Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Demise of One of My Childhood Icons

As a kid, we would on occasion go to McDonald’s. The drive-in, which was a couple of miles from my home is in my earliest memories of my town. I didn’t realize it, but that place was the first McDonald’s restaurant in Utah.

It was once a white building with a single-plane roof that slanted front to back. The sides of the building were graced with large trademark golden arches that extended above the roofline. The building contained only the kitchen and the retail/delivery counter. There was no indoor space for customers.

If my memory is correct, this McDonald’s was seasonal, so that it was closed during cold weather months. I do remember that they eventually installed outdoor heaters above the retail windows. This helped keep the customers nearest the windows warm in cold weather. A few years later, they added a mostly glass enclosure to shelter customers, but there was still no indoor dining facility.

Sometime during my adolescent years, the entire McDonald’s chain decided to change its look. The white buildings with prominent side arches were replaced with red-brown brick structures. Our local McDonald’s underwent extensive renovation to make the change and to add a dining room. When Ronald McDonald, the corporate mascot was joined by a host of other whacky cartoon-like characters, images of the characters began to grace the place. They added an outdoor playground too.

As a senior in high school, I went looking for work. I had gotten a food handler permit to work at a little joint that was started by the family of one of my Mom’s co-workers. After I went to work twice, it became obvious that these folks had been overly optimistic about the enterprise, so more than half the staff was cut. I applied at various food service businesses and ended up landing a job at McDonald’s.

By this time, there was another McDonald’s at the other end of town, and another one in the south end of the county. I enthusiastically began my short-lived career at McDonald’s, only to discover that working in fast food was not for me. After only a couple of months, I handed in my uniform and went in search of other employment.

During my brief tenure at McDonald’s, I learned several things. Employees at our installation were not permitted to stand around. “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean,” was a common refrain. Many things, even rather arcane matters, required strict compliance with corporate rules.

As far as food quality, the temperature of foods was strictly regulated, as was the amount of time between preparation and delivery of foods. The oil in deep fry vats was changed on a regular schedule to keep it fresh. Back then, we had two kinds of hamburger patties: 10-to-1 and 4-to-1, meaning one-tenth or one-quarter of a pound in a quick frozen state. (A fair amount less in a cooked state.)

I didn’t mind doing the work. I learned the rules fairly quick and rapidly made it to the esteemed rank of head shift cook. But I didn’t like the way our store’s owner dealt with employees. There were lots of other jobs available, so I quit. (The guy was later indicted for embezzling from the franchise.)

As the years went by, I had steadily fewer occasions to go to this McDonald’s store. (For one thing, there are now two stores closer to where I live.) The joint was renovated numerous times. They replaced the outdoor playground with an indoor play place. They expanded the capacity of the drive through. The place seemed to always have plenty of business.

Yesterday afternoon when I drove by the place, it had been demolished. There was a big tractor parked atop the rubble. One of the kids said that he heard that it had been closed for renovations. I have since discovered that they are completely replacing the structure, which was 50 years old.

I don’t mind the progress. But seeing this building torn down also leaves me with a kind of melancholy feeling. I’m not completely sure why. I rarely patronize McDonald’s nowadays anyway. Perhaps it’s because I kind of grew up along with the place and its demise gives me a sense of my own mortality. I’m sure that after the new structure opens nobody will miss the old place much.

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