Back in January 1972, President Richard Nixon announced his bid for re-election. The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl. The first Iowa Caucus was conducted.
And 15-year-old Stan Neal of Hagerstown began a career with the best-known fast-food company in the world — a career that has only now concluded.
In his 50 years with McDonald’s, Neal rose from crew worker to become a franchisee who owned 25 McDonald’s restaurants in Maryland and West Virginia — including all the stores in Washington County.
Neal has opted to retire now, having sold all his stores to new owners. But his loyalty to the brand is evident in the memorabilia filling his Hagerstown office.
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“It’s been a good company for me,” he said. “McDonald’s is a good brand. And it’s been very rewarding over the years. It’s been stressful and it’s been challenging, but you know, it’s been rewarding.”
Lots of teenagers get their first gig at McDonald’s or other fast-food enterprises, but most move on. So what kept Neal under the golden arches?
“Back when I started back in 1972, there wasn’t a whole lot of jobs in Washington County,” he said during a recent interview. “If you had a decent-paying job, something that might have been a career, you didn’t leave it because there wasn’t a whole lot of jobs.
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“I lived up in the West End of Hagerstown. We were a very poor family. I got the opportunity to go start working at McDonald’s … and I never left. I’ve been there ever since.”
He worked his way up from the “crew” to manager, then supervisor. Under the tutelage of the Levine family, who owned the Hagerstown McDonald’s stores, Neal eventually purchased a franchise of his own — in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
He’d worked for Murray Levine for 18 years before Levine’s son Mark took over the family’s business, Golden M Co.
“Back in 1990, I got the opportunity to buy my first store through a special program McDonald’s had,” he said.
“Mark really helped me get to where I was at to become an operator,” he said, and last year Neal bought the McDonald’s stores Golden M still owned in Hagerstown.
At that point he owned all the McDonald’s stores in Washington County, and in Cumberland and Frostburg. He also had three in Martinsburg, West Virginia, as well as stores in Shepherdstown, Ranson, Berkeley Springs, Moorefield, Romney, Petersburg and Keyser, West Virginia.
During his 50 years in fast-food, he’s chronicled plenty of changes in the McDonald’s operations.
“It’s more demanding, more hectic today,” he said.
In decades past, he found it easier to find employees.
“Back in the ’70s, ’80s and part of the ’90s, you’d get all the people you want to work for you today,” he said. “Today it’s like pulling teeth trying just to get the stores operating every day.
“We were at the point that we were borrowing people from different stores just to keep the stores operating.”
Technological advances brought sweeping change to the restaurants’ operations. When he started, he noted, cash registers were equipped with a mechanical crank that could be used to operate them if the power went out.
“Now everything’s computerized. And in the same way, equipment — more up-to-date technology.”
Kitchen timers have been replaced by programming.
The customer base has changed as well. In the past, the restaurants targeted kids, he said, with Ronald McDonald and in-store play areas.
“We still try to get the kids’ business, but we don’t do the Ronald shows and stuff like that like we used to.”
Neal, in fact, spent five of his years with McDonald’s running the regional Ronald McDonald program, seeing to the needs of the chain’s familiar mascot.
Millennials sometimes prefer other chains, Neal observed — brands that don’t necessarily specialize in burgers and fries. While McDonald’s retains loyal customers who grew up with the brand, younger customers have more choices now.
“In my personal opinion, if you don’t take your kids to McDonald’s, they don’t grow up like we did years ago — it was a thing back then,” he said.
Changing with the times has been the biggest challenge over the years, Neal said. Nevertheless, he said “all my stores have been very profitable.”
The rewarding part, he said, involves people — whether helping with the Ronald McDonald House program or helping his own employees.
“We had programs that if they got in trouble and needed money, we’d lend them money interest-free; bonuses to help them and their families out,” he said.
“The thing I’ll miss more than anything is the employee I had working for me, because I had real good long-term employees.”
Neal and McDonald’s gave back to the communities, too, hosting fundraisers for schools, donating to nonprofits and sponsoring Little League teams. Neal personally donates money to Clear Spring High School each year and helps pay for fireworks displays.
And if he had it to do over, would he change anything?
“I can’t really say there would be anything I would do differently,” he said. “You know, I’d do it all over again.”
So what’s on his agenda now?
Travel and family.
Neal is a widower with four children, but he has a fiancé and wants to see a little more of America. In anticipation, he bought a new motor home to transport him to the West and the South. He wants to see Mt. Rushmore. Head down to Florida. Visit Tennessee.
“I’ve had several (recreational vehicles) over the years but I never got to really use ’em like I wanted to,” he said.
Now he’ll have time to travel. And maybe grab his favorite meal on the McDonald’s menu — a Big Mac, diet Coke and fries.