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The Chicken Man with the 50 Year Plan: Albert Okura and Fast Food History

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Photo: Douglas McCulloh
Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Doug had never eaten Juan Pollo. That's how we met Albert Okura. Each time we go out on a story, we're the luckiest people in the world. We were checking out the Historic Route 66 Museum, and we got hungry, and I told him I loved Juan Pollo chicken. When we ordered, a man behind the counter overheard us saying his name. He smiled shyly and I held out my hand.

And that's how Okura put it, over and over, while he showed us around the Juan Pollo headquarters, on historic Route 66. "Destiny," he kept saying. "It's destiny!"

The old route and surrounding environs are home to fast food history, the empire of places founded here such as Foster Freeze, Taco Tia, Taco Bell, Del Taco, McDonald's, and yes, Juan Pollo. In fact, Okura knows more about the history and legacy and intricacies of fast food than anyone I've ever met. It's his obsession, in the best way. He actually owns the first McDonald's.

Back in 1940, the McDonald brothers moved their barbecue restaurant, The Airdrome, from Arcadia to the corner of 14th and E Streets in San Bernardino. But the teens who hung out there loved hamburgers, and the brothers envisioned faster service and more customers, so in December of 1948, they opened McDonald's, which featured their "Speedee Service System." Hamburgers were 15 cents, a bag of fries went for a dime, and America had a new way to eat. It was the first McDonald's in the nation.

Ray Kroc, a milkshake salesman who'd worked with the brothers, bought the franchise from them in 1961, and then things changed. The brothers were prohibited from ever using their names on a restaurant again -- and the original structure at 14th and E was demolished in 1972.

I learned all this from Albert Okura. He was born in Wilmington in 1951, a third-generation Japanese-American (sansei), and went to Banning High. He said it again. "Everything I do is destiny! I grew up eating hamburgers -- I never ate chicken. In 1970, my first real job was at Burger King."

He was working there for some time, learning about franchises and food and what people really wanted, and then moved to managing a Del Taco in Carson. Then El Pollo Loco opened, across the street from his place, with lines out the door. He tasted the charbroiled chicken, and he liked it.

He decided he wanted to branch out with his own chicken restaurant. "I grew up with all Mexican people!" he said, laughing. "That's how I got to know Mexican food."

Photo: Douglas McCulloh
Photo: Douglas McCulloh

His first Juan Pollo was in Ontario, where he did charbroiled chicken, but then he realized, "You can't do charbroiled -- too many grills." In 1983, his colleague Mando, who was from Chihuahua, showed him the rotisserie style. They went to Mexico and found a rotisserie machine, Mando made up a recipe with Okura, and now everyone -- no matter what food they grew up eating, in what country -- tells Okura they love his chicken. "It's a universal flavor," he says, laughing again. "Not overly seasoned. A Korean guy said to me, This chicken tastes like it's from Korea. And the rice is steamed, like Japanese, with some flavoring. Then we have beans, and then the potato salad, for the American side!"

Okura, who lives in Chino now, is a living encyclopedia of fast-food-franchise details and names and stories. He talked about Glen Bell, who founded Taco Bell, and kept going back to the history of the brothers who began McDonald's. "They were so sad, after they weren't allowed to use their name or the golden arches," he said. "When I saw the property was being foreclosed, the place on 14th and E, I went down there and paid cash for it." And in 1998, exactly fifty years after the original Golden Arches opened, neon lighting up the San Bernardino night, Okura opened a museum in that location. Inside are donated memorabilia from customers who still love the place, and the food, and their childhoods when going to McDonalds was a big deal.

Could there be a better California story? In a book he just wrote about his life -- "Albert Okura: The Chicken Man with a 50 Year Plan" -- he talks about his love for sculptures, history, real estate, and California. (He owns the historic Route 66 town of Amboy, as detailed in the last story.) Looking around Juan Pollo that day -- people of every race and age eating chicken, wearing uniforms of every kind (plumbers, firemen, police officers), wearing the knit pants of grandmothers and the low jeans of teenagers, I thought he was right. Best destiny is to make strangers and friends full and happy, and help them remember the inventors and keepers of the past.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" will be published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

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