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A fast-food success story

By Patty Fisher
San Jose Mercury News
March 9, 2009

Alvaro Urbina carefully takes his Ray Kroc Award out of its custom foam-filled box and sets it on the table between us at the McDonald's he manages on Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View.
Ray Kroc Award
"This is a dream come true," he says, gazing at the heavy plexiglass trophy etched with an image of the legendary fast-food restaurant chain founder. "There's nothing bigger than this."

And he believes it.

For a 29-year-old immigrant who grew up in East Palo Alto and went to work sweeping floors at McDonald's while still in high school, being named in the top 1 percent of McDonald's restaurant managers across the nation is about the coolest thing he could imagine.

The Kroc award, presented to 139 top performers last week, came with a $2,500 check and an all-expense-paid trip to Chicago for him and his wife. A luxury hotel just off the Miracle Mile. Rides in limousines. A private concert at House of Blues. Hobnobbing with the company brass.
Ray Kroc Award
"You can't really describe it; you have to live it," he says dreamily, still not quite believing his good fortune. "They treat you like a king."

To say McDonald's saved Urbina's life might sound a bit dramatic, but he believes it. Arriving here from Mexico at age 13, speaking no English, he was a good student, but fell in with a gang and started getting in trouble on the streets of East Palo Alto.

"You know, fighting, that sort of thing."

When he was a junior at Carlmont High School, a friend persuaded him to apply for a job at McDonald's in Menlo Park.

"I was the lobby guy, sweeping the floors."

Then one night the cashier didn't show up for work.

"The manager said, 'How much is one plus one?' I told him it was two and he said, 'OK, you're a cashier.' "

Before long he'd been promoted to shift manager. Working full time while maintaining a 3.8 GPA, he didn't have time for the street life anymore.
"I saw my friends getting in jail, being killed, just being wasted," he said. "But I was lucky. McDonald's changed my life."
Ray Kroc Award
After graduation, Urbina spent two years at Cañada College before deciding McDonald's would be his career.

Two years ago he took over the Mountain View restaurant and has increased sales nearly 10 percent. He's making $60,000 a year and feels as if he's got it made.

His boss, Conrad Freeman, who owns 16 McDonald's restaurants from Sunnyvale to Belmont, says Urbina is one in a million — hardworking, smart, good with customers, a natural leader.

"He reads all the time," Freeman said. "Sometimes I just go over and have a cup of coffee with him; it's motivating just to talk to him. He's definitely going places."

I asked Urbina what it takes to be chosen from thousands of managers across the organization. What's his secret?

"My crew," he said without hesitation. "You have to have good people. You have to train them and motivate them."

While he hires folks of all ages, Urbina likes to take on high school kids — to keep them off the streets. He is so good with kids that Freeman recently put him in charge of a program to mentor young employees with management potential.

"Sometimes as a kid you don't think you have any options," the former gang kid told me. "I want to prove to them that you can make McDonald's a career.

Urbina does little things to take special care of his staff, like cooking up a batch of Veracruz-style shrimp for them on Fridays.

"They are the reason for my success," he said of his crew. "McDonald's gives me the credit, but it is because of them."

He takes another long look at the glistening trophy.

"I told them, 'This is not just my success, it is our success. I am going to Chicago to represent you guys.' "