Happy McAnniversary!

Elgin’s Summit Street Golden Arches mark 50 golden years

Jerry Turnquist
Posted Sunday, August 19, 2007

When Elgin’s first McDonald’s restaurant opened at Summit and Gifford streets 50 years ago this summer, some must have thought it was quite a sight.

Built with an oddly tilting roof, red and white tiles and highlighted by two large golden arches, the structure seemed to resemble more of a spaceship or futuristic building than a restaurant.

But, the new business and its “Speedee” food proved to be what many were looking for, and it went on to become one of the first successful ventures for the fledgling company.

“The Elgin McDonald’s was one of the first in the country,” notes Jerry Bear of Bearco Management, which acquired the restaurant in the 1960s.

“The Summit Street McDonald’s was operated by the company, and not a franchise as it is today. Hamburgers sold for 15 cents and cheeseburgers for 20 cents,” he said.

Other menu items, according to newspaper ads of the time, included milk shakes for 20 cents, and a large orange soda, root beer or Coca-Cola was 10 cents. The menu &mdash quite limited by design &mdash also included milk or coffee for the same price. To attract children, there was also a merry-go-round on opening day.

Customers placed their orders with the “window people,” who put tally marks on a tear-off pad according to the customer’s menu choices, explains Jerry Bear.

“These &lsquowindow people’ &mdash a term we still use today &mdash then rang the customer’s order on the cash register.”

The all-male crew wore dark trousers, white shirts, aprons and white hats. Customers stood outside to order, but the success of the business saw the addition of an aluminum and glass enclosure a few months later.

The Summit Street McDonald’s soon became a favorite of many. It served as a gathering place for Elgin teenagers especially, who backed their cars into parking spaces to get a view of who was coming and going, notes Roger Klemm, who attended nearby Elgin High School during the 1960s.

“Some daring high school students even tried to reach the restaurant, located about a half-mile from the school, during the 30-minute open campus lunch break &mdash a feat that earned a few a speeding ticket,” Klemm added.

With the continued growth on Elgin’s west side and the new Larkin High School, a second McDonald’s was opened on Larkin Avenue in 1967. This location was operated by Jerry and Marcelle Bear, who typified the hard-working husband and wife duos who bought early McDonald’s franchises.

Marcelle worked as a secretary at McDonald’s Corp. when the business only had a small numbers of employees, notes husband Jerry, who ran a furniture design business in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Discussions ensued between the two, and Jerry realized that hamburgers and french fries probably offered more profits than sofas and chairs.

The two eventually became equal partners in the business, with Marcelle becoming the first female operator in the United States.

“They didn’t even have a woman’s uniform then. She had to buy a white nurse’s uniform and sew on a McDonald’s emblem,” Jerry Bear said.

The new restaurant prospered and Jerry sold his furniture business to work full-time at the restaurant with Marcelle.

“The market changes and you need to change with it,” notes Jerry Bear.

He and his wife have always paid particular attention to the customers’ needs, added, and they continually make adjustments in the way they deliver their services.

One of the Bears’ more interesting innovations was a double drive-through lane that began in the late 1980s at the Larkin Avenue location &mdash the first of its kind in the nation.

This idea, in which customers went to separate speakers to place their orders and then merged back into a single lane, was not in keeping with company policy for fear of accidents, but the Bears were adamant that it remain. Today this innovation is replicated at McDonald’s restaurants across the country.

Putting many of their profits into additional franchises, the Bears later acquired the Summit Street McDonald’s and have since expanded their holdings to nine McDonald’s restaurants. Bearco Management is operated by Jerry and Marcelle, along with their sons David Bear and Marc Bear. David and Marc also are owners-operators of their own McDonald’s restaurants.

But the flagship Summit Street McDonald’s still remains and celebrated its 50th birthday last month &mdash an occasion that marked the beginning of a new way of dining in Elgin.

It’s an innovation that has been imitated worldwide many times since.