According to his sister-in-law Dorothy, Lithuanian immigrant John Makarauskas changed his name to John Mack 16 years before he opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in Springfield. Back then, John, Sr. had no way of knowing he would be the man responsible for bringing Mack-fries, Mack-cheeseburgers and Big “Macks” to Springfield, along with some of the city’s prime teen hangouts.
His first two McDonald’s across from the Allis Chalmers main gate (1957) and on South MacArthur Blvd. north of Ash St. (1961) were drive-up and open-air– without eat-in capacity–and with golden arches built right into either end of the red-and-white tile buildings. Because customers back then were expected to eat in their cars, the McDonald’s parking lots were much more extensive than the restaurants.
According to Glenn Manning, in the 1960s and ‘70s, hot rods would scoop a fast-food loop bracketed on either end by one of these first two McDonald’s. The loop ran north from the MacArthur drive-up, then east on South Grand Ave. to a Top’s Big Boy car-hop restaurant on or near Fifth St., then down Fifth St. (one way) until Fifth ran together with Sixth to the Sixth St. McDonald’s, before turning and heading back north on Sixth St. to South Grand.
In the early years, all the burgers, fries and buns were fresh and sourced locally. According to John, Sr.’s daughter Mary Ann (Mack) Butts, her father had a ground-beef patty-making machine made specially in St. Louis so he could keep his long-time Keys Ave. grocery store employee Frances Trello busy churning out fresh patties for his new McDonald’s franchises. Corporate dictated the lean and fat content of each patty, along with the recipe followed by a local contract bakery that delivered fresh-baked buns daily.
Son Jim Mack recalls that the potatoes came in 100-pound bags on a rail car. They were peeled with the help of a peeling machine, then sliced by hand into fries–and after being washed and rinsed a total of three times– blanched at low heat till they were finally ready to be deep-fried.
The soft ice cream for shakes was sourced locally, but the shake flavor mixes came from headquarters. John, Sr. reportedly used to joke that they were created in a lab by Gary Butts, daughter Mary Ann’s husband, who had been a chemist (and was sometimes seen tutoring teen employees with their chemistry books).
Many of John Mack, Sr.’s kids and grandkids worked in the family business, including son John, Jr. and daughter JoAnn (Mack) Shaughnessy’s husband and their daughter Debbie (Shaughnessy) Blazis. The magic starting age for most of the Mack kids seemed to be 15 – -one year older than John, Sr. was when he followed his father Stanley into the coal mines in 1926. Son Jim Mack remembers starting at age 13 at minimum wage, which was around 75 cents an hour.
Two minimum-wage teen employees who went on to become famous in Springfield were Dick Levi (Levi, Ray & Shoup), whom Jim Mack remembers training at the cash counter at the Sixth St. store, and Wes Barr, currently a candidate for Sangamon County Sheriff.
John, Sr. was a bigger-than-life personality who “would light up the place” when he visited one of his franchises to sit down and enjoy a burger, according to Don Gietl, who worked at a “Mack McDonald’s” just like brothers Jim, Charlie, and Terry.
John, Sr. had opened three McDonald’s by the time he died at age 61 in 1974. His widow Mary and sons Tom and Jim and daughter Mary Ann and her husband Gary Butts went on to open five more locations in Springfield, usually as what the family considered a superior option to having corporate open competing new locations by bringing in a non-Mack franchisee. Not all of the new locations that corporate wanted were profitable, and Jim Mack remembers that growing the business took a heavy toll on the family over the years. But at least if a new location cannibalized existing business, the business “gained” from a Mack would still belong to a Mack.
John, Sr., had borrowed $100,000 from Illinois National Bank to get started on S. Sixth St.–a fortune at the time. However, Jim reports that the capital stakes rose dramatically with each new restaurant, especially as they became larger sit-down facilities, so that all the borrowed capital was not paid back to lender INB until the family sold all eight of their Springfield franchises and totally exited the business on Jan. 1, 1989.
John, Sr. had a right-hand man, Pat Murphy, who secured the first McDonald’s franchise in Jacksonville, which Pat intended to be operated by his son, who died tragically, leading to the sale of that restaurant, as well. The complete list of “Mack McDonald’s” included stores on: Sixth St., MacArthur Blvd., West Jefferson, Old State Capitol Plaza (Fifth & Adams), Capital City Shopping Center, White Oaks Mall, Chatham Road, Ninth & North Grand.
The local Ronald McDonald House at Ninth and Carpenter was created as a result of a Mack family tragedy—the death from brain cancer of Dorothy and Frank Makarauskas’s 18-year-old son Robert. Robert was Mary and John Mack, Sr.’s nephew. After Mary visited a Ronald McDonald house in New York City, where young Robert was being treated, she dedicated herself to donating and raising the funds necessary to make it a reality in Springfield. The Mack McDonalds also sponsored many fundraisers and gave generously to Goodwill, among other local charities.
This post is dedicated to the memories of Mary (Gidus) and John Mack, Sr.; John and Mary’s children JoAnn (Mack) Shaughnessy and John Mack, Jr.; and John, Sr.’s brother Frank Makarauskas and Frank and Dorothy’s son Robert.