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The Owner of the Oldest Operating McDonald's on the Minimum Wage

Ron Piazza owns ten McDonald's stores, including the longest-running in the world—and he started his career on the McDonald's fryers when he was 15.

Sixty-one years ago last month, the third-ever McDonald's opened in Downey, CA, 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 15-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.

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Adam Chandler is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers global news.

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