Where the Arches are Made of Gold
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.’”
The brothers wrote a personal letter to Ray Kroc, McDonald’s mercurial owner, passionately expressing their desire. The big man responded by saying he’d heard great things about them from Taylor and that he would consider the request. Not long after, Fred Turner, who would later become CEO of McDonald’s, made an unannounced visit to the Roessler plant.
“Ray Kroc couldn’t have done it without Fred Turner,” confides Ernie. “Fred spent two hours at the plant and he knew more about our operation than I did.”
Turner reported back to Kroc about the work ethic of the brothers. Even with this feather in their caps, it would be five years before Ernie and Chris were offered their own franchise. Later, after they were making a go of it, Ernie asked Turner why it took so long.
“He said, ‘You supplied us with such good hamburger meat [in Hamden and elsewhere]. How were we ever going to replace you?’”
Although the brothers were initially offered franchises everywhere from Kansas City to Rhode Island, they had no intention of leaving Connecticut if they could help it. In 1964, within three months of each other, McDonald’s decided to open restaurants in Meriden, Southington and Waterbury. After studying the local traffic flow, and the future possibilities of Route 8, which runs north and south through the Naugatuck Valley, they decided to take the Waterbury location, at 45 Thomaston Ave. Millions of burgers later, their greatly expanded McDonald’s still sits on the same site.
With Rube Taylor-like sales figures dancing in their heads, the brothers primed the media pump by pouring their own money into an ad campaign.
“No one knew about McDonald’s back then. There were no national ads or ad agency,” says Chris Trefz, who now lives in Westport. “We were on our own. We spent $600 for a full-page ad in the Waterbury Republican and bought air time on radio stations—we must have spent $1,500 for the first week. Waterbury’s mayor, fire chief and police chief all came to the grand opening.”
But, just as clearly as he remembers the cost of his first McDonald’s meal in Hamden, Chris Trefz recalls the first day’s take—the princely sum of $272. (Today, an opening might take in anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000.) In other words, McDonald’s was not an overnight success in those early days. All the marketing was at the discretion, and expense, of the local franchise owners. Although the restaurants were built in similar styles—a hutlike building framed by two giant glass arches—people were not yet familiar with the look. And local competition, from the likes of Howdy Burger and Hubie Burger and another fledgling national chain, Burger Chef, was fierce.
“We lost a lot of money on the first restaurant but we fought like hell to get a second one,” says Ernie. “Three years later, we were given a franchise in Danbury.”
“It opened on June 9, 1967,” chimes in Chris, a stickler for numbers.
Soon thereafter, the brothers got a second Waterbury franchise, on Lakewood Avenue, then one in Greenwich and one in Somers, N.Y. The latter two were what Ernie calls “home runs.”
At some point early in this period, the brothers realized that they had to quit their jobs with Roessler. Up to then, they’d tried to keep both jobs going by alternating day and night shifts at the plant, with one or the other driving the burger patties to Waterbury each morning and then manning the counter. As their McDonald’s empire began to expand and they became full-timers, they also found themselves managing a host of new employees.
“As we opened the restaurants, we were fortunate to hire good people,” says Ernie. “If one element contributed to our collective success, it was that we figured out the right people.”
He cites Nick Rotas, former Roessler food manager, and a young Carmen Anthony Vacalebre , today a prominent figure in the state’s culinary scene via his five Carmen Anthony restaurants. Vacalebre got his start as the manager of the Thomaston Avenue McDonald’s in May 1966, and he attended McDonald’s University in Oak Brook, Ill. Vacalabre was not the first manager the brothers had hired for the Waterbury unit but, in their view, he was the best and destined for great things.
“The Trefz brothers were my mentors in the business world,” says Vacalebre. “Ernie was a tough and demanding businessman who really held your feet to the fire. He told me he liked to hire Italians because they work so hard.”
Chris Trefz was, to Vacalebre, more of a “Mr. Personality.”
“But I remember he popped into the place one afternoon when it was a mess,” recalls Vacalebre, who was recently inducted into Connecticut’s Restaurant Hall of Fame. “It was just after we had done a $200 hour, which was phenomenal then, and we were shorthanded. But I had made sure everybody who came in got taken care of. Chris reamed me up and down over the mess, and I handed him the keys and was ready to just walk away, but he came back and apologized and thanked me for the hard work. Ernie and Chris were completely different people but they complement each other, even after all these years.”
The Trefz family embodies the quintessential American success story. Their parents immigrated from Heilbrun, Germany, to New Haven in the 1920s with very little money. Trefz Sr. landed a job at Roessler’s and was putting in as many as 65 to 70 hours a week to feed, clothe and shelter his young family.
The boys’ earliest years were spent in New Haven, but when they were 11 and 14, the family moved to West Haven. Both sons inherited their father’s work ethic, and before they were in their teens they were working on truck farms in North Haven that supplied area grocery stores. They did everything from cleaning chicken coops to picking corn.
Ernie says, “We had nothing, so if we wanted money for a pair of jeans or anything, we had to work for it.”
“I was paid 50 cents a day to pick corn from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the farmer threw in Hostess cupcakes and a soda for lunch,” says Chris, laughing now at the memory of the outdoor sweat shop. “I had good relations with the farm owner and he sent me to Boston periodically to deliver truckloads of cider. Sometimes the truck driver wouldn’t show up so I’d have to drive the truck there and back overnight. I was 15 and didn’t even have a driver’s license. I’d leave after dinner and return by 7 the next morning, just in time to catch the school bus. My parents had no idea that I was not only driving the truck but that I was alone.”
Somehow, Chris Trefz managed to save $131 (yes, he remembers the exact amount) and gave the money to his father, asking him to buy a lawnmower for him with it. Chris then built a cart for the back of his bicycle in which he carried his new green-and-yellow lawn mower around the area, charging $2.50 per lawn, contributing 30 percent of his income to the family budget.
“I also did bike repair,” he recalls. “We lived near a dump. It’s amazing what you can find in a dump. I would assemble three bicycles at a time from the parts I found and then sell them.”
Not to be outdone, Ernie chimes in that he sold Saturday Evening Post subscriptions door to door: “Our parents were struggling. They were both loving parents and our mother stayed home, but our father worked long hours just to make ends meet.”
Perhaps it was this aspect of their characters to which Ray Kroc responded so positively. In later years, when the big man came East twice to visit universities in order to donate to their endowments, he invited the Trefz brothers along. The first trip was to Dartmouth, the second to Yale.
By the time he visited Yale, Kroc was in his mid-80s.
“They had him there all day long, taking him from school to school, where each dean made his pitch,” says Ernie. “The poor man was exhausted. He finally announced, ‘I need a nap.’ So we told him we’d meet him for dinner at Mory’s [‘we’ being Ernie, and his two sons, Chris and Paul]. The three of us waited at a table in Mory’s at the appointed time and finally Mr. Kroc arrived with his Yale guide, who said, ‘Mr. Kroc, the deans want you to dine with them in the upstairs dining area.’ Kroc said, ‘I don’t want to talk to any more deans. I want to just sit here with my friends.’ And he plunked himself down at our table. You did not tell Ray Kroc what to do.”
Ernie’s two sons, Chris and Paul, are now in the Trefz Corp. loop.
“We grew up inside a McDonald’s,” says Chris, the older of the two. “Our quality time with Dad was spent hanging out at the Thomaston Avenue McDonald’s.”
The sons grew up in Trumbull—where Ernie still lives with his wife, Joan—and they began working on the delivery trucks and on the staff at various restaurants, including the McDonald’s in Norwalk.
“I made up my mind early and never looked back,” says Chris, who graduated from Boston University with a business degree and went full-time into the family enterprise. “I never thought of doing anything else.” He became a registered owner in 1987, but did not get his first franchise until 1990. Second-generation ownership is something McDonald’s has been seeing all over the world, as the children of owners want in on the business.
“You still have to prove you can run a restaurant,” Chris says. “And the franchise licenses are not permanent. You have to keep reapplying, usually every 20 years.”
Paul, two years younger, is just as much a part of the inner circle but he took a more circuitous route getting there. He went to culinary school and became a chef, then worked in restaurants around the country. Eventually, he returned to Connecticut in 1992.
Despite all reports to the contrary—from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me—Ernie Trefz insists that McDonald’s is “progressive” in the nutrition department. He cites the test kitchens and the long lag time of test marketing before products are brought online.
“We are so far ahead of the competition on this, which explains why we have the best salads,” he says. “The Angus Burger is wonderful, as are the parfaits and fruit smoothies.”
He lets loose a trade secret: By the time this appears in print, McDonald’s should have its own brand of oatmeal available for breakfast meals.
“It’s oatmeal like you’ve never seen it done before,” says Ernie.
The changes in recent years to accommodate weight watchers and health experts’ concerns all seem fine with the Trefzes.
They feel the same way about the changes wrought by the environmental movement. McDonald’s decision to eliminate foam “clamshell” sandwich packaging in 1990, for example, was seen as a huge environmental victory.
“McDonald’s set the trend on that,” says Ernie, smiling. “Once we cut out the foam, the other fast-food places followed.”
The smoke-free environment was a much more difficult transition.
“The regulars who liked to come in and nurse their food and coffee while they smoked now had to go outside, sometimes in the rain, to smoke,” he says with some distress.
Ernie and Chris’ father lived until 1991, in time to bask a bit in the glow of his sons’ success (their mother had died in 1969).
“Dad worked for us and did quality checks up to the age of 89,” says Ernie. “He would make sure the windows were clean. We eventually hired him a driver to make his rounds, because he kept getting lost. We work together as a family and as a team. We each have our own restaurants but they are part of the Trefz Family Restaurants. Each of us is an entrepreneur in our own right.”
At least a dozen Trefz employees have become entrepreneurs in their own right, most on recommendations from the Trefz brothers to the home office.
“Our recommendations carry weight, and often with the 401k plans we’ve set up, they have enough right there to make the down payment on a franchise license. There is so much competition now and they’re not building many more of them.”
Chris says, “We are a people business that just happens to sell hamburgers. We take a lot of pride in our work within the communities.” Those good works include the Ernest and Joan Trefz Foundation and the Trefz Family Foundation, which give to dozens of Connecticut charities.
Meanwhile, a new generation of this exemplary success story beckons. Waiting in the wings are eight Trefz McNuggets—eight grandchildren who one day may want to continue, and add their own touches to, the journey that began all those years ago.