Greg LaPat was 16 when he landed his first job at a McDonald's in California.
“My mother told me if I wanted to have clothes, drive a car, date a girl and go anywhere in life I had better get a job,” LaPat recalls.
That conversation took place a little more than 50 years ago. The stories LaPat, 67, can share today certainly reveal he has gone places in life.
Last week, LaPat and his wife, Anita turned the keys to the El Reno McDonald's they have owned since 1986 over to their son, Brian and his wife, Julie. The younger couple have purchased the El Reno and Kingfisher McDonald’s from their parents and are planning to continue the legacy of community involvement.
On Wednesday, McDonald’s will celebrate with a grand reopening after a major renovation of the restaurant. The day will include entertainment, giveaways and free Big Macs to the first 100 customers, said Brian LaPat. The El Reno High School Band will be on hand to play and cheerleaders will provide a pep rally-type atmosphere.
The open and inviting new look inside McDonald's comes complete with the latest technology that allows a customer to order from their phone or from self-serve kiosks. Orders eaten inside the restaurant will now be delivered to the customer's table by McDonald’s servers, guided to the correct table by GPS.
It’s called cutting edge.
It’s the same kind of forward thinking the elder LaPat experienced in the early days of McDonald’s when he worked side by side with Ray Kroc, the famous founder of the world’s largest restaurant chain.
Seated inside the newly renovated restaurant on South Country Club, Greg LaPat tells stories of how Ray Kroc gave so much to the communities he was involved with and how he expected those who purchased a McDonald’s franchise to do the same.
“We were at a company Christmas party and Ray noticed the jewelry the wives were wearing,” Greg LaPat said. He said Kroc scolded the franchisees for showing off their newfound wealth.
“He said, ‘You can’t look like you’re any better than your customers.’ There went our Christmas bonuses,” LaPat said with a laugh.
Greg and Anita LaPat arrived in El Reno in 1986. They brought their young son, Brian with them. Greg was driving a 1972 pickup that he drove until 1992.
Greg had been overseeing what was known as “Hamburger University” in Chicago before making the move to Oklahoma. It was where new McDonald’s franchise owners were sent to learn the business the Ray Kroc way. It was his curriculum and it was serious business. Fortunes were made by franchise owners who followed through on the lessons taught by LaPat and the Hamburger University faculty.
Before moving to Chicago, Greg had been working in Las Vegas with Kroc. He recalls one particular lunch he had the opportunity to be involved with that included Kroc and his friend, Carl Karcher, the founder of Carl’s Junior.
“They were fine for about five minutes,” LaPat recalls.
“Ray was very patriotic and wanted the American flag flown outside every one of his restaurants,” LaPat said. “Carl put an American flag decal on the doors of his restaurants. Ray didn’t think that was good enough. They argued over it for the rest of the lunch.”
It was an eye for detail and customer service that made LaPat Kroc’s choice to lead his Hamburger University in Chicago.
“I thought that was kind of funny, a guy without a college education running a corporate university.”
LaPat would eventually find time for college, graduating at the age of 50. He would then go on to obtain a master’s in business and today teaches at Mid America Bible College and Southern Nazarene University.
After a few years working the corporate side in Chicago, LaPat wanted to own his own restaurant. That’s how the family made its way to El Reno. It was perfect. A community with I-40 at its doorstep and thrilled to have the McDonald’s brand as its front door.
McDonald’s opened in El Reno in June of 1978. It was purchased along with the restaurant in Mustang, where the LaPats still live.
Over the years, Greg and Anita would own 10 McDonald’s restaurants before selling the final two, El Reno and Kingfisher, to their son and daughter-in-law.
The younger LaPats plan to continue the tradition of giving back to the community, just as their parents have done.
Brooke Robertson, Community Development director for El Reno Public Schools, testifies to the generosity of the LaPats.
“It’s always can we, can we, can we?” Robertson said, referring to how the local McDonald's owners constantly offer ways to help support the school system, from teachers to students.
“They never say no.”
That support ranges from providing televisions for fundraisers, to school supplies and gift cards for teachers as well as helping students land their first job while learning how to present themselves in a mock interview with LaPat during Career Day.
“We hired six kids and two are still with us,” Greg LaPat said. “We see it as an opportunity.”
And it's a great opportunity for the young people. McDonald's will contribute $2,500 per year to a student’s college tuition, LaPat said.
Teens are also paid while on the job to study on the computer in the break room. And students needing help with English are paid to study it, also while on the job.
Other organizations such as El Reno Blessing Baskets have been supported by the LaPats and their McDonald’s staff.
Greg LaPat said he was “very touched” recently when El Reno High School students selected the Ronald McDonald House in Oklahoma City to receive proceeds from fundraisers the students put on.
LaPat said Joan Kroc, Ray’s widow, donated $2 million to each of the 350 Ronald McDonald Houses before her death.
“She gave away 90 percent of her wealth,” he said.
The Founder, a movie about the life of Ray Kroc, while mostly accurate, did not portray the generosity of the man, LaPat said. Or how he truly came to buy out the original founders of the McDonald’s. He said Kroc paid the brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, $1.2 million and that was in 1959 dollars.
“He was a remarkable man,” Greg LaPat said. “He knew he couldn't sell Kroc burgers. It had to be McDonald’s.”
LaPat pointed to the darkest day in the history of McDonald’s as well as one of the first mass shootings in America as an example of Kroc’s compassion.
A man walked into a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif., in 1984 and gunned down 20 people. Another 20 people were wounded. The victims included men, women and children.
LaPat said Kroc bulldozed the building and gave the property to the city for a memorial that he paid for. He paid for every funeral and established a college fund for every child affected by the massacre, including the daughter of the gunman.
“She and her mother were innocent,” LaPat said, calling the gunman a “madman.”
Brian LaPat learned from his father who learned from the founder. He plans to continue that kind of commitment to the community.
Both the elder and younger LaPat speak openly of their faith and trust in God.
The Christian faith is founded on forgiveness, Brian LaPat said, chuckling as he tells his dad, “If it wasn’t, I couldn’t be a member of it.”
Brian and his wife are the parents of 11 children, eight by adoption. They have children of different ethnicity and some have had to overcome serious medical issues. The children are home-schooled and each is required to work at least one year in the restaurant when they turn 14.
Brian LaPat said the restaurant industry teaches service, pointing to Christ as the ultimate example in that area. That’s something he wants his children to embrace.
“It also forces us to communicate with one another and creates interaction.”
Valuable lessons. And ones that appear to be put into action on a daily basis inside the Golden Arches.