Sixty-one years ago last month, the third-ever McDonald's opened in Downey, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles and home to Apollo, the third-ever NASA manned spaceflight program. McDonald's went to 119 countries from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Apollo went to the moon.

Adam Chandler

A man who witnessed much of this history is Ron Piazza, who owns the landmark McDonald's in Downey —the world's oldest-operating McDonald's— along with nine other golden-arched franchises in the area.

Piazza is something of a throwback. Plainspoken and serious, he is the type of business owner whose name and phone number are printed at the bottom of all the customer receipts.

He started on the McDonald's fryers in 1967 when he was fifteen-years-old and worked his way up through the crew to management to ownership. Piazza remembers the introduction of breakfast, the Big Mac, the Beanie Baby Happy Meal craze, the veggie burger flop, and everything in between. He is also a steadfast advocate of not only (the perhaps bygone convention of) the American Dream, but of the American Dream actionably realized through a career at McDonald's.  

As fast-food workers and their champions protest in 150 cities today in pursuit of a $15 minimum wage (with some arrests reported already), a wide gulf remains between the company line and the aspirations of the protestors. You'll no doubt be hearing about the demonstrations, which unions have encouraged two million home-care workers to participate in, as well as the calls for civil disobedience by organizers.

What you probably won't be hearing is the case against the minimum wage campaign. Enter Ron Piazza. The Wire caught up with him last month to talk about the business of fast food as well as his take on the ongoing efforts by fast-food workers and activists to push for a large minimum wage increase. 

History of the Oldest-Operating McDonald's

The McDonald's in Downey is somewhere between a vanity project and a millstone. It is the only remaining McDonald's store that was founded by the McDonald brothers themselves before Ray Kroc assumed ownership and set the empire sailing toward its 35,000 stores. It is also the only McDonald's store without both indoor seating and a coveted drive-thru window, which Piazza says accounts for "60-to-70 percent" of business for a typical McDonald's store.

Following an earthquake in 1994, the company planned to knock down the landmark, whose massive neon signed is topped by Speedee, the predecessor to Ronald McDonald. A public outcry ensued. The National Trust for Historical Preservation listed the oldest-surviving McDonald's on its 1994 list of 11 most endangered places along with Cape Cod, the Old Mint in San Francisco, the U.S.S. Constellation, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin estate in Wisconsin.

Today, the store hosts a McDonald's museum and "comes close to breaking even."

The Politics of Nostalgia

What fueled a public outrage about the possible destruction of a fundamentally inefficient McDonald's outpost (despite the fact that the fast-food enterprise's historical raison d'être was efficiency) is one lens through which the ongoing debate about the minimum wage can be viewed.

The American Dream embodied by long tenures at the same company, a gold watch, a retirement egg, and a living wage all sound like the rhetorical hokum of an erstwhile era. The argument posited by protestors, pundits, politicians, and others is that this model no longer applies as education has become more expensive and income inequality has grown.

As the Times noted, President Obama gave a verbal nod to the campaign unfolding across the country today in a speech he delivered on Labor Day:

“All across the country right now there’s a national movement going on made up of fast-food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity.”

In his speech on Monday, President Obama also added that he would join a union if he were a fast-food worker. 

But Piazza pushes back against the idea that the minimum wage and poverty are inextricably linked.

I started at a dollar an hour. Poverty is as severe as it was when I was making a dollar an hour. The minimum wage increase, frankly, hasn't reduced our poverty problem. 

Do I think it’s fair that people live in poverty? Of course not. But I don’t know how you can say that business is responsible for that." 

As we noted, McDonald's was dealt a serious blow in late July after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that both the McDonald's Corporation and its franchisees were jointly responsible for the treatment of its workers. This precedent set workers at McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants on a course toward unionization, a long elusive goal and means by which employees could more effectively file unfair practice complaints. 

It was in the wake of that decision that we sat down with Piazza at the Downey McDonald's. He not only pointed to the company's humble roots, but traced a different trajectory for its workers than the characterizations made in the minimum wage debate. 

We're an all-American company and we are one of the few countries that was built by its bootstraps. Every one of my managers started as a crew person on french fries, my supervisors, my son, myself. I have four people who worked for me who went on to own their own McDonald's restaurants. I would say that we're a company where more people have come up through the ranks and become successful than maybe any other company in maybe the world."

Piazza told me the story of a man he had just promoted from manager to supervisor who had escaped the killing fields of Cambodia with his mother and made it to America. 

They went to New York and first thing off the boat, they went to McDonald's for food. He said 'Mom, I'm going to work there someday.' He came to work and I hired him when he was 15-and-a-half. He worked his way up to crew and then management, became a U.S. citizen, a store manager, and now a supervisor. We have those kinds of examples all the time." 

The Minimum Wage

If that story sounds a bit old school, it's because Piazza (and many other business owners like him) still believe that hard work is the pathway to both advancement and wages. 

As he recently told a junior high school: "There is so much opportunity in America for those who want to work hard."

Piazza says his managers make roughly $55,000 per year, which he notes is more than a teacher ("a noble profession"), and that his employees can flourish no matter "what schooling you have."

"People think we're a dead-end job. Well, I'm not a dead-ender. I've got 585 employees and 55 managers, they're not dead-enders." 

As for the minimum wage, Piazza sees it as a disincentive for hard work. For an example, he went through the hypothetical hiring of someone who makes an $8 an hour minimum wage and, at the end of two years, makes $10 an hour after learning more of the job and moving up. 

When the minimum wage is $10 an hour, you lose all that because I’m going to bring someone in at $10 an hour. What incentive did you have to learn your job?"

He added:

The way we have tried to bring our employees together is to motivate them, since the fact is, they do need motivation. The way you motivate them is with wage and perks and things that you give them. You take all that away when the government forces people to increase the wages." 

I asked what the perks were and he offered several examples. Beyond free food and free uniforms, he spoke of flexible schedules for people in school or with other commitments. He also seemed particularly prideful of the professional training that the company provides for the employees for whom McDonald's is their first job and that this training involves teaching employees how to cash their checks.

I think that’s something that’s really important and I believe that McDonald’s started all that. I believe that we had a large part to play in the American Dream for an awful lot of people. I have a lot of people who still call us for references for people who worked for us 10 or 12 years ago because they honor the fact that somebody came through a McDonald’s, learned the job, taught themselves the skills, and then moved onto something else."  

With that, he wished me well, hopped into his Maserati, and drove off down a California highway.