Entrepreneur builds a career beneath golden arches

June 21, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Businessman evolves from milkshake maestro to burger king

Alan Finkelstein

The menu is different, but the golden arches — global emblem for billions and billions served — remain the same.

In 1971, a 16-year-old Alan Finkelstein started work at a McDonald’s restaurant at Seattle’s University Village, earning less than $2 per hour. The early days included stints minding the milkshake machine — a more complicated task in the pre-electronics era, because orders had to be tracked on paper tickets.

Nowadays, Finkelstein is responsible for a lot more than milkshakes. The longtime Sammamish Plateau resident and entrepreneur owns McDonald’s restaurants in Kent, Maple Valley, Sammamish and the busy-as-a-beehive eatery along Northwest Gilman Boulevard in Issaquah.

In 40 years beneath the golden arches, Finkelstein has amassed encyclopedic knowledge about the company — he can quote freely from McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc — and intertwined his restaurants into the surrounding communities.

“Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, said, ‘You want to give back to your communities, because they are the people that help you every day,’” Finkelstein said.

The experience behind the counter means he can relate to employees assembling a Big Mac from the bun up or pulling french fries from a deep fryer, because he used to handle the same tasks. Sometimes, he pops in after midnight at the restaurants to meet employees. (McDonald’s, for the record, did not remain open 24 hours in 1971.)

Building a family

For Finkelstein, the connection to the restaurants is personal, too. He met his future wife, Cassie, then a coworker, at a McDonald’s in the 1970s. The younger generation of Finkelsteins — son Steven, and daughters Cherie Knudsen, a first-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary School in Sammamish, and Elissa Finkelstein — all logged time behind the counter in McDonald’s as teenagers. Elissa is a tasting room manager at a Woodinville winery. Steven is a Texas A&M University astrophysicist.

For the family, the connection to the community does not stop at the restaurant door.

“I think it’s great that our daughter works at a school that’s in the same neighborhood as our McDonald’s, and that we all live in the neighborhood, too,” Cassie Finkelstein said. “That’s something I always dreamed of.”

Knudsen said her parents emphasized hard work to her and her siblings. Before she joined the staff at Discovery, she worked for a time at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle — a nonprofit organization set up to allow parents to stay near hospitalized children.

“My dad’s had the same job for 40 years — that’s a work ethic,” she said. “I always say that I have a really good work ethic. That’s one of the things that my parents brought me up knowing.”

McDonald’s estimates half of its franchise owners started as crewmembers behind the counter. Kroc, the legendary McDonald’s executive responsible for reshaping the way billions and billions eat, said “ketchup in your veins” is essential for restaurant owner-operators, such as Finkelstein.

Finkelstein has built a career in the company as McDonald’s shifted from offering a plain-Jane menu to including items like lattes, wraps and oatmeal. The constant evolution is something Finkelstein has experienced day after day for the past 40 years. He describes the updates as a way to remain relevant and adapt to customers’ changing palates.

Like everyone else in McDonald’s management, he attended the famed Hamburger University in 1976 and again in 1991. The corporate college is on the McDonald’s campus in Oak Brook, Ill. Finkelstein remembers a setting akin to a traditional university, although in addition to traditional business courses, instruction is heavy on McDonald’s 101.

Closer to home, Finkelstein serves on the Sammamish Chamber of Commerce board and has long supported schools in the Issaquah and Lake Washington districts. Forging ties to communities surrounding restaurants started almost as soon as he started working at McDonald’s, he recalled.

Building a community

Finkelstein hosted a McTeacher’s Night at a Sammamish restaurant last month as Issaquah organizations attempted to raise money for updated science textbooks and materials. Knudsen joined colleagues to staff the drive-thru and punch orders into cash registers as students sold chocolate-chip cookies by the fistful and gathered tips from jars set atop the counter.

“It’s exciting to be able to help my dad out and make money for our cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, as teachers and school administrators juggled orders for Chicken McNuggets and cheeseburgers, a standing-room-only crush of parents and children swarmed through the restaurant.

“It’s all about giving back to the community,” Finkelstein said amid the swirl. “This is just a way that we can provide the venue and give them a chance to come in. You should see the kids when they come in and they see their principal or they see their teacher.”

Finkelstein said such experiences allow customers to put a “face to the restaurant” and, as if to reiterate the commitment, greeted customers with, “Thanks for coming in. Thanks for supporting the school.”

The dedication stretches back 40 years, to a different McDonald’s on the other side of Lake Washington. The menu is different now, but Finkelstein said his values remain the same.

“The community’s important. They’re the ones that are here for us,” he said. “It’s been a fun time to give back.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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