You’ve driven south on Stony Island Avenue—maybe on your way to the Pullman National Monument for a history tour or to fill up on some smoked and fried fish at the venerable Calumet Fisheries. Or maybe on your way to a dip at the 63rd Street Beach or to take a stroll through Jackson Park. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve taken this route, you’ve passed a McDonald’s that from the outside is as unremarkable as any other of the 38,000 locations you can find anywhere around the globe. And if you’ve ordered food from the drive through, you’ll find that the food is no different from that of any other of Chicago’s 111 McDonald’s.
Indeed, that is one of the enduring appeals of fast-food chains like McDonald’s—no matter which one you go to, you can order a Big Mac and it will taste exactly like the Big Mac you scarfed down decades ago when you were a kid with an insatiable appetite.
But what belies the unexceptional appearance and menu offerings of this particular McDonald’s, is that this spot is the very first Black-owned-and-operated McDonald’s franchise in the country. Herman Petty opened the franchise in 1968 during the heyday of the civil rights era when there were growing calls for Black ownership of businesses, and the restaurant was later purchased by Yolanda Travis in 2007, keeping it in Black hands.
“Make no mistake—Herman Petty was a true history maker and risk taker. When he purchased the store, it meant that African Americans could invest in and strengthen our communities, and we’ve been doing that ever since,” Travis said in an interview with Block Club Chicago.
If you walk inside, that much is abundantly clear. Al Green and Marvin Gaye play over speakers, while life-size photos of Black children beam at customers. Near the back, a large bronze plaque displays the names of all the current Black McDonald’s owner-operators, recognizing their contributions to the growth and permanence of the Golden Arches chain.
Mere miles away from Travis’s outpost is the seat of McDonald’s global operations, the headquarters from which strategic marketing and supply chain decisions get made. Their training program for aspiring franchise owners, Hamburger University, is also run out of those same offices in Fulton Market.
For the corporate executives of the late 1960s, placing a McDonald’s under Black leadership had less to do with altruistic motives and more to do with self-interest—with white owners and employees deserting neighborhoods, McDonald’s needed people to fill those vacant restaurants and positions. And at the same time as Chicago’s South and West Sides went into serious economic decline because of disinvestment and the flight of industry, McDonald’s benefitted from massive federal investments in new highways that cut apart neighborhoods, creating food deserts where residents would have no choice but to eat out at their restaurants.
Today, Black franchisees like Travis are struggling to hold on to their businesses and to keep their dreams of making a fortune off frying patties alive, even as corporate profits hit all-time highs. Based on documents from the National Black McDonald’s Owners Association, the number of Black owner-operators declined from 304 outlets to only 222 from 2008 to 2017. What explains that drop? Apparently, the gap in cash flow between the typical McDonald’s franchise and Black-owned ones has widened from $24,600 a month to $60,600 over the five years preceding 2017.
So if McDonald’s corporate is to live up to the commitments made in its marketing blitz in support of Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, it had better reinvest its profits where its buns are and do more for Black franchise owners to minimize the cash flow gap— but it should also accede to the demands of its Black and brown workers in their fight for paid leave and basic workplace protections.
McDonald’s, 6560 S. Stony Island Ave. Open 24/7. (773) 493-5800