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