"That was a perfect ball!" exclaims Steve Bigari as his bowling ball, customized in orange flames, rockets up his lane and sends all ten of his pins pirouetting through the air with a satisfying crack. "There's a lot of move to it, man!!"
Bigari's eyes gleam, just like they used to when he was dreaming up fantastical new inventions for the $10 million, 400-employee business he built around his twelve Colorado Springs McDonald's restaurants. Gadgets like high-tech doughnut cooking machines, french-fry robots and self-cleaning PlayPlace ball pits. His boyish face is plastered with the same eager grin he once flashed while describing the centralized telephone call center he designed to handle all of his restaurants' drive-thru orders, revolutionizing his all-important to-go business. And he pumps his fist in the air, just like he did last October when he shattered the world record for most cars served in a single-lane drive-thru ("Mr. Big," November 3, 2005).
But Bigari's days of basking beneath the glow of the Golden Arches are in the past. On June 15, Colorado's burger king sold his restaurants, and all that's left of his Springs-based empire is Mr. Biggs' Family Fun Center, a warehouse packed with laser-gun battles, self-serve pizza and a Technicolor bowling alley, Bigg City Lanes, once the location of his drive-thru call center. But the call-center headsets won't go silent. Bigari already has bigger, grander plans for his famous fast-food invention.
"It feels like God tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'It's time to change the world,'" says the 47-year-old. He sees the impetus behind walking away from his quick-service empire everywhere he looks -- at the front counters of his former restaurants, through the rolled-down car windows at his old drive-thrus, even here, stocking the shoe cubbies at Bigg City Lanes: the country's working poor. "They are invisible. They are everywhere," he says. And he wants to help them all.
He launched his plan in 2002, with the creation of America's Family Inc., a non-profit program that connected low-wage workers in his restaurants -- and at other Colorado Springs businesses -- with such resources as affordable health care, financial assistance and continuing-education opportunities. By the end of last year, America's Family was serving more than 25,000 clients, and Bigari was ready to super-size the organization. To do so, he realized he'd have to become the full-time patriarch of America's Family. "I looked at America's Family, and there were two significant barriers to its growth. One was me," he says. "Would you rather try and help 39 million people, or try to break the drive-thru record again?"
The other barrier was financial: Employers had to pay to be a part of America's Family and offer the company's benefits to its employees. To take the program nationwide, Bigari had to make the program cost-free for companies, yet still ensure it was attractive to low-wage workers. It was the same problem he'd faced with his fast-food joints: How do you serve as many people as possible without skyrocketing costs? To solve the conundrum, he found another quick-service sector that he could exploit through high-tech wizardry and out-of-the-box schemes: the so-called predatory-lending industry. He's restructured America's Family around the pawnshops, the rent-to-own stores, the high-cost second-mortgage companies, the auto-title pawn companies and, most significantly, the payday-loan operations that have long kept those he wants to help trapped in economic quicksand.
"There are several industries built around making wheelbarrows full of money off the poorest of the poor." Bigari says. "This is financial jujitsu. It just seemed natural to me that we could create lending opportunities for these folks with lower rates that would help our members and create revenue for the nonprofit."
It's easy to see why Bigari chose predatory lenders to be on the receiving end of his economic kung fu. In particular, the business of payday loans, small-sum loans that usually must be paid back by the borrower's payday, has been booming ever since the scheme first hit the streets in the early 1990s. In 2000, Colorado was the scene of 530,000 payday loans. Four years later, the number of payday loans doubled, and the amount of money changing hands had broken $300 million. But for many, payday loans are far from a financial godsend. A $100 payday loan in Colorado comes with a $20 finance charge -- or, in other words, a 520 percent annual interest rate, dwarfing that of any credit-card cash advance. And while Colorado law limits payday-loan terms to a maximum of forty days, legal loopholes allow consumers to become trapped in a quagmire of debt, paying off one payday loan with another.
Instead, Bigari imagines a scenario where a down-on-his-luck worker calls up his employer and explains how he can't come to work because his car broke down. The company then refers the worker to its partner charity, America's Family, which will loan him $300 to fix his wheels. Plus, if he fills out a "Budgeting 101" worksheet, he'll only have to pay a trivial finance charge on the advance. Then America's Family will offer him another loan, maybe $500. Here's the catch: He'll pay it back over six months, building up his credit history, and along the way he'll meet with a financial counselor, learning about money management, government programs he can use, and educational opportunities. In other words, Bigari will use cheap loans to lure people to America's Family, then he'll teach them to stop borrowing money.
The operation is already under way. Bigari's working with New Profit Inc., a national social entrepreneurial organization. Employers such as the Broadmoor, Phil Long Dealerships, Qwest and Fort Carson have signed on. "If I were a farmer, I am pulling the corn off the stalks in Colorado Springs, I'm tilling the field in Denver, and I'm looking for land in other cities. I'm looking for land!" he hollers, momentarily distracted from the animations on the television screen above his bowling lane celebrating his latest spare.
To cut down costs, Bigari explains, there will be no brick-and-mortar storefronts, no excessive overhead costs. "Call us up!" he exclaims, holding an imaginary phone to his ear. That's right: His call-center employees, long taking french-fry orders and describing Happy Meal toys, will soon be offering workers low-interest loans and connecting them with low-cost child care over the phone or online at www.amfol.com.
"It's jujitsu work!" Bigari exclaims again, his mind running through all the financial judo moves. Then, for a moment, he's calm, thinking about what's he's left behind, his years working for McDonald's, a place that wasn't just the world's largest fast-food chain, but "30,000 of my closest friends." Sure, the head honchos in Oak Brook, Illinois, may have been slow to pick up on the potential of his drive-thru call center, but the Golden Arches were his identity for eighteen years. "There are things you wish would have happened sooner, but that's what a big company is like," he says. "I would have been happy working for McDonald's till I was seventy years old, wiping tables."
For the time being, however, he has no plans to get back in the corporate fast lane, either at McDonald's or anywhere else. "It's not like I have a job now; it's a mission!" he exclaims. For now, he'll devote himself to America's Family -- as well as his own family, his wife and five children. Plus, he's confident that his drive-thru world record -- 371 cars in one hour -- won't be broken. Heck, the old record-holder, a McDonald's owner in Cheyenne, Wyoming, named Jack Preiss, hasn't even mentioned a comeback. Though, Bigari whispers conspiratorially, "If he does break it, I may have to strap on a spatula."
Then Bigari turns back to his bowling game. His back arched, his right foot lifted, his ball held close to his chest, he greedily eyes the white sentinels at the end of his lane. Then the ball is loose, orange flames whirling, exploding into the pins, leaving one standing. "Oh! I got robbed! Rats!" he moans as he plops into a plastic chair. "I quit." But there's still that fiery look in his eye; he's already planning his next turn, diagramming his next moves, imagining all those pins swept away.
He looks up with a mischievous smile. "Just teasing," he admits. He's not quitting anything.
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