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Mr. Big

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

That would be okay with him. He'll continue to dream up new ways to make fast-food faster, but in the meantime, he's got bigger potatoes to fry.


If you could walk around inside Steve Bigari's head, your trip might look like Mr. Biggs' Family Fun Center.

A warehouse-sized building just off I-25 in Colorado Springs, Mr. Biggs' is 152,000 square feet of bright colors, booming rock and roll, high-speed electronics and stuff that's big, big, big. There's the laser-gun attack on a downed alien starship, a post-apocalyptic go-kart track, an acid-dipped croquet game, a foam cannonball-spewing pirate ship, a hair boutique, a theater space, a bowling alley, a Funky Junky Chow House restaurant, a Chez Biggs gourmet eatery and a host of other sense-jiggling activities in "the biggest little town around."

Bigari didn't plan on building the largest family center in Colorado Springs. (And he swears he wasn't the inspiration for its mascot, Mr. Biggs, who looks like Mr. Clean after too much time in Jamaica.) He actually just wanted to move his corporate offices when he bought a property that was too large for his operations. So Bigari thought big. Very big. Since he opened Mr. Biggs' on the site last March, he's drawn tens of thousands of visitors and started talk of turning it into a chain.

"Mr. Biggs' is an afterthought," he says, pushing open a door that leads out of the candy-colored clamor of the fun center and into a maze of offices that are the Bigari Food Enterprises headquarters. "It's all just hiding my fascination in life, which is the working poor."

For years, Bigari has struggled with the idea of helping the working poor, people like his father, people like those who staff his front counters and call center. "There are 39 million working poor in this country," he says. "It's a systemic economic failure. I want to help overcome that."

Critics of the fast-food industry, including Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser, point out that the sector pays some of the lowest wages and offers the worst benefit packages. "Eric got it wrong; it's that simple," responds Bigari. "McDonald's is a powerful tool. Great brands like McDonald's can be used for tremendous good, or they can be manipulated for tremendous wrong. All he sees is what's been done wrong, and he's failed to see the power of being able to act responsibly."

While Bigari wanted to use his company to help people, he realized that "you can't charge enough for a Big Mac to do it." He considered raising pay to $12 an hour, but all of his restaurants would have promptly gone into the red. So instead, he handed out hundreds of dollars to employees, helped them buy cars, gave them better hours. But like his drive-thrus, he just couldn't serve everyone fast enough.

So Bigari took a big-picture view of the problem and came back with a plan. He recognized that assistance services, such as children's health-insurance programs, tax credits and housing vouchers, already existed to help the working poor -- but most people didn't know how to access them. The distribution point for this aid, Bigari realized, had to be those who know the working poor best: their employers.

This realization formed the basis of America's Family Inc., a non-profit organization that Bigari founded in 2002 which has no connection to McDonald's. ("Otherwise, it becomes somebody's pet project," Bigari points out.) By partnering with service-industry companies, America's Family offers a no-cost, one-stop clearinghouse of information on private, public and non-profit social services (the website is www.amfol.com).

Bigari started out by helping give his restaurant employees access to services that provide low-cost health care, pharmacy discounts, bank cards, subsidized housing, tuition reimbursement and sliding-scale child care, building a do-it-yourself component into the system. You can get low-interest loans, but first you have to take a personal-finance class that will teach you how to budget for rent. Yes, you can buy super-cheap computers, but first you need to learn how to use e-mail. Over the past three years, America's Family has expanded to serve more than 25,000 low-wage workers in Colorado Springs, including 18,000 at Fort Carson, and has earned Bigari a fellowship from Ashoka, a nonprofit that invests in social entrepreneurs around the world.

America's Family is now ready to expand to Denver, and then maybe across the country. This is where Bigari's call center enters the plan. Instead of opening an office in each metro area, he plans to connect the working poor to services using the same telecommunications technology that connects his drive-thru customers to their burgers. Someday soon, there may be specially designed kiosks in workplaces where employees can call up an America's Family representative, who will help them find the nearest community health center. That representative, sitting in a Colorado Springs call center, may well be the same person currently asking, "Want fries with that?"

"My vision of my call center has nothing to do with taking orders for McDonald's," says Bigari. His call-center employees "have graduated from the university of life. I want them to use their skills, and I want to pay them more. I don't want them working at McDonald's the rest of their lives."

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