Q. When did the first McDonald's open in Belleville?
-- J.W., of Belleville
A. When Dave Embry took over the failing McDonald's at 4422 W. Main St. in 1962, he didn't practice his best "Do you want fries with that?"
Instead, the late area fast-food entrepreneur was asking himself, "Am I nuts?"
Yes, it's hard to believe now, but residents largely thumbed their noses at McDonald's in the early '60s, Embry said in a 1989 News-Democrat story.
"It was thought of as a greasy spoon," Embry said. "It was pretty risky because the concept was not really proven then."
Don Shay learned that the hard way. He was the man who operated the Belleville McDonald's when it served its first burger in October 1961 -- a year after Don Kaffer's Burger Chef started grilling patties at 16th and West Main streets. But Shay quickly went under, and Embry nervously stepped in.
"I don't think I really realized till the night I took over (how tough it was going to be)," Embry said. He had worked for a bakery in Louisville, Ky., in 1962, when its owners asked him to take over five McDonald's they owned. "The first evening after close I stood up by the counter and looked back, and I thought, "My God, what did I do???"
Back then, a McDonald's franchise was available for $45,000, but the venture was so risky that Embry failed to win a bank loan. He wound up selling his house and car and plowed the proceeds into the restaurant. (Now, according to aboutmcdonalds.com, you need a minimum of $750,000 of non-borrowed personal assets just to be considered for a franchise.)
"It was not very well accepted," he said. "That was pretty much the way the customers reacted. You know, 'We'll try it, but we doubt it.' My attorney said I was crazy."
Of course, if you'd visit the place now as it was then, maybe you wouldn't have been sold, either. In 1961, the restaurant had two order windows with no indoor seating. Drive-through service wasn't even in Embry's wildest imagination.
"Back at that time, we only had boys," said Embry, who settled in Greenville. "We wouldn't hire girls. We didn't want any hanky-panky. We didn't really start hiring women until about 1975. We decided that it didn't make any difference whether we had women on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out."
But you sure couldn't beat the prices. For just half a buck, you could enjoy a couple of hamburgers (30 cents), fries (10 cents) and a Coke (10 cents). Eventually, it caught on. Embry accomplished his initial dream of increasing annual sales to $300,000 in just two years.
You might say he was blessed.
"That was in '64," said Embry, who also became president and CEO of the old WIBV Radio in Belleville in 1988. "Actually, it was the filet-o-fish sandwich that did that. I knew we were in a pretty Catholic community and the biggest shot in the arm was when we introduced the fish sandwich."
After that, things went swimmingly for Embry. In 1974, he redesigned the West Main Street restaurant to include an indoor dining room. Three years later, McDonald's joined another growing trend by offering drive-through service so people could grab a snack even in their jammies.
Since then, people's love for McDonald's has increased exponentially with the addition of Chicken McNuggets (1980), salads (1985) -- even smoothies (2010). The chain finally made it to Monroe County in 1981 when it opened a restaurant in Waterloo.
There have been a few stumbles along the way -- the short-lived McDonald Classic drive-thru-only at 422 N. Illinois St., for example -- but by the time Embry died in August 1993 he owned 10 McDonald's worth millions.
One thing never changed, though -- that vintage golden arch that still welcomes visitors to the busy eatery on West Main. In 1996, new owner Bob Bronner threatened to remove the iconic symbol when he was planning the current restaurant with its indoor play area. But he received such an earful from residents that he soon changed his mind and spent an extra $15,000 to keep it.
"Everywhere I go, it's 'keep the sign, keep the sign,'" he said.
Embry, who also took pains to preserve that sign, was probably lovin' it.
Which three states have an official state tie -- and what is it?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson supposedly left a glass of homemade soda on his porch on a cold San Francisco night. By the next morning it had frozen, but, fortunately, he had left in his stirring stick, which he used to pull out the frozen glob. Hmm, pretty good, he thought. He never forgot. In 1923, he started selling them at a California beach, and, a year later, he applied for a patent for his "Epsicle ice pop." His children reportedly convinced him to change the name to Popsicle, and the rest is history.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org