Where the Arches are Made of Gold
(page 1 of 4)
In the fall of 1958, while on the road to Hamden, Ernest Trefz was struck by a vision. At the time, the 20-something was working for New Haven’s Roessler Packing Co., one of the biggest meat distributors in the state.
“Someone at the plant had told me about a place that had these gigantic golden hula hoops in the ground and served burgers,” Trefz recalls more than half a century later. “When I first heard about the place, my only thought was, ‘Well, I should run up there to pick up the account, sell them some meat.’ But then I saw the place in person and it blew my mind.”
When his younger brother, Christian, returned from military service that November, Ernie got after him to drive up to Hamden to take in this same sight.
“At my brother’s encouragement, I went to have a look at this new innovation,” Christian “Chris” Trefz recalls. “My first impression was ‘wow’.”
The vision in Hamden was a McDonald’s Restaurant—Connecticut’s first. This was, in fact, so early in the company’s history (the first shop having opened in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1948) that McDonald’s had yet to file for a trademark on the name or its now ubiquitous double-arched “M” as its official trademark. In those days, McDonald’s offered walk-up service only. You drove in, got out of your big-finned, chrome-bedecked sedan, made sure your pompadour or bouffant looked just right in the side mirror, and then strode up to a screened window and ordered any of four items: hamburger, french fries, milk shake or soda (which came in flavors like “orange bowl” and “delightful root beer”).
“I had never seen a burger wrapped in paper—it was a brand-new concept,” recalls Chris Trefz. “So was the speedy service and the 15-cent hamburgers. I remember that I got a hamburger, fries and a 16-ounce milk shake for 53 cents. Fifty-three cents!”
Ernie and Chris Trefz—the latter younger by three years—both shake their heads in disbelief more than 50 years later. Not only do they still clearly see, smell and even taste their first close encounter with that golden vision, they seem to blink their eyes in disbelief at all the good fortune that has since come their way as a result.
The Trefz family now owns 43 McDonald’s restaurants, most of which are in Connecticut. Considering that the typical McDonald’s does about $2.3 million a year in business and can resell for anywhere between $2 million and $5 million—well, you do the math. The Trefzes also own an 18-story building in downtown Bridgeport—where the Trefz Corp. is headquartered—as well as the Holiday Inn next to it. Last but not least, they are owners of the coveted Golden Arch Award, the equivalent of an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement that the McDonald’s Corp. bestows on only half of 1 percent of its owners around the world. Given that there are more than 31,000 McDonald’s Restaurants in 119 countries, serving 58 million people daily and employing more than 1.5 million people, this is indeed an honor.
Though they have collectively won hundreds of awards for decor, landscaping and the excellence of their hired management, not to mention some Ronald McDonald Awards for excellence in marketing, Ernie and Chris see the Golden Arch as an affirmation of that vision they had in Hamden in 1958. This award, which is given out so rarely that a convention is built around the ceremony—theirs was held last year in Orlando—is conferred by the Oak Brook, Ill.-based fast-food corporation for “relentless focus on customer service, significant community involvement, exceptional achievements and contributions to the success of the brand.”
Ernie, the softer-spoken of the brothers and the Trefz Corp.’s chairman (Chris is president), does not get puffed up with pride about too many things. However, of the Golden Arch he quietly allows, “This is a big deal.”
Getting back to the Hamden epiphany, the brothers decided right then and there to apply for a franchise of their own. While waiting to hear back from McDonald’s, they worked at Roessler, where Ernie was vice president and Chris business manager. They also got to know the owner of the McDonald’s in Hamden, Rube Taylor.
“I became his meat supplier,” says Ernie. “Rube was a tough buyer. You had to have the meat the right temperature and the finest quality—no fat. We also sold to local drive-up restaurants like Henry’s in Milford, but we were selling 800 to 1,000 pounds of ground beef a week to Rube, and only 200 pounds per week to the other places. It wasn’t just the amount of meat we were selling, it was the stringent standards McDonald’s had even back then. This was over 50 years ago, before strict government inspections. What got me excited was that I had been dealing with Rube and I saw the quality he demanded, and the volume of the sales. It was so impressive.”
Ernie Trefz made it known to Taylor, repeatedly, that he and his brother needed his help in acquiring a McDonald’s franchise of their own.
“But Rube wanted to hire me to run one of his places,” recalls Ernie, sighing as if it were yesterday. “I told him, ‘I never want to work for anyone ever again.’”