Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The First McDonald's In Kingsport - May 22, 1962

Photo was taken days after the first McDonald's in Kingsport opened.

The following missive arrived unannounced in my email box one day, begging for an answer. It was from Homer Marcum, whom I don’t know, and it went like this: “My in-laws, who are very fine people and who reside out in Colonial Heights, have a really sore spot that I've seemed to rub the wrong way. A few years ago, they told me that Kingsport was such a hip place that it had one of the very first McDonald's restaurants. In fact, they said they specifically remember that its sign declared, ‘Over 1 Million Sold.’ Well, I hadn't fallen off of a turnip truck, and spent summers of my college years working in Chicago, in Oak Park, matter of fact, the corporate home of McDonald's. I thought their claim of having a Kingsport McDonald's with a sign declaring ‘Over 1 Million Sold’ to be a little early in the franchise chain.”

So Homer wants to know who’s right, him or his in-laws?

It sounded like a challenge and a challenge I was up to because I remember watching that McDonald’s on Fort Henry Drive go up.

I needed to find someone who’d worked there in the early days.

I remembered my high school classmate John Frazier worked there when we were in high school. He lives in Atlanta now but he was in town recently and I talked to him. He couldn’t remember what the original sign said but he knew someone who would, his old manager Jerry Kleven, who had opened the store.

So earlier this week Jerry and I sat down in the current Fort Henry Drive McDonald’s to talk about the arrival in Kingsport of the giant burger chain and also to settle the dispute between Homer and his family.

Let’s settle one item of the dispute up front. Jerry thinks the Kingsport McDonald’s was store number 312 when it opened on May 22, 1962. The company numbered restaurants in the order they opened so Kingsport was a very early store. The chain now has 13,609 stores in the U.S. alone. Kingsport got a McDonald’s a full five years before Bristol and six years ahead of Johnson City.

Jerry knows about those other local openings because he opened all five stores in the Tri-Cities.

So I think we can safely conclude that Kingsport was “hip” enough to get an early McDonald’s. The sign? We’ll get to that.

“My wife’s uncle Mac Houkom bought the franchise. Mac was in the dairy business in Galesburg, Illinois. I was working in a factory in Onalaska, Wisconsin.”
Landing a McDonald’s franchise in the early years involved a little luck and a lot of cash. “You put your name in a pot. The franchise was only $1,250 - that was the price for years - but you had to have serious money and you had to have it in cash to get a franchise.”

Jerry says Houkom was offered one of four locations. “There were two stores available in Detroit, the one in Kingsport and a fourth in Anderson, South Carolina. He drove and looked at all of them and picked Kingsport because he liked the town.”

Kingsport was technically not big enough for a McDonald’s. “It was borderline. You needed 24,000 people to qualify for a McDonald’s and Kingsport was a little less than that. But with the metro area it qualified. And McDonald’s got such a good deal on the property that they took it.”

So in the spring of 1962 Jerry Kleven quit his Wisconsin factory job, packed up his car and moved to Kingsport sight unseen. His wife and four sons would follow later, after they sold their Wisconsin house.

The McDonald’s he would open in Kingsport was a step up from the previous 311 stores. “We had what they called a winter front.” The ordering area was enclosed, protecting customers from the elements. But there were no tables or seats. You ate in your car or took the meal home. Most folks ate in their cars.

But in every other way it was the same formula that had made the chain the hottest franchise in America: a limited menu served up fresh, quick and cheap. QSC was the McDonald’s credo at the time: Quality, Service and Cleanliness.

You knew how clean the kitchen was - and it was sparkling - because, unlike most restaurants at the time, you could actually see inside.

“We operated on the fish bowl principle. You could see in everywhere, the store was all glass.”

And that meant constant cleaning. John Frazier remembers, “You couldn’t just stand around; you had to have rag in your hand.”

Says Jerry, “It was: You got time to lean, you got time to clean.”

There were only three food items on the menu - hamburger, cheeseburger and one size of fries - plus six drink choices - either Coke, root beer or orange soda, or one of three flavors of shakes. The menu was limited and cheap. When the Kingsport McDonald’s opened, burgers were 15 cents, fries were 12 cents and a Coke was a dime.

“You could get a burger, fries and a drink for 38 cents including the penny tax.”
If you could go back in time, you might be surprised at the sizes of the items McDonald’s sold. “The Cokes were ten ounce. And the original hamburger patty was 10-1, ten burgers out of one pound of meat.” Tiny by today’s Quarter-Pounder and super-size it meals.

And there was another thing that would strike modern customers as different. The entire staff was male. “That was McDonald’s rule. We weren’t allowed to hire girls. We didn’t hire our first girl till 1969 and that was for the Johnson City store.”

Jerry smiles when he talks about the early years of McDonald’s in Kingsport. “Those were exciting times.”

It was a sort of golden age for the golden arches.

“You could be innovative. We had trouble with lunch service because the Robinson and D-B kids got out for lunch at fifteen till twelve and they were followed shortly by Eastman workers.” The atrium ordering area got really stacked up. Jerry saw he needed more lunch help. He solved the problem by offering kids a free lunch if they would work one hour.

Innovation bred success. McDonald’s was a huge hit in Kingsport. “We were the number one store in the south - by volume - for several years in the sixties. Johnson City was number two.” Six managers from the Kingsport store would go on to own their own franchise.

Jerry couldn’t remember what the sign said that opening day. But he had a picture, taken by Mr. McMillan, who owned the antique store next door. Jerry thought the photo dated from the first week McDonald’s was in business. There under the golden arches are franchise owner Mac Houkom flanked by his two managers, Jerry Kleven and Carl Hanson. And above them the now world famous sign:

And then this:
“Over 600 million sold.”

This column was originally published Oct. 24, 2004.