McDonald’s secret sauce may be community

A group of about 12 regular customers have been coming into the Selbyville McDonald’s three times a day, five days a week, since the restaurant opened its doors in 1995.

The secret sauce at Delaware McDonald’s may be the camaraderie. The iconic restaurants have become spontaneous community centers, especially as more customers discover their remodeled interiors and upgraded coffee and bathrooms.

• In Georgetown, Paul Kruger jokes about his friend Roman Cybak’s Polish heritage: “He came here from Poland with nothing but the shirt on his back. He didn’t have any pants.”
• In North Wilmington, up to 14 parishioners from St. Mary Magdalen migrate to the McDonald’s across the street after weekday morning Mass. They dub themselves the Sisterhood of the Golden Arches.
• On Wilmington’s East Side, young men nurse small coffees as they wait for trucks to pull up looking for day laborers on the corner one customer called “Fourth Street and Murder Row.”

Drawn by good, cheap coffee, clean bathrooms and kind staff who don’t mind if you linger, hundreds of airmen, high school students, homeless individuals and well-heeled retirees are gravitating to the golden arches for social ties. At impromptu McMeetups, Delawareans forge physical networks.

There’s one rule in the McDonald’s on DuPont Boulevard in Georgetown: “What’s said in McDonald’s stays in McDonald’s.”

Leonard Lucas Jr. said they talk mostly about politics and sometimes religion. Or, as he put it, “Two things we should never be talking about.”

Conversation might be too strong a work for the cutting up that goes on, but the talk turns more critical come election time. “There’s no bow-wow fence when it comes to discussions if you’re running for election around here,” Lucas said.

Like many McDonald’s coffee klatches, the Georgetown group has a self-deprecating moniker — “Super Seniors.” Last week, someone noticed a regular named B.J. hadn’t shown up in a while. “B.J. worked for a funeral home,” Lucas confided, chuckling. “We thought he was recruiting.”

Menu items come and go, but Ann Shields of North Wilmington has been meeting friends at the Concord Pike store since 1984, when she was 52.

As her friend, Helen Zeroka, 86, says, “It’s a hangout.” Over three decades some regulars have died and others have taken their places in the group, which sometimes swells to 14.

Although most Delaware stores welcome dawdlers, the fast-food-and-slow-talk combo didn’t sell in some of McDonald’s 14,000 U.S. locations.

In Flushing, N.Y., police were summoned to remove “loiterers” when a group of elderly Korean-Americans milked their discounted senior coffees so long that they crowded out paying customers during peak lunch hours. Elsewhere in Flushing, a broomstick-wielding employee struck a customer on the hand as the man attempted to take video on his phone to prove staffers were ignoring him.

Delaware’s McWorld is more welcoming, from stores in tony beach towns to the one on Wilmington’s Fourth Street, where a few patrons huddle over refillable dollar coffees.

“There are a lot of homeless people who come in here to stay warm,” customer Kevin Mobley said. “They tolerate a lot of things here. For a lot of people in this community, this is a place you can come to get away from what I call Fourth and Murder Row.”

Mike Meoli, whose family owns 14 McDonald’s, including nine in Delaware, knows many of his regulars by name and gives them small hams at Christmastime. He expanded his Selbyville restaurant because the regulars were taking up all the seats.

With upwards of 70 percent of his business drive-through since McDonald’s initiated double drive-through lanes, Meoli has reinvested in his restaurant’s interiors to provide comfy surroundings for his customers — soft seats, new bathrooms, free WiFi, and $13,000 ordering kiosks that work in both English and Spanish.

“We want to be seen as relatable, reliable, comfortable and unpretentious,” Meoli said. “Our new designs are very deliberate. We’re trying to invite people back into the restaurants again.”

Meoli has never tried to put a number on how many guests buy coffee and little else, but it is his belief that, no matter show much they spend, regulars boost sales and spirits. “Clearly the average check on those groups is lower than a normal group,” he said, “but you know what I like about having those groups in the stores? I think it’s good for the brand. I think it gives the stores some energy. I think the crew likes seeing the regular faces coming in. It makes them feel good.”

Joel Dukart, co-owner of seven Delaware stores, said customers who have grown up around a Delaware McDonald’s remember it as the place they went with friends, maybe the place they worked, and they bring their children in.

You’ll probably find a large community table in every McDonald’s that’s been remodeled in the past six years, Dukart said, and his new interiors feature cushioned seats, better lighting, televisions and murals on the wall to produce a more pleasant environment where customers can relax.

Dukart and Meoli and other McDonald’s owners have been donating to Little Leagues and school groups and silent auctions for decades, part of the company ethos.

When Dukart and his brother Michael bought the stores from their father Les and their uncle Alan Dukart in January, they knew up front that the family business supported Ronald McDonald House and four other nonprofits and filled many community requests, but they had no idea how many donations the family was making until so many requests flowed in that they ask their dad to give them a list of exactly what they were already committed to.

The late Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, gave a tall order to his franchisees:

“We have an obligation to give something back to the communities that give so much to us.”

Kroc may not have foreseen that, in addition to supporting their communities, his stores would turn into impromptu community centers.

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