Al Jarvis was 16 when he started working at a McDonald’s in Saginaw, a city in Michigan, in 1965. His first customer ordered an All-American: a burger, fries, and shake for 52¢. Soon Jarvis was working 50 hours a week and catching up on sleep at school. He skipped college to manage restaurants. By 1977 he was advising McDonald’s franchisees and helping with store openings across the state. One day in 1980, as he was unpacking his garment bag, his young son asked, “Daddy, where do you live?” So the next year he bought a McDonald’s in Hastings, southeast of Grand Rapids. Over the years he hired hundreds of employees, saw dozens of menu items come and go, and spent four or five hours a day, five or six days a week, watching over the counter and grills from his vantage at the fry station.
Jarvis looked forward to celebrating 50 years with McDonald’s this past May. And then, six months short of that milestone, he sold his restaurants. “I wanted to get the hell out,” he says one recent morning as he sits in the Hastings McDonald’s, sipping a skinny vanilla McCafé Latte. Such “foo-foo coffee,” as he calls espresso and its variants, is partly why he bailed: He loves the taste, but the complexities of making it came to epitomize his disillusionment with McD’s. “The service times went up because of the expansion of the menu,” he says. “I think they went a little overboard. It was difficult in the kitchen. When I would come down Apple Street behind the restaurant and see cars backed up at the drive-thru, my stomach would just knot up. The people were different, the company was different. It became very frustrating.”