Art Bender Interview
It almost goes without saying that McDonald’s is an American Institution.
McDonald’s and its fast food approach to the restaurant business
represents American ingenuity at its best.
McDonald’s as we know it, was started by two brothers, Dick and Mac
McDonald in San Bernardino, California in 1948.
A gentleman by the name of Art Bender was there at the beginning.
He sold the very first McDonald’s hamburger and was the first McDonald’s
Today McDonald’s employs thousands of people world-wide and has sold
over 100 Billion Hamburgers!!
Art Bender talked about the early years of McDonald’s, the McDonald
Bros., and his contribution to the company.
Q – Mr. Bender, what were you doing before
you started working for the McDonald Bros? Were you in the restaurant
A – No. I was a musician. A drummer.
Q – What kind of music did you play?
A – Swing. Mostly swing. Combo work. Modern Jazz. In the late 1940’s
I played with Big Bands. During World War two I played drums in the 104
th Infantry Division. After World War two, for a couple of years, I played
drums for another band in Long Island, New York. I was married by then.
I was playing at night and had a lot if time during the day so I got a job
jerking sodas at what was called a stationary store. So, that’s how
I learned how to make milkshakes and so forth. I worked there 4 hours a
day, 5 days a week. When my wife and I decided to move to San Bernardino,
California I got to looking for something to do. I’d gone because
my cousin lived there. I saw an ad for a business opportunity in the paper
which I picked up on. I had a couple of thousand dollars which I invested
in a business which I really didn’t know anything about, except I
knew how to make a sandwich but I didn’t know what to charge for it.
I didn’t have that kind of experience. So, as a result, in 3 months
I was flat broke. I wasn’t playing in a band then either. I was working
day and night in a place called The Cone Castle where we served ice cream
and sandwiches. One of my customers was Mac McDonald. I didn’t know
who he was at the time. When he found out that I’d gone broke he passed
the word for me to come see him. He was impressed with the way I hustled
around and thought I was a good worker. He told me what they were going
to do. At that time they were re-modeling their old drive-in to become the
hamburg stand. He said, ‘Do you want a job’? I said, ‘Oh,
yes’. So, I ended up serving the first McDonald’s Hamburger
at that San Bernardino store.
Q – Back up for a minute to your musician
days. What was the name of the band you were in?
A – The McFarland Twins out of New York City. We toured the whole
East Coast. We’d go up to Boston and to New England.
Q – Who did you sell that first hamburger to?
A – We opened up at about 6 o’clock in the evening. A little
girl had been standing around waiting for about a half an hour for us to
open. When we opened I took her order which was 6 hamburgers, at fifteen
cents a piece. I rang up ninety cents. So, that was the first sale at McDonald’s.
She was a regular customer after that.
Q – Is she still around today?
A – I don’t know. I lost touch.
Q – Fifteen cents for hamburgs. How much for
A – Well, Opening Day we did not have Fries. We didn’t have
Fries until a year went by. We got a lot of calls for fries. So, Mac told
the people at the Serving Windows to keep track of how many calls we got
for fries. And, they realized they needed to put ‘em in, but, we had
no room in the existing building. So, they had to tack another room on the
side of this original building to accommodate the French Fries section.
It was necessary then for people if they wanted fries to go around to the
second window to pick up the fries. So, you’d get everything else
at one window and then you’d have to get out of line and get in another
line at the French Fries section. We also didn’t have milkshakes when
we opened up. We had ten items: the hamburger, the cheeseburger, a bag of
potato chips for either a nickel or a dime I forget now, 3 flavors of soft
drinks, coke, orange and root beer, coffee, and milk. That was it.
Q – How much for a coke?
A – Ten cents. 12 ounces.
Q – How much for milkshakes?
A – Twenty cents. It was a better shake than you make today too.
Q – What year were you hired by the McDonald
A – December 1948.
Q – Were you their first employee?
A – Well, I wasn’t their first employee. There were several
of us hired at the same time. But, I was the one that served the first hamburger.
I didn’t fry the first hamburger. Someone else did that. But, I was
at the counter and served the first hamburger.
Q – Did you wait on any celebrities?
A – I don’t recall knowingly having served a celebrity. It’s
possible we could have.
Q – What hours were you open?
A – From 10:30 in the morning ‘til 11 at night, except on weekends.
We stayed open on Fridays and Saturdays until 1 am.
Q – How many people were employed for those
A – Six – and that covered both shifts. The night shift for
the first year was 2 people, except on weekends. Me and a cook. As the business
grew, we started adding more people. By the time we started franchising
stores, maybe we’d hire 30 people for a store.
Q – What was the attraction of that first McDonald’s?
A – Well, it was quick. It was clean. And, it was a low price. The
average hamburger in those days cost a quarter. This was fifteen cents and
you could see it being prepared. You knew what you were getting.
Q – Before Ray Kroc entered the picture, had
anyone ever approached the McDonald Bros. about franchising?
A – Yeah. I’m sure they were. Ray didn’t sell the first
franchise. The McDonald Bros. sold the first franchise to a man named Fox
who had an oil dealership. This guy, I guess wanted to do something else
and he had the money. He made a deal with the McDonald Bros. and got a franchise
for $900. For 9 hundred bucks he got the plans for the building and advise
on where to purchase the materials. They got the use of me for a week to
open up his new store. The first franchise by the McDonald Bros. was in
Phoenix, Arizona. After several months I was called to go to Phoenix and
manage that unit. In the meantime I opened up a couple more stores for the
McDonald Bros. In total they had about 9 franchises out under their name.
For the same deal. $900 for the plans; for plans for the building and that
was it. They weren’t looking to make money off this thing really.
They were doing just fine on their own. I guess it was for prestige more
Q – Did you like Ray Kroc?
A – Oh, yeah. He was the kind of guy who got you pumped up right
away. You wanted to please him. You wanted to do it right for him. He was
just a very dynamic person. Short-tempered though (Laughs). He’d let
you go your own way and do things once he’d tell you what he wanted.
If you screwed up through carelessness or not paying attention, he would
really get teed off.
Q – When Ray Kroc approached the McDonald Bros.
did they believe Ray was onto something big?
A – I can’t put myself in their head. They never discussed
anything like that with me. But, I’m sure at that point a guy was
pestering them to do it and we’ll let him do it. They were very laid
back you know.
Q – How were the McDonald Bros. to work for?
Were they nice guys?
A – Well, yeah. They were good businessmen in the sense that they
made tremendous profits. They didn’t pay much. They worked in almost
a minimum wage basis. I went to work for them for $1.00 an hour. Five years
later I was getting $1.35 an hour. And, I was their Top Man!! So, work that
one out. (Laughs).
Q – As the Top Man what would you do?
A – I was the man who went out and opened the stores. I would open
a new store in Phoenix and go back behind the counter again until they were
ready to open another one up. I had to train the people. In many cases I
had to make the contact with the butcher for the meat, the bakery for the
buns and so forth. In some cases the owner would have handled that already.
But, I had to supervise the installation of all the equipment, in many cases.
In the case of my first franchise that I owned myself, I supervised the
construction of the building.
Q – Were employees required to wear a uniform
in those early days?
A – No we were just required to wear a white shirt. I wore blue denim
pants and a white shirt. We didn’t have ties.
Q – How long did you work for the McDonald
A – 5 ½ years. I went back to the store I originally opened
in Phoenix and co-managed it. I was there about a year and a half and my
wife didn’t like Phoenix and I didn’t care for it. It looked
like it was a dead end for me. So, I told the Macs I wanted to come back
to California. So, they had sold two more franchises and I came back to
California then and opened up a store in Azusa and one in Pomona and that’s
when Kroc came into the picture. I was at the Azusa store when Kroc came
to me and told me he had made a deal with the Bros. and would I go to Des
Plaines, Illinois and open up his store for him, which I did. In the meantime,
he sold another franchise to a guy in San Bernardino where I lived. That
man hired me to be his manager for his store. So, the deal was I would go
out and open up Ray’s store and come back to Fresno, California and
open up this store and stay and manage it which I did, except the guy dropped
dead before we even got the store open. So, I ended up with the license
Q – And, how long did you hold onto it?
A – ‘Til 1980. I had 7 stores when I sold everything back to
Q – How were there enough hours in the day to oversee the operation
of 7 McDonald stores? That must’ve been a tremendous amount of work.
A – Oh, it was. You just have to make time. I quit playing drums
then. I didn’t have time to go out and play in a band at night. I
had to be in the store most of the time. We had to develop management people.
You couldn’t actually work 20 hours a day. But, I was never bored.
I always loved the business. I found my niche in life and that was it. I
was devoted to the business and tried to do everything right all the time
and it worked out well for me.
Q – What do you do these days?
A – I fool around with music a little bit. I also play banjo and
mandolin. I’ve got a little keyboard. I walk in downtown Carmel. I
don’t do much really. I try to stay alive. But, I’m happy. I
live a good life. Financially, I’m well fixed. My health is fair.
My legs don’t work well anymore. Otherwise, I’ve got a loving
wife and loving children. What the hell more do I want? Nothing.
Q – You were actually there when an institution
A – Right. My office is full of McDonald’s memorabilia, pictures
of the first McDonald’s that I owned. A picture of me with the first
crew at Ray Kroc’s store. I got pictures all over the place.
Q – In your wildest of dreams, did you ever think McDonald’s
would take off like it did?
A – Well, at first I just needed a job. But, I learned to like it.
In fact, I caught on right away. I enjoyed the business. At that time I
was happy to work for somebody else, thinking maybe someday I’d get
into one myself. The first promise that Mac talked about was opening a second
store and ‘Art you’ll be the manager’. It was a nice carrot
to keep me interested. Eventually, it all worked out. They never opened
a second store, but, I got in on the franchising which was even better for
Q – Could you have done what Dave Thomas of Wendy’s
did? He worked for Col. Sanders then went out on his own.
A – Yeah. I had opportunities to do that. I had people who would
contact me when I’d be at the store. I’d go outside for something
and they’d nab me right away. They’d say, ‘I’d like
to open one of these up. Can you come and manage it for me’? I’d
say, ‘No thank-you’. I had a couple of friends who wanted to
make an investment and open up a hamburger stand of their own. I said, ‘No.
I’m gonna stick with the Mac Bros.’ which I did.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved