When Flipping Burgers Was an Art

Before Big Macs and the Golden Arches, there was the Skaleski Staggered System

As a high school student, Bob Skaleski (BUS ’64) was an employee at McDonald’s No. 1, the first location established by Ray Kroc, who grew the chain into a global enterprise. Kroc’s idea was to produce food fast. Skaleski made it faster.

“We used to produce 30 burgers every five minutes if we were busy,” recalls Skaleski, who began working at the walk-up restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1958. “We had extra grill space. It was a big, big grill.

“I would turn [the heat] down, and then I put 30 [patties] on, and then I put on 30 more,” he says. “I had to work a little faster, but I could put 30 on, then flip 30 … and I produced 30 every two-and-a-half minutes.”

The person frying burgers was at the top of the food-making hierarchy, says Skaleski, who worked his way up from the bottom. “We’d have two guys [taking orders] in the windows, then we had one guy who wrapped burgers. We had one or two people on the fries and one guy on shakes. We had two guys behind the grill, one frying the burgers and [one] was the bun preparer.”

No matter the pecking order, everyone teamed up shortly before closing time at 11 p.m. Employees got to take home any leftover food, “so about 10 or 15 minutes before closing, we would be making fries and shakes and burgers like heck,” says Skaleski, chuckling.

There were no uniforms, but employees wore “silly little hats” precariously perched on “three pounds of hair” sculpted into ducktail hairdos. “Everybody wanted to look like James Dean or Marlon Brando.”

And everyone tried to steer clear of Kroc, who Skaleski calls “a bit of a grouch.” Kroc would get angry if Skaleski practiced his alto saxophone in the back during slow periods; Skaleski gained notoriety by practicing in the soundproof walk-in freezer.

When he started, Skaleski was making 60 cents an hour, saving about $17 per week toward his future tuition of about $400 a semester at DePaul. By the time he enrolled in the accounting program in 1960, he’d worked his way up to night manager and $1.25 an hour.

photo of U.S. Army MP Bob Skaleski

U.S. Army MP Bob Skaleski

Skaleski, who retired in Norwalk, Conn., after a successful career as a certified public accountant, was sorry to hear that the original McDonald’s building was demolished in 1984 and the replica museum that sprang up in its place was torn down earlier this year.

“I remember going to my 50th high school reunion and walking by that little museum because it still holds a little place in my heart,” he says.

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