SAN BERNARDINO – This bankrupt city, so down on its luck for so long, once held the chest-puffing distinction as the cradle of fast-food civilization.
We say "once" because, like so many other misfortunes that hit sad-sack San Bernardino over the years, it was all but yanked out of the city's grasp decades ago.
It's a long, litigious story you really don't want to hear in depth, involving Ray Kroc and the hegemonic McDonald's Corp., flexing its Big Mac-fueled biceps and trying to wipe clean the Southern California chapter of the sweeping McDonald's saga.
Suffice it to say that, if you want to visit the official McDonald's Museum – the one that's trademarked, the one that is swimming in a deep-fried vat of Golden Arches memories – you must go to Des Plaines, Ill., where Kroc opened his first "official" franchise in 1955.
But if you want to see the place where McDonald's actually got its start – and we know you do, despite all that health-conscious tsk-tsking – you go to a low-rise building here at 14th and E streets.
This was the spot at which brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a hamburger stand on Dec. 12, 1948, that promised high volume, low prices and, above all, fast service. Eight years later, milkshake-machine salesman Kroc persuaded the brothers to let him franchise the business and, by 1961, he had bought out the brothers for $2.7 million.
From that point, fast-food history was made. Terms such as Happy Meal and McNuggets became as affixed to American culture as plaque on hardened arteries. As for San Bernardino? Well, the site of the first McDonald's changed hands several times – first becoming a taco stand, then a music store, then home to the city's Civic Light Opera before it went bankrupt.
But here's where this dour story turns uplifting. A local businessman named Albert Okura, building a nascent rotisserie chicken chain called Juan Pollo, had read about the property's foreclosure in 1998 and bought it for $130,000.
"In the '80s, people in San Bernardino were bitter because they knew their place in McDonald's history, but the official story everyone else in the world knew was that the first McDonald's was in the Chicago area," he said. "So I went and looked at the property, not in a great area. But I couldn't let it drop. I had to buy it."
It was, Okura admitted, a completely sentimental gesture. He didn't want to see the site razed and become a blighted, weed-infested eyesore. And he also had an idea to open half the building as a museum celebrating San Bernardino's place in McDonald's lore, while using the other half as corporate offices for his Juan Pollo chain, now with 32 locations.
This is what a savvy, hustling businessman like Okura, 61, calls a win-win proposition.
McDonald's corporate suits, who guard company trademarks as closely as their french fry recipe, did not take too kindly to Okura's idea. Remember, there's that "official" museum in Des Plaines.
But McDonald's does acknowledge that San Bernardino was the original, pre-Kroc site. And Okura said he's worked out an agreement with the corporation so that his shrine to McDonald's early days doesn't violate any trademarks.
"I can't call it the McDonald's museum," Okura said, with a nervous laugh. "You can call it that, but I can't, officially. What I can say is it's the 'historic site of the original McDonald's restaurant.' "
Given that somewhat chilly blessing, Okura went about gathering memorabilia, locally and internationally, to stock the HSotOMcDR. (Ah, what the heck, let's risk a lawsuit and call it the museum.) He went to collectors. He went to local old-timers. He put word out in the newspaper. He wanted to open the museum in time for the 50th anniversary of Richard and Maurice's opening.
There wasn't a great deal of memorabilia on display back in 1998 when Okura opened the museum's doors. But, over the years, it's steadily grown into an impressive array of kitsch mixed with period photographs.
Out front, of course, is the original red-and-gold sign with the word "HAMBURGERS" and the price (15 cents) circled, along with an explanation to new customers: "Self Service System." Below, the brothers kept a running tally: "We Have Sold Over 1 Million."
Inside are photos of the brothers and a few of their kitchen appliances, including the original "grill-scraper" spatulas and a "multi-mixer" for milkshakes that Kroc sold the brothers in 1954. There also is a copy of the "McDonald's Code of Conduct," from 1947, a year before the restaurant's official opening. Here's rule No. 3: "After 7 p.m., a twenty minute time limit is in effect in car stalls and at the tables. Remaining longer will be considered objectionable."
You can easily spend 20 minutes in reverie as you ogle the promotional toys, characters and assorted apparel, conveniently separated into decades. We'd give anything to have one of those ball caps shaped just like a Big Mac. The Filet O' Fish button-down shirt? We'll take a pass.
Okura doesn't spend a lot of time at his non-museum museum. He's got the chicken restaurants to run, after all. Maybe one day, if he works hard enough, somebody will open a Juan Pollo museum. And they can put it right next to the McDonald's site.
"I believe," Okura said, "I was destined to own this property."
UNOFFICIAL McDONALD'S MUSEUM
What: The site of the first McDonald's restaurant
Where: 1398 N. E St., San Bernardino
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.