Mr. Big

Welcome to McDonald's, where Steve Bigari is lovin' it.


On a warm fall afternoon, Bigari drives his Bermuda Blue Chevrolet Tahoe from one restaurant to the next, talking with his store managers, keeping ahead of the competition.

And burger-and-fries competition is fierce in Colorado Springs. Eric Schlosser chose this town as the focal point of his best-selling polemic on the quick-service industry, Fast Food Nation. Explosive low-density sprawl here led to a local epidemic of chain restaurants, he wrote, making Colorado Springs a bellwether for the industry.

Bigari has not only survived, but flourished in this tough market. (His dozen restaurants account for more than 25 percent of all McDonald's stores within a fifty-mile radius of Colorado Springs, according to www.McDonalds.com.) He's done so by doing what he does best: innovate.

Take the example of Chick-fil-A, Bigari says as he navigates through traffic on North Powers Boulevard. A local Chick-fil-A franchise owner is planning on building a new, "free-stander" restaurant next to Bigari's "big battleship" on Highway 83 and North Academy Boulevard. It's a direct attack -- one that he's not taking lying down.

"They're a wonderful company," says Bigari as he stops at a red light. "But it's my job to put them out of business."

He plans to hit Chick-fil-A where it hurts. Unlike most fast-food companies, Chick-fil-A also does catering. So while this Chick-fil-A franchise owner is busy building a new restaurant, Bigari's going to start his own rival catering business. He's already in discussion with chef Mike Longo, formerly of the Broadmoor Hotel.

A catering company run by a McDonald's franchisee? You can imagine Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's Corporation, rolling over in his grave. Maybe that's why Bigari is hush-hush about the specifics: The head honchos at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, aren't yet aware of his catering plan.

Eighty percent of McDonald's restaurants worldwide are owned and operated by franchise owners. At its core, McDonald's Corporation is a giant landlord: Franchisees are responsible for furnishing and managing their restaurants, while McDonald's owns the land beneath them. For Bigari, the Golden Arches empire is both his benefactor and his watchdog, his springboard and his leash. He enjoys the flexibility of owning a local business while also leveraging the infrastructure, resources and brand name of a global corporation.

Back in 1948, Richard and Maurice "Mac" McDonald were innovators just like Bigari who came up with the strange idea of eliminating their carhops and glassware and turning their burger kitchens into assembly lines. Then came the biggest entrepreneur of them all, Ray Kroc, who had the outrageous idea of taking the McDonald's concept nationwide. And where did such McDonald's staples as the Big Mac, the Filet-O-Fish, the Egg McMuffin and even Ronald McDonald come from? Franchise owners.

But if McDonald's was founded by iconoclasts, it didn't get where it is today by letting every franchisee go hog wild. The key to McDonald's success is that the food is the same everywhere. A Quarter Pounder is a Quarter Pounder is a Quarter Pounder, whether you're in Anchorage or Miami or Maine. And to ensure this, a franchise must follow thousands of rules and procedures. The operation manual is hundreds of pages thick, detailing everything from the thickness of fries to the size of each pickle slice. Needless to say, that doesn't leave much room for creativity -- which is exactly the way Kroc wanted it.

"We cannot trust some people who are non-conformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry," Kroc once said. "The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."

The very individualistic Bigari acknowledges that not everyone in Oak Brook has been keen on his inventions. And he wishes the company had moved faster after he came up with the drive-thru call-center idea in 2002. "Three years in a corporate life cycle is pretty fast. It seems like an eternity to me," he confesses. "My only disappointment is that if we as an organization had moved ahead faster, we may have precluded other brands from getting this."

Other fast-food chains will be unveiling their own versions of drive-thru call centers very soon. Exit41's Tengler chooses his words carefully. "It's the balance of innovation and scale that all big companies wrestle with," he says. "This was a very controversial technology, from a provider not approved by McDonald's. If I'm running an enterprise with 13,000 stores, the best way to make sure everybody is on the same road is to make sure nobody diverts themselves."

After struggling with stagnating revenues, McDonald's Corp. has made a much-publicized turnaround over the past few years. The public face of this upswing is the "I'm Lovin' It" campaign and healthier menu choices. But the real transformation, says Bigari, has come from deep within the corporation. "In my eighteen years' experience with the brand, it was the first time we [owner/operators] were able to participate in the day-to-day decision-making," he points out. "And that changed everything."

Earlier this year, McDonald's Corporation announced that it was running its own drive-thru call-center test. By the end of next year, the Exit41 software in Bigari's restaurants will be replaced by a version developed by McDonald's Corp. If the concept goes nationwide, Oak Brook could buy out Bigari's call center.

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