Where the Arches are Made of Gold
(page 2 of 4)
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.”