MERIDEN — Joseph Rodriguez earned the nicknamed Schmear Man because he was good at putting blood on the slides in the laboratory at the New York Institute for Technology.
Rodriguez also worked at a family McDonald’s since age 10, and supported himself with two jobs while in college.
In a lesson about the value of a medical education, a professor asked the class:
“ ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life: flip burgers at McDonald’s?’ ” Rodriguez recalled.
“I said ‘what’s wrong with that?’”
In his third year of college, Rodriguez considered the years of schooling ahead of him to make a decent living in medicine, versus the skills he had already acquired. In a solid reversal of his professor’s intention; he switched majors and dove headfirst into the burger business.
“I have ketchup in my veins,” he likes to say.
Rodriguez closed on his 10th franchise last month at Townline Square on the Meriden-Wallingford border. He has other McDonald’s operations in Derby, New Haven, West Haven, Canaan, Plainville, Bristol and New Britain.
“I realized I never left McDonald’s,” he said at the Townline Square McDonald’s this week. “ I am a people person. My mission is to have passion for what we do. I decided to go the business route. I went to the McDonald’s Hamburger University in Chicago and got a degree in hamburgerology.”
At the university, Rodriquez studied the food business, dealing with the public, marketing and more.
As Rodriguez acquired restaurants, the McDonald’s brand struggled to redefine its brand to an increasingly health-conscious buying public. It introduced salads, fruits and vegetables, even an artisan chicken sandwich. The restaurants themselves redesigned their interiors with cafe seating and lighting to attract value-conscious laptop users while keeping family-friendly prices. But it’s not certain the strategy is working.
“They certainly are doing a whole lot right now,” said Konrad Gessler, a project manager with the New England Consulting Group of Guilford. “There seems to be a lack of a strong strategy. They are really being squeezed in all directions. It’s tough being a QSR (quick service restaurant) right now. McDonald’s has the opportunity to bounce back, it’s just a very strategically complex time in their industry.”
Gessler said the best advertisement McDonald’s produced romanced the Big Mac with the assurance it would never be a veggie burger.
“It was speaking to what McDonald’s does best,” Gessler said.
To Rodriguez, that means finding its place in the community.
He joined his family in buying a McDonald’s in 1991 near the Bronx Zoo. They held a rodeo event at the restaurant that caught the eye of the McDonald’s corporate office, which offered the family another store in New Haven. The family later decided to sell its New York stores and expand in Connecticut.
Rodriguez bought his first McDonald’s in West Haven in 2000, followed by stores in Derby and the Westville section of New Haven. He underwent renovations in West Haven, and completed three rebuilds in other towns valued at $4.8 million in four years. The New Haven McDonald’s has a game room and meeting space, used by the local Board of Alderman.
McDonald’s corporation helped with some of the financing on the rebuilds.
After the renovations, he bought the McDonald’s in Canaan, and fell in love with the area, he also has restaurants in Bristol, and Plainville. His company headquarters in Southbury is where he oversees the 10 stores, a director of operations, two supervisors, 112 managers and 500 employees. Work weeks are 60 to 80 hours.
Rodriguez believes in strong community connections the same way he thinks about his faith – both are essential to success. Rodriguez and his wife Anna adopted their first child in 2007, and Rodriguez became a Christian. Soon after they learned Anna was pregnant with twins. A daughter followed in 2009 and in May 2013, they adopted another child.
“In the Rodriguez family, we try to make it appeal to family,” Rodriguez said. “Our community is family. You have to be able to look at your business and say what do I have to do to cater to my town and my community.”
Rodriguez hosted Three Kings Day parties in New Britain where local politicians, including Mayor Erin Stewart and store executives dress up as the three wise men to dole out toys for local children. More than 1,000 toys were given away.
During National People Day he gave away 480 turkeys to all of his employees.
“It’s a little gesture, but it means a lot,” he said.
He recently recorded a commercial for Telemundo at the Meriden store announcing a special on egg-white McMuffins.
Rodriguez said the egg whites, lettuce and tomato are fresher than what’s in the local grocery store and McDonald’s has stepped up to offer what is healthy.
“It’s great to be able to give people choices,” he said.
With 10 stores, McDonald’s considers him “a large operator,” he said. The cost of franchises vary based on traffic and revenue.
He grins when asked if there are any more deals for more stores in the works.
“I’ll accept whatever the Lord gives me,” he said.
By Mary Ellen Godin, Record-Journal staff
Photo credit: Meriden Record-Journal/David Zajac
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