FALL RIVER — Some people count sheep to get to sleep. Steve Walach counts Big Macs and McMuffins.
And although Walach may not actually dream of McDonald’s menu items, he could be excused for doing so after spending five decades working for the fast food company.
“I love McDonald’s and being in the restaurants. It’s a very fast-paced environment,” he said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cumberland, Rhode Island, native’s working relationship with the McDonald’s Corporation, both in a corporate and franchisee capacity.
His South End McDonald’s restaurant
Walach’s connection to Fall River dates back to 2009, when the company offered him the chance to become the owner-operator of the McDonald’s at 1853 South Main St., located in the city’s far South End at the corner of Charles and South Main streets.
“It was old and small, but it was an opportunity,” he said of the late 1990s building on the west side of South Main Street.
The company at the same time also offered Walach franchise rights to a McDonald’s on North Main Street in Providence.
Five years later, in 2016, Walach took over the McDonald’s on busy Highland Avenue in Seekonk making it his fourth franchise. His first franchise endeavor was in 2007 when he took responsibility for a restaurant in Cranston, Rhode Island.
But the Fall River McDonald’s presented a particularly challenging scenario when in 2011 it was all but reduced to rubble after an early evening fire broke out near a frying unit.
Walach said a fire suppression system in a kitchen exhaust hood failed to function and spray water on the flames.
A manager got everyone safely out of the building, but he says by the time the fire department extinguished the blaze all that was left “were four walls.”
Walach said he sued the company that installed and subsequently inspected the fire-suppression system for negligence and ultimately settled out of court.
But he said rebuilding the place cost him a pretty penny and then some.
Within a year of the catastrophic blaze a markedly more contemporary looking McDonald’s with a dual drive-thru lane had reopened.
Walach said he personally incurred roughly three-quarters of the $2 million it cost to rebuild, mainly because of all new equipment and hardware, including self-order kiosks.
A McDonald’s with a solid work ethic
The South Main Street location is one of five McDonald’s restaurants in the city.
It sits in a blue-collar neighborhood packed tight with apartment houses and a smattering of small businesses.
“It’s very densely populated,” Walach said, adding that “when I took it over it was a low-volume restaurant, but I think the density of the population is a (sales) driver.”
“It performs well,” he said.
Walach said staffing levels for full- and part-time employees remain at around 55.
“We have no staffing problems here in Fall River,” he said. “People want to work.”
That hasn’t been the case for many restaurant owners across the countries who, during the past year, have had a tough time attracting and retaining workers.
“Some of my friends (who work) in fine dining have struggled big time,” Walach said.
He describes his Spindle City customers as being generally “value-oriented” with “a fixed amount to spend.”
“They are very price-conscious,” which is why Walach says specially priced “bundle” orders that include sandwiches, fries and a cold drink are so popular in Fall River.
He said a McDonald’s advertising group representing hundreds of New England owners decides which meal packages to offer at various times of the year, but that menu prices are set by individual franchisees.
The biggest change to his business model has been the growing popularity of app-driven, digital orders.
“Delivery has really exploded in the last two years,” Walach said. “The pandemic accelerated that (and) it’s really complicated the business.”
He says he now utilizes Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash for home delivery.
Walach says even during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic hours of operation in Fall River were not reduced. The restaurant is open 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
One unique but unobtrusive aspect of all four of Walach’s McDonald’s restaurants is the music that’s piped through the sound system.
It was a fellow McDonald’s owner-operator who once commented to him that “jazz soothes the soul.”
“I’ve played jazz in my restaurants from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s not a polarizing thing. It’s an enjoyable thing.”
He also said he’ll spend $300,000 next year to remodel the Fall River McDonald’s.
The restaurant will stay open during the six weeks that the front-end service area is redesigned to facilitate digital orders. Seating capacity in the dining room, Walach said, will be somewhat reduced and outside parking will be reconfigured to accommodate app-order customers and delivery service drivers.
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A 50-year career journey
Walach, who now resides in Douglas, entered the McDonald’s work world when he was 16. He began what would become a career path by working part-time in a South Attleboro restaurant.
“There was no drive-thru or breakfast back then,” he said.
After one year at college, Walach accepted a job offer to become a salaried assistant manager at a time when McDonald’s Corporation still owned a large percentage of its restaurants.
Walach said the company now owns about 10 percent of McDonald’s domestic restaurants and none in New England.
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He quickly began what he describes as “a progression” through the ranks by gaining hands-on experience in other locations such as Central Falls, Rhode Island and Milford. His first gig as a full-fledged manager was in Chicopee.
After a stint in Springfield, Walach said he became manager of a McDonald’s in Worcester where he met his future wife, Lynne, who was working as general manager of the downtown McDonald’s.
The couple eventually had two sons. Chris, the youngest, now runs all four of his father’s McDonald’s and is majority franchise owner of the Fall River restaurant.
His brother Brian, who previously worked for fine dining restaurants in both the Providence area and in Florida, is involved in the family franchise business but is not yet an authorized operator.
Walach says his wife still helps out with managerial and office paperwork.
After getting married Walach became a supervisor for seven restaurants in and around Portland, Maine. His next assignment was working out of the Boston office as a department head of consultants to franchisees.
He then began a seven-year stint based out of the Philadelphia office, during which he says he was “on a plane every day of the week” visiting restaurants up and down the East Coast.
Walach says by the time the company offered him a chance to become a franchisee he was more than willing and able.
“I wanted to get back into the restaurants,” he said. “It was a chance to apply everything I had learned after travelling for seven years, and it was a chance to work with my family.”
Global supply chain disruptions and rising inflation costs have been putting pressure on restaurant chains like McDonald’s in terms of prices and menu selections.
Walach says the steady increase in the minimum wage has also led to price point adjustments.
He said he raised the price of “a select number” of menu items last November at all his Massachusetts and Rhode Island restaurants in anticipation of the coming year’s higher minimum wage rates.
Competitor Burger King in recent months, according to various news reports, has deleted underperforming menu items including salads and has removed its flagship Whopper from its “core discount” menu.
McDonald’s, Walach said, has not yet taken similar steps to that extent.
Walach — who for more than a dozen years served on the Board of Directors for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern New England — says the military invasion of Ukraine by Russia could eventually affect some food prices for restaurants across the United States.
“You’ve got two of the world’s top wheat producers, and even though we don’t depend on them it affects the (financial) markets,” he said.
Charles Winokoor may be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today.