McDowell Boulevard McDonald’s demolished

Remodeled restaurant to open after construction.|

Few brands are as recognizable as McDonald’s. Beyond the iconic commercials, the award-winning fries and the playful mascots, a good portion of Americans simply enjoyed the experience of visiting McDonald’s during their youth or their kids’ youth.

While driving down McDowell Boulevard towards Washington Street last week, I saw that half of the McDonald’s building had been demolished, with an excavator still working away at it. Even though I have not dined on fast food in nearly two decades, my gut reaction was shock and sorrow. This was the McDonald’s of my youth and had furnished so many great memories. It only took a few seconds to realize that if I did not pull over immediately to snap some photos, the building would be gone before I would get a chance to come back around.

While standing there taking photos and a video, I was glad to be masked up. The devil on my shoulder was laughing that the 40+ year old dust I was breathing was likely less hazardous to my health than the food I had consumed there so many years ago, and in such large quantities. But that is the funny thing about guilty pleasures. You know they may not be good for you, but the joy they add to life is often worth it.

As regular readers know by now, I have always preferred the term “true foodie” when describing my food obsession. Some readers who consider their tastes discerning may try to burden the rest of us with a stiff definition of “foodie,” claiming the term should be reserved for fancy cuisine. Quite on the contrary, I believe that a true foodie enjoys all kinds of food, from Michelin-starred restaurants to junk-yard taco trucks. Without our guilty pleasures, like a warm McDonald’s cheeseburger, the rest of what we eat may lack full depth of context.

The response on local social media to the McDowell McDonald’s demolition was overwhelming filled with sadness, laced with fond memories of this particular McDonald’s. Residents wondered whether the restaurant would return.

Jenni Codington, a member of the family that has owned this property since the beginning, reached out to let me know that the restaurant is being remodeled. Although the family does not own the franchise, she assured me that McDonald’s would be returning to this location as soon as construction is complete. She was also nice enough to honor my odd request for a keepsake from this location to add to my backyard collection of other keepsakes from iconic restaurants of my youth. Two of my prized possessions are a set of bricks from the chimney of the now-demolished Big Yellow House in Santa Rosa and a brick from the original Red Tail Ale brewery in Hopland.

Chrissy Minick astutely found the remodel plans on the city’s website. Yes, it is one of the sleek, modern looking McDonald’s, similar to the remodel that the Lakeville location recently went through.

The Petaluma Argus-Courier ran a small piece about the original opening back on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1975, next to Bill Soberanes’ column. “The new Petaluma facility is a far cry from the chain’s early day red and white tile structures with the trademark golden arches protruding from the roof.”

It went on to describe the vast difference from the original “drive-in” style McDonald’s and that this one would have plenty of indoor dining space and “natural plant dividers.” There is no mention of the outdoor play structure, which was a draw to many families, but maybe that came along later or was not in the original press release.

McDonald’s buying power

On a side note, an often-forgot benefit of a giant corporation such as McDonald’s is the buying power they can bring, beyond simply cheaper prices for the end consumer. When Mad Cow Disease hit Great Britain in the early 1990s, McDonald’s stopped buying beef from the isles. It was roughly 10 years later, when Mad Cow scares popped up in the US that McDonald’s and its customers’ buying power helped to curtail risk. Although the federal government had safety guidelines in place for cattle production, the chain of custody for beef was hard to follow, leaving American consumers less than confident in the safety of the beef in their burgers. Sensing a possible consumer shift away from fast food, McDonald’s stepped in and notified its beef suppliers, which numbered over 50 of the country’s biggest at the time, that the fast food giant was going to require more stringent safety measures than even the federal government.

McDonald’s memories

I do not recall my first McDonald’s experience, but it was easily as far back as I have memories. I also remember my mother making the all too familiar claim when children whine for McDonald’s, “I can make it just like McDonald’s at home.”

This simply was not, and has never been true. However, in fairness to her, McDonald’s slogan just prior to my birth was: “The closest thing to home.” We were hoping she would get behind the slogan “You deserve a break today,” but it never took off.

Also in fairness to my mom, her burgers could never be the same as McDonald’s because she procured the family’s ground beef needs from Bateman’s. So, the quality of meat in her homemade burgers was surely horns and shoulders above what McDonald’s offered. (Did anyone else get raw hotdogs from Bateman’s as a treat as a kid, and then eat them on the ride home?)

The slogan I remember from my youth, which has been revived since, was “I’m lovin’ it,” and I did. My real obsession started in high school, as soon as I earned my driver’s license — one of the only tests I ever passed on the first try. With the freedom of a car and gas prices low, even my meager earnings from selling eggs to my parents (harvested from the chickens they had purchased) was enough to get me and my friends over to the McDonald’s to enjoy burgers during our high school lunch breaks.

The cheeseburger bet

These McDonald’s runs once led to a rather peculiar bet. During a once-a-semester cleaning, I came across a wayward cheeseburger in a discarded McDonald’s bag amidst the trash strewed about my car. The receipt in the bag put it at six months of age, which was too much of a temptation for teenage boys to simply toss out. (The faint of heart may want to skip the next few paragraphs.)

First, we opened the wrapper because we were genuinely curious as to how it had gone unnoticed for that long without starting to smell. Sure enough, it looked exactly the same as a fresh-bought one. I often joked that, even hundreds of years after my death, I would look the same thanks to the many preservatives I absorbed eating gobs of Hostess, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s in my youth. This burger might be set to prove my point.

The gauntlet was thrown when one of my friends challenged me to take a bite. Although this may seem ghastly now, and clearly immature even then, looking at a cheeseburger that neither smelled funny nor showed any signs of mold, it was worth a try. Other than the bread being a bit stale, it was good enough that I saw no reason to stop at just one bite.

At the time, I thought of this longevity as a bonus as I would later live in the city and keep a couple of McDonald’s cheeseburgers in my fridge. In fact, where others turn to comfort foods for an upset stomach, during my 20s, when I still imbibed fast foods, nothing calmed my stomach, or my nerves, quite like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. My brother and I even made it a regular practice of visiting McDonald’s, to help fill us up for cheap, before visiting our favorite sushi restaurants during our young adult years.

Years after my back seat burger discovery and experiment, I learned that there is a professor in Marin who has kept a McDonald’s burger for decades now, pulling it out once a year to check on it and report to the local radio stations.

During college, there was a time when I was easily enjoying two meals a day at McDonald’s. I worked kitty-corner from the McDowell Boulevard McDonald’s before moving to San Francisco and working across from the financial district’s Market Street McDonald’s, so the convenience was hard to beat. I was also newly on my own and McDonald’s was cheap. I imagine that my laziness in wanting to cook for myself played a role.

I was such a fan of McDonald’s food, even the McRib sandwich, that I vividly remember marking my calendar for a special radio announcement. Their ad campaign at the time was trying to work everyone up into a frenzy about something really big that McDonald’s was going to introduce to their menu.

Most of us were more than a little disappointed to hear that the “big news” was that McDonald’s was introducing 20-piece Chicken McNuggets to the menu. Honestly, you could just as easily buy three 6-pieces, however there were serious economies to the 20-piece. This “announcement” holds a significant place in my memory as the last time I whole-heartedly believed a claim that any upcoming reveal was worth putting on my calendar. (You would have thought that the Geraldo Rivera’s “Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault” debacle would have done the trick, but I guess I was too young when that happened to truly appreciate that disappointment.)

Breaking the habit

My obsession with McDonald’s would come to end as I moved into my 30s, but not out of any concern for my health. It came out of express instructions from my father that if there was anything I could not go without for six weeks, I either needed to bring enough along with us, or else quit it well in advance of a six week rafting trip we were leading down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon. He had led several of these private trips before and had suffered through people who tried to use the natural isolation to give up things like cigarettes or coffee.

“You either bring your addiction with you, or you break it well in advance,” he required.

Smack dab in the middle of my two-visits-a-day McDonald’s habit, I knew I could not pack enough cheeseburgers and McNuggets for six weeks — space was simply too limited, what with everyone else wanting to eat “real” food. (For the record, cheeseburgers would have taken up less space, required no ice and would have been considerably cheaper than what we paid for a rafting supply company to set us up with “real” food.)

I had six months from the time my permit was approved to take 16 people down the Grand Canyon to the actual launch date. I had my work cut out for me if I was to break my McDonald’s habit in time, but I made it. I was still enjoying cheeseburgers, McNuggets, shakes and apple pies on our drive down to Arizona, but I had culled my McDonald’s visits down to one or two times a week at that point. And thankfully, going cold turkey went smooth.

Let’s make a deal

Personal memories of this location include the mint milk shakes in celebration of St. Paddy’s Day and the warm apple pies. At one point, I was visiting so often that I started making special request of the manager. No, it wasn’t for custom food orders but instead had to do with purchasing large quantities of giveaway items.

One was during a Coca-Cola glass giveaway, when the manager agreed to sell me nearly a pallet of Coca-Cola glasses. I have no idea what I did with them but at the time thought that having a life-time supply was important. Then there was the special Reese’s Easter eggs. I loved them so much that I wanted to have them year-round, so I asked and received a discount on purchasing several cases. I do remember what I did with these. I ate them all over the next year, while waiting for them to return, which they never did. I should have bought more.

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