By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
This genius of quick service believes he has one more great innovation waiting in the wings.
Steve Bigari sits in his large office located deep inside the headquarters of Bigari Food Enterprises, hardly able to contain himself. Kim Shugart, a good friend and business partner, stands near the door. They're brainstorming ideas for the world-record attempt, which is still a month away. Both men have unending stores of energy, and when they get together, they fuel each other in a chain reaction. Right now it's starting to feel like Three Mile Island.
"What if we...sell a Quarter for a quarter, then have customers bring a second quarter for charity?" suggests Shugart.
Bigari takes it one step further: Why not just give all the money to charity? The event's going to be losing money anyway, so why not just go all the way? Heck, why stop at going for a one-day world record? Why not do it several days in a row, breaking each previous day's record and setting the bar so high it'll blow everyone else out of the water? And why not let all twelve restaurants go for it? Sure, most aren't equipped to break the record, but let each try for its personal best!
Bigari's mind is moving a mile a minute. He has a habit of repeating anecdotes, mantras and key phrases over and over. For the world-record attempt, he's latched onto "the Mount Everest of hamburgers."
"It's the pinnacle of what we do," he explains. "It's the Mount Everest of hamburgers! Why do people climb Everest? Because it's the pinnacle. This is the Mount Everest of hamburgers, man!"
Bigari's office is lined with testaments to the professional pinnacles he's reached thus far in his career: lifetime-achievement awards from McDonald's Corporation and architectural renderings of many of his successful restaurants. The room is a celebration of everything that's the biggest, the best, the fastest. Among all these trophies, a small framed prayer, "Slow Me Down, Lord," stands out:
Slow me down, Lord! Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.
Give me, amidst the confusion of my day, the calmness of the everlasting hills...
But slowing down doesn't come easy. Bigari grew up encouraged to do just the opposite.
Bigari was shaped by four powerful role models, men who showed him how to win. The first was his father, Gene Bigari, who taught him that life is a marathon and you can't ever stop running. When the mines closed in their home town of Iron River, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Gene moved his entire Italian Catholic family to Milwaukee to start a new life. Then there was Bigari's high-school football coach, Bill Quinn, who told him that while you can be as intense a competitor as you want, you've got to play fair, and that "anything you've got to say, say it between the whistles." And there was Bigari's instructor at West Point, John Dodson, a Special Forces major with an MBA from Harvard who showed him that a good entrepreneur can flourish anywhere. Between prolonged deployments to war-torn parts of the world, Dodson bought up property near West Point and built his own power plant.
Bigari found his final mentor in the late 1980s, when he was living in Colorado Springs and thinking about leaving the Army. Brent Cameron, a local businessman who'd once been president of the International Division of McDonald's Corporation, opening new stores all over the world, now owned about a dozen McDonald's outlets around the Springs. He took Bigari to lunch and asked him to come work for him.
Bigari started his apprenticeship scrubbing urinals, but he moved up the ladder fast. He attended Hamburger University, McDonald's management-training center in Oak Brook, Illinois, and was soon Cameron's right-hand man. When local Taco Bell franchises were threatening to put them out of business, Bigari and Cameron decided to sell certain menu items for 59 cents each. "You're going to go broke doing this," a corporate McDonald's rep warned Cameron. "I'm going broke anyway," he replied.
The gimmick was wildly successful, and is reflected today in the "Dollar Menu" concept at McDonald's stores across the country.
Five years after Bigari went to work for him, Cameron died in a mountain-climbing accident. Left on his own, Bigari purchased a single McDonald's outlet. As he nourished the beginnings of what would become a considerable fast-food empire, he started displaying a character trait that hadn't come from any of his mentors. "I was always tinkering with stuff," Bigari says with a laugh. "I look at something and say, why is it like that?"
When he was a kid, he'd imagined building a fusion reactor out of a coffee can and winning the Indy 500. Although that didn't happen, he never lost his interest in making something faster, better, more powerful. And now, with a McDonald's as his construction set and burgers, fries and milkshakes as his tools, he set out to do it.
Regulars at any Bigari McDonald's became accustomed to finding new gadgets. Bigari designed a way for his customers to use credit cards before such technology was available in other fast-food restaurants. He built machines that could cook doughnuts at the front counter while customers looked on. With the help of his daughter, he designed basketball-themed playgrounds that are now in McDonald's PlayPlaces nationwide. And corporate headquarters chose Bigari's restaurants to test a made-to-order food-preparation system called "Made for You" that's now at McDonald's stores around the world.