When McDonald’s opened its first store in Waco, the Big Mac was just a toddler and the Happy Meal was not even a gleam in company founder Ray Kroc’s eye.
The year was 1972, and the golden arches went up at Valley Mills and Wooded Acres drives, continuing their explosive growth across America.
Waco’s restaurant, like all others at that time, featured a basement because that’s how the Illinois-based company did things in those days.
But the look of that corner is about to change. The city’s original Mickey D’s on Sunday will serve its last quarter pounders, fries and lattes, and then bow out. Bulldozers await to raze the nostalgia-filled restaurant, making space for a new McDonald’s built to the company’s latest specifications.
“It will be similar to our Lacy Lakeview store in appearance,” said John Morin, who became the local franchisee in 2000 and now owns nine locations.
Morin expects the latest version to open for business in late August or early September, weather permitting.
The restaurant’s 47 staffers and 10 managers will move to other locations in Greater Waco until their new facility is ready.
Features customers will notice include padded seating, TV sets in the lobby, an indoor play area, a digital menu board and two drive-thru lanes instead of one, he said.
“We’ll have free Wi-Fi, as we do now, and touch-screen digital games mounted on the wall, which youngsters really like,” Morin said.
The reconfigured site will have one entrance and exit off Valley Mills Drive instead of two and one entrance and exit off Wooded Acres Drive. The brick-and-glass store will seat about 135 customers, and 57 parking stalls will surround it, which is fewer than the present store has.
Morin said McDonald’s has changed its prototype and is working with franchisees to help them make the transition in their zones.
“On this store, I will put up more than $1 million, and McDonald’s will come up with $1 million on its end,” he said.
Locations on South Sixth Street and in Lacy Lakeview have new looks, while those on Hewitt Drive, Franklin Avenue and North 19th Street will get theirs later.
But dislodging the city’s first McDonald’s gives this stage of the process a different flavor.
“I’m part of a group that meets there every day for coffee. I’m a seven-day-a-week customer,” said Chuck Becker, 62, who said he has seen it evolve from a good place for burgers and fries to a community attraction where families held birthday parties and youngsters invaded the play area.
Becker said it seems to him that McDonald’s is trying to create a “classier place,” without losing its mass appeal.
“We’ll probably find a new location to meet for coffee, probably the one on Franklin Avenue. But when they reopen, we’ll be back,” he said.
Gordon Harriman III, a Waco real estate developer, said he hopes McDonald’s decision to upgrade on Valley Mills Drive prompts other restaurants and retail establishments to do the same.
“Honestly, I think Valley Mills Drive is losing its luster to Hewitt Drive,” Harriman said, referring to the thoroughfare running through West Waco and Hewitt that has exploded with eating places and shopping centers as McLennan County’s population has shifted westward.
“I was driving there at 1 in the afternoon (Wednesday), and it was absolutely packed,” Harriman said.
Harriman has put his money where his priorities lie, selling land to the Aldi’s grocery chain on land across Wooded Acres Drive from the McDonald’s.
He also has created a mixed-use plaza there called Lakewood Center that will include such tenants as Mama Fu’s Asian House, Smashburger and Palm Beach Tan.
“My property is fully committed, but I’m still getting calls from national chains, one of which offered to buy me out. But I’m not selling,” said Harriman, who thinks Valley Mills Drive can return to its heyday with developments like his, the new McDonald’s and H-E-B’s new Plus! store being built at Valley Mills Drive and Interstate 35.