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At McDonald's in Harlem with: Ronald Bailey

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-14

Ronald Bailey of New Orleans creates dead-end jobs in Harlem.

"People have no idea what these so-called dead-end jobs are all about," the owner-operator of six McDonald's stores in Harlem said. "I have more than 300 young people working for me - mostly high school students - and there are 41 different areas that we teach. Each store has 10 stations. That means staff members learn everything from dealing with people to food preparation to handling money and looking after the facilities. I look at their school report cards. I offer scholarships.

"This is all being part of the community. There's no shame in starting out at the bottom. All labor has dignity," he said.

The idea of dignity seems to drive Mr. Bailey. As a teenager growing up in a predominantly African-American section of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward, he was frequently harassed by local police.

"I worked evenings at a pharmacy in a white neighborhood - and every evening I would be stopped by white cops," Mr. Bailey said. "I would be accused of stealing supplies, even though the cops had absolutely no proof of that. It was harassment, pure and simple."

His father, Ulysses - a construction foreman - and mother Lucille - a nurse - had always encouraged Ronald and his seven siblings, including an identical twin Donald, to obtain a good education.

And so it was that Mr. Bailey found himself at Los Angeles City College.

"I never forgot the treatment I'd received at the hands of those cops in New Orleans," Mr. Bailey said. "I went to college at night, and found an administrative day job at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. I had wanted to be a lawyer - but I soon lost that desire, and decided instead to become a cop. I took courses in law enforcement, and criminal justice."

By the time he was 21, Mr. Bailey had become a full officer in the sheriff's department, which is responsible for law enforcement in 44 of the county's 85 cities. Within three years, he was promoted to the rank of detective. Other promotions followed, and Mr. Bailey later became a lieutenant. While he was on the force, he obtained a business management degree from the University of Redlands.

Mr. Bailey's twin brother Donald was a member of the LAPD at the time, and he suggested that they both quit their respective forces in order to become owners of McDonald's franchise stores. About 85% of the 13,700 McDonald's stores in America are controlled by independent businessmen under franchise agreements with the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company, according to Wikipedia.

Mr. Bailey demurred on the grounds that he'd still needed two years before he was eligible for a full pension and medical benefits from the sheriff's department. Donald Bailey retired from the force anyway, and bought McDonald's stores in the Los Angeles area (he still runs them).

After his retirement, Ronald Bailey decided to follow in his brother's footsteps. He enrolled at McDonald's Hamburger University in Oak Brook, where some 5,000 would-be store managers and owner-operators take courses each year. Mr. Bailey said that he "fast-tracked" a 24-month program in 13 months.

Then a question arose: Where would he acquire his first McDonald's store?

A company official said to him, "Ever been to New York?"

Mr. Bailey: "No."

Official: "Ever heard of the Bronx?"

Mr. Bailey: "No."

Official: "There are great opportunities in the South Bronx."

The official did not point out that the South Bronx in those days - it was 1989 - was crime ridden and also suffered from urban decay. Indeed, after Mr. Bailey's wife, Johnnie Handy, toured the area, she firmly advised her husband not to go for it.

"But I was carried away by my enthusiasm to be an entrepreneur - so I acquired a McDonald's store on Garrison Avenue," Mr. Bailey said.

The purchase price of an existing restaurant depends on cost factors such as the price paid to the selling franchisee, sales or transfer taxes, the reinvestment needs of the restaurant, and ongoing fees, according to a McDonald's spokesman, Bill Whitman. A minimum of $175,000 in personal resources is generally needed.

Mr. Bailey ran the South Bronx store for 12 years.

"It was all about believing in the neighborhood," he said. "I dealt with local gangs by hiring the sisters and brothers of gang members. Thus, I had no trouble - ever. I was told that I shouldn't put cushions on the seats. Well, I did - and no one ripped them. I wanted a clean, beautiful facility, one that brought dignity to the area. People loved the idea that I'd taken a chance - and they gave me a chance."

Mr. Bailey expanded his holdings by acquiring another McDonald's in the South Bronx through his company, RJB Foods Incorporated. Then he moved to Harlem, where he now has six stores. According to the food service consultancy Technomic, McDonald's, the largest restaurant chain in America, had sales of $25.6 billion last year, a 5.1% growth over 2004.

Mr. Bailey's flagship is the store at the corner of Broadway and 125th street. It's open 24 hours, and serves some 50 different items to more than 1,500 customers every day. Mr. Bailey is almost always present.

"To be part of the community, you have to be in the community," he said. "You need to know your customers by name. The test is if your first-time customer becomes a return customer."

He often meets owners of McDonald's stores overseas. The company says that McDonald's restaurants are to be found in 118 countries and territories, and that they serve more than 50 million customers each day.

On his visits, Mr. Bailey emphasizes the importance of job creation, particularly in underprivileged communities. He also emphasizes that service to the community must mean more than serving food. He points to various philanthropic and cultural programs initiated by McDonald's, including an annual "GospelFest." On Thursday, some 3,000 performers - chosen from 90,000 national candidates - will appear at a three-day event at City Center.

Mr. Bailey and his wife will be cheering them. So will their two sons: Ronald Jr. operates McDonald's stores in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Brian is working with his father to take over the Harlem business some day.

"There's a special joy in helping build your community," Mr. Bailey said. "I had a choice of being bitter or helping society. I think I chose well."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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