s, Baker built his own stand in 1952. It grew into Baker’s Drive-Thru, a regional chain that made him a multimillionaire. The family still owns the 36-restaurant business today.
Baker, who went into the office every day until about two months ago, died May 31 at his Redlands home, his family announced. A cause of death was not released. He was 84.
“San Bernardino was the hub for so many of these guys, and it all really centered around the McDonald brothers,” Chris Nichols, a Los Angeles Conservancy historic preservationist, told The Times in an e-mail. “It’s kind of like the early days of computer development, where everybody at the table would go on to be a household name.”
Baker helped Richard and Maurice McDonald build their restaurant before the brothers re-engineered to speed up service. Their ability to serve 20,000 milkshakes a month attracted the attention of Ray Kroc, who would buy their name and franchise rights for $2.7 million and go on to build the fast-food empire known today as McDonald’s Corp.
When the brothers sold out to Kroc, it “sparked the imagination of area entrepreneurs,” said Jack H. Brown, chief executive of the San Bernardino-based Stater Bros. grocery chain.
Ed Hackbarth answered a help-wanted ad Baker had placed but ended up working for Bell near Barstow, eventually buying the stand and turning it into the first Del Taco in 1961.
Del Taco employee Dick Naugle started the Naugles chain in 1970. John Galardi made $200 a week at what was then known as Baker’s Burgers before founding a drive-through chain devoted to hot dogs, Der Wienerschnitzel, in 1961.
“Neal Baker was an icon in our community and had a hand in the founding of almost every fast-food chain that started” in the Inland Empire, said Brown, who had known Baker for 50 years.
Recognizing the profit potential of Mexican food, Baker added it to the menu in 1955 and pioneered a “twin-kitchen” concept -- burgers were sold at one window and Mexican food at another.
“If people wanted both, they had to wait in line twice,” Baker told the San Bernardino Historical & Pioneer Society last year, and laughed. “I got a lot of guff over that.”
When asked why he was content to allow Baker’s Drive-Thru to remain a regional chain based in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, Baker said the claustrophobia that kept him from flying also probably helped keep the franchise locations close to home.
“When you have a successful business and you make more money than you can ever spend, why do you need to get bigger?” Baker said in a 2004 interview. “I’m very happy with the way things have turned out.”
Born March 27, 1924, in Illinois, Baker grew up in Muscoy, near San Bernardino, and graduated from San Bernardino High School.
Because he was blind in his right eye, Baker was unable to serve in the military during World War II.
“I felt guilty, because all my friends went off to war,” he recounted in “Taco Titan,” the 1999 biography of his friend Bell. To help with the war effort, he worked at the quartermaster depot warehouse as a checker on the docks and distributed food to training camps.
With his brothers, Baker built a family home with bricks they made from clay soil mixed with straw. They opened an adobe brickyard in 1946 and sold the heavy bricks for 13 cents apiece, but “we went broke when new government regulations required that adobe bricks be reinforced with steel,” Baker said in the biography.
The reserved Baker shied away from publicity but not philanthropy, giving generously “to almost any nonprofit organization you could think of,” Brown said.
A longtime supporter of Cal State San Bernardino athletics, Baker also funded a major academic scholarship at the school. Two years ago, he donated more than two acres for a community center and fire station in Muscoy.
Although his firm built all of his chain’s restaurants, he considered his custom-home building business “a hobby,” Baker once said. “It’s more fun than the food business because it’s not as regimented.”
Baker’s survivors include his wife of 62 years, Carol; daughters Janise Talley of Redlands and Janet Walek of Newport Beach; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.