Added On: Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Boss Lady' is pioneer of fast food

Gene Widdicombe was the first woman to own a McDonald's franchise in Orange County.

Ray Kroc wined and dined Roland and Gene Widdicombe at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles to convince them to invest their life savings in a string of McDonald's burger stands.

The wooing worked, leading to the 1957 opening of Orange County's first Golden Arches, built on Harbor Boulevard near Disneyland – a dream project concocted by another determined businessman.

Fifty years later, Gene Widdicombe, won't regale you with stories of fame, glory and fortune for dishing out $60,000 on a company that would eventually become a billion-dollar, worldwide food brand. Instead, Widdicombe – a slight stature 88-year-old nicknamed "Boss Lady" by her employees — tells you this.

"We were poor for a very long time."

• • •

The Widdicombes raised cattle in the rural Canadian province of Manitoba. But they were forced to seek a warmer climate in the early 1950s when their oldest son came down with a severe case of bronchial asthma.

"He couldn't live in that cold weather," Gene says.

So, they moved to South Dakota.

"That was almost as cold as Canada," Gene laughs.

With friends in Southern California, the family trekked out West in 1955 to Glendora, a rural community nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. There, Roland Widdicombe worked as a ranch hand.

But, life in Glendora wasn't cutting it so they began looking for a business investment. They thought about raising cattle, but it was too expensive. Then, after visiting friends in San Bernardino, they made a pit stop at a bustling hamburger stand run by two brothers named McDonald.

"The kids loved it," Gene says, referring to her children ages, 3, 5 and 7.

Shortly after the McDonald's encounter, Gene saw an ad in the local newspaper promoting opportunities to buy McDonald's franchises in California.

Going from "selling beef on the hoof to beef in a bun" didn't seem like a huge stretch, so she clipped the ad and wrote a letter to Chicago. The city was home to Ray Kroc, a milkshake salesman who had snapped up the rights to expand McDonald's.

Gene's letter was blunt. She had one question: "How much?"

The thrifty Canadian says: "It's my favorite saying."

The answer came back several days later: $60,000.

That fee would have the same buying power today as nearly $500,000 — or less than half of the money needed to buy a McDonald's franchise at current prices. But, for Gene, $60,000 was no bargain.

"Forget it," she huffed at the price.

After a few weeks, the phone rang.

It was Kroc. He was headed out West, and wanted to meet the prospective investors.

A seasoned salesman, he knew how to seal a deal and made dinner reservations at the famed Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel. By the end of the night, the Widdicombes agreed to join Kroc in building a burger empire.

To commemorate the moment, Kroc told Gene to buy "any gift" she wanted from the hotel gift shop – on his tab. She chose a quirky wooden jungle monkey that – to this day – she keeps in her Garden Grove office.

That night, the Widdicombes went home thinking: "Wow. We're going to make a lot of money."

But, they quickly learned that the rest of the world wasn't quite ready for McDonald's.

• • •

The Widdicombes, now living in Garden Grove, opened the restaurant at 12542 Harbor Blvd. Though it was Orange County's first McDonald's, such a milestone was meaningless at the time, Gene says.

"Nobody knew McDonald's back then. It was just another hamburger joint."

The Garden Grove McDonald's was a walk-up stand serving a limited menu of burgers, fries and shakes for as little as 15 cents. The chain's then hamburger-shaped mascot -- Speedee -- lit up the night's sky in bright white and yellow neon. Employees wore white tuxedo-style blazers with blue cuffs and aprons handmade by Gene.

Fred Turner, Kroc's business partner, flew out for opening day.

Customers were scarce. So much so that Turner, dressed in black pants and tie, began flagging cars along Harbor Boulevard to drum up business.

The opening day's take of $52 was a big disappointment.

"If you did that in an hour these days, you'd go bankrupt," Gene says.

In the first few years, Roland and Gene took on many tasks to keep expenses down. They limited employees to three. Roland took orders, manned the grill and did maintenance. Gene cleaned and pressed each uniform nightly and handled the books.

The kids trotted to the restaurant after school, and would do homework in the back supply room while their parents worked.

Though, short on money. They were never short on spirit - or food.

"We'd eat hamburger meat every night," Gene's youngest daughter, Patti Widdicombe, recalls.

Gene was resourceful with ground beef, making goulash, meatloaf and meat balls. She doesn't apologize for the early struggles. That's just the way it was.

"They didn't go hungry," she says matter-of-factly.

Patti, who now runs the family business, recalls how hard her parents worked, especially her father. Each night, it was a ritual for her to look out the backyard window, where she could see the neon glow of the McDonald's marquee.

"When the lights went off, I could tell my dad was coming home," says Patti.

While Roland ran the restaurant, Gene schemed – behind the scenes — to drive sales.

She forced employees to park out front to make the business look busy. She also scouted rival eateries in the area to see what customers were eating. That prompted her to add pizza, hot dogs and apple pie to the menu. She also added patio furniture for customers to sit on while eating.

Every idea Gene had ran counter to Kroc's strict standardized rules for McDonald's.

"Ray's not going to like it," a more cautious Roland would tell his wife.

Gene's response: "What he doesn't know won't hurt him."

But, Kroc did find out, and would call Gene to insist that she stick with the program. Like a mother hen protecting her brood, she told him: "We have to pay the rent."

Years later, Gene says her defiance probably irked Kroc. "I think he thought I was too mouthy."

• • •

As the McDonald's empire grew, so did the Widdicombes profits. Then, tragedy struck. Roland died in a freak horse accident in Orange Park Acres in 1966. After his death, McDonald's "encouraged" Gene to sell the restaurant.

"They thought her place was at home with the children." Patti says.

But Gene wouldn't give up. "We had too much invested. Blood, sweat and tears," she says.

She hung on, and with the help of her children, has become a local McDonald's pioneer. She's the first woman in Orange County to operate a McDonald's. In 1974, the single, mother of three opened her second McDonald's in Garden Grove.

Her restaurants were the first in Orange County to introduce a drive-through (1977) and a PlayPlace (1983) kids zone.

Today, five of the more than 30,000 McDonald's operating in the world belong to Gene Widdicombe.

Before Kroc's 1984 death, he talked to Gene about her early struggles. "I'm so glad you are doing well. I felt for what you went through," he told her.

With faith, and a lot of hard work, Gene says she always knew she could make it. Besides, guess what her second favorite saying is? "There's no such thing as, I can't."



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