Passersby to a McDonald’s near St. Louis Park High School may not realize the store’s dramatic history.
Much of that history will be told when the St. Louis Park Historical Society hosts “Where Billions Began: Joan Kroc and the Battle of the St. Louis Park McDonald’s” 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 18, at St. Louis Park High School’s auditorium, 6425 W. 33rd St.
The program will feature Lisa Napoli, the author of “Ray and Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave it All Away.”
Napoli consulted with Jeanne Andersen of the historical society while writing her book and has visited the West Lake Street McDonald’s in St. Louis Park that figures prominently into the plot.
While on assignment for a California public radio station, Napoli became interested in her book’s topic after learning that Joan Kroc, the third and last wife of McDonald’s businessman Ray Kroc, had funded a sculpture of a nuclear mushroom cloud in Santa Monica that had fallen into disrepair and was to be removed.
After Napoli could not find as much information about the donor, she decided to write a biography of Joan Kroc. The effort took Napoli five years.
“Because she was from St. Paul, one of the first things I found after that was the connection to St. Louis Park,” Napoli said. “The historical society has been helpful to me from the beginning.”
Amid a turbulent debate about the McDonald’s near the high school – the second in Minnesota and 93rd overall – Ray Kroc came to know Joan Smith, as she was known then, at the Criterion restaurant in St. Paul. Smith played the organ at the restaurant. Although both Kroc and Smith had been married at the time, they eventually married each other following divorces.
The Krocs had an on-again, off-again relationship for years as Ray Kroc, referred to as “The Founder” in a 2016 movie, worked to build the McDonald’s footprint in Minnesota.
“That’s what makes it such a juicy story,” Napoli said. “That’s why I think a lot of people didn’t want to talk to me. That kind of thing was seen as uncool.”
She was also 26 years younger than him, Napoli noted.
“It would be even more scandalous,” Napoli said. “He was much older and he walked in to sell a franchise to her boss. He saw her playing the organ and just fell in love. The rest is history, but it took a lot of twists and turns to unfold.”
The Criterion’s owner, Jim Zien, and his brother-in-law, obtained a McDonald’s franchise that he proposed building in St. Louis Park, thanks in part to Zien’s family ties to the city.
“He sees this hamburger stand is licensed to print money, so he goes and gets a franchise,” said Andersen of Zien’s desire to build a McDonald’s.
After the city rejected Zien’s first location choice at Cedar Lake Road and Nevada Avenue, he went before the city planning commission again in 1957 to seek a special permit to build a hamburger stand at West Lake Street and Dakota Avenue. The permit had been required because of the location’s proximity to a residential district and a public school.
At the time, the area had been home to two gas stations, a post office, a hardware store, a drug store, a community center, a photography store and other businesses.
“It was a major hub,” Andersen said.
Although the high school was – and still is – located across a railroad line from the McDonald’s site, the property had been zoned commercially.
“Whatever goes in there is going to be an attraction to kids,” Andersen said.
The council approved the special permit as a matter of routine, with the St. Louis Park Dispatch newspaper reporting the approval briefly on Page 15 of an edition dated Oct. 28, 1957.
However, the routine nature of the approval did not last long as Zien moved to build the hamburger stand, intended to allow customers to order from a window but without indoor seating.
“When he actually started working, the people came with their torches and pitchforks,” Andersen said of the reaction.
Critics descended on City Hall to protest the permit in November 1957, with the most common fear being that students would pick up their food at the restaurant instead of school lunches that were “much better for them,” according to a historical society account. Objections also included predictions that it would lead to a teenage hangout, create a nuisance and prompt increased police activity.
The planning commission took what Andersen called an unprecedented action to review the special permit again.
A chamber of commerce president objected to the McDonald’s with what the Dispatch termed a “bitter attack” on the council.
The newspaper quoted the chamber president, Art Meyers, as saying, “This deal smells to high heaven. Not one deal in an entire year has been shoved through the planning commission and council like this one was. It was engineered so beautifully and all the loopholes were blocked so nicely that the people didn’t have a chance in the world to know what was going on.”
Meyers preferred an office building at the site.
After an election, new mayor Herbert Lefler cast a tie-breaking vote in January 1958 to keep the special permit in place after the planning commission recommended revoking it.
A Dispatch editorial summed up, “The mayor’s vote decided the issue, but you can be sure the opposition won’t let it be forgotten. Vociferous objectors already are calling names, charging discrimination and threatening retaliation.”
When the hamburger stand opened in June 1958, Smith’s husband at the time, Rollie Smith, managed the store.
“Of course, it was an instant hit and made scads of money,” Andersen said.
At one point, the St. Louis Park store, sometimes referred to as the Minneapolis store at the time, had been one of the chain’s most profitable sites.
“It was a big deal,” Andersen said.
Joan Kroc’s legacy
Amid the turmoil of the St. Louis Park store’s approvals process, a drama of a more personal nature played out.
“Ray (Kroc) spent a lot of time at the Criterion and became just entranced with Joan Smith,” Andersen said. “Because of this delay, they spent so much time together.”
They did not marry until 1969, though – after Kroc had divorced the wife he was married to when he met Smith, remarried again and divorced again. In the meantime, Smith’s husband had become a McDonald’s franchisee in South Dakota.
After Smith married Kroc and changed her last name to his, the couple remained married until Ray Kroc died in 1984. His wife then inherited his fortune but gave away it away, including nearly $2 billion to the Salvation Army and $225 million to National Public Radio.
Napoli has compiled a comprehensive list of organizations and causes that benefited from Joan Kroc’s philanthropy.
“She grew up very poor, and she never forgot that she had grown up very poor,” Napoli said. “Once she had a lot of money, she gave all of it eventually away. I think that’s a really important message today.”
Tickets to the historical society event are $20 and are available at slphistory.org or at the door. Copies of Napoli’s book will be available with a portion of sales benefiting the historical society. Funds raised will support the society’s building fund.
The event will include a display of paraphernalia collected by McDonald’s employees at the West Lake Street location.
More information about Napoli’s book is available at rayandjoan.com.