Delaware’s first McDonald’s still thrives on Main Street
May 04, 2015 02:42PM
By Steven Hoffman
There are more than 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants in over 100 countries around the world, but few of those locations have the kind of history with a place that the McDonald’s at 374 East Main Street has with the City of Newark.
“This McDonald’s opened up on March 15, 1960,” explained Les Dukart, whose family has owned and operated the restaurant since it opened.
Dukart explained how his Illinois family came to open the first first McDonald’s in Delaware. His father, Leonard, worked in the men’s clothing business in Chicago with his father, Harry. Leonard graduated from college with a business degree and served in World War II. Leonard worked with his father in the clothing manufacturing business, but eventually wanted to pursue another career path.
“He looked into other businesses—he looked at restaurants and bowling alleys and moving companies,” Dukart explained.
Then, one night, when one of the children was feeling sick, Leonard’s wife, Dora, sent him out to get a quick dinner. They decided to try a McDonald’s, and Leonard was impressed not only by the quality of the food and service, but by the business concept. He explored the possibility of opening his own McDonald’s, meeting with company executives Ray Kroc and Fred Turner, who grew the business into one of the most iconic brands in the world. For over a year, Leonard worked in a clothing store during the day and trained with McDonald’s at night. After the training was complete, he was offered franchise locations in eastern Milwaukee, Iowa, and Michigan, and he turned down each one. McDonald’s then offered him the Newark, Delaware location, with the warning that this might be the final offer. Leonard and Dora got on a plane, traveled to Delaware, and scouted out the area.
Les Dukart recalls that his father saw just twelve motorists drive by the restaurant each hour, on average, during the afternoon that he was monitoring the traffic in the area. But he had a good feeling about it anyway, and the family moved to Delaware to open the restaurant. At the very least, the new restaurant would have a good university nearby.
The Main Street McDonald’s quickly became a popular spot for Newark residents. Within three years of opening, it was one of the top 100 McDonald’s in the entire country.
Les Dukart started helping out around his father’s restaurant at the age of 13. Newark High School was close by and it would be very busy after school and after big events like football games.
“It was really the place to go,” Dukart explained. “It was a hangout.”
The younger Dukart enjoyed the fast pace of the restaurant business and he also liked working with the people. But when it came time to choose a career path, his father advised his son not to go into the fast-food business.
“He cautioned me not to get in this business,” Les Dukart explained. “He said that it was too hard.”
Les taught for a few years, but the desire to run a business was in his genes. He started working with his father in July of 1973 and never looked back.
Les was instrumental in the acquisition of a McDonald’s on Concord Pike, and Dukart Management grew to eventually operate as many as 13 McDonald’s at one time. Les’s brother, Alan, also joined the family business after graduation from Ithaca College. Alan quickly became an operational expert and worked extensively at the Concord Pike restaurant, and Les said that not only is he a wonderful brother, he's a wonderful business partner, too. Alan's son, Curtis, may also join the family business someday.
Through the years, the Newark location weathered many changes and challenges, including the transformation of Main Street into a one-way street and the arrival of many new competitors.
An unfortunate piece of Newark history took place at the McDonald’s on Dec. 1, 1976, when an accidental gas leak led to an explosion that rocked the building, injuring 23 people. The restaurant was rebuilt and reopened in 1977 as just the third McDonald’s on the East Coast with a drive-thru window.
The city of Newark has been constantly changing and growing.
“It’s a very diverse community,” Dukart explained. “It has a good mix of people. It has grown so much.”
The Dukart family earned numerous company awards, and continually kept up with changes and innovations in the industry. The company has often used Dukart-owned restaurants to test new products and concepts.
In 2014, the Main Street McDonald’s was completely rebuilt with a more efficient and modern design. The kitchen is especially large. There is also a pull-forward window so that employees can safely and efficiently give customers their meals. The parking lot was redesigned and the drive-thru was increased from one lane to two lanes. The interior of the building was reduced from 6,900 square feet to approximately 4,600 square feet.
Even though the restaurant was closed for several months during the most recent renovation, loyal customers were waiting for its reopening—not surprising since McDonald’s has been a part of the community for 55 years.
“We really emphasize friendliness here,” Dukart explained. “We’re fortunate that we have a lot of fine people who work here.”
Les’s sons, Mike and Joel, both decided to join the family business after studying at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and gaining valuable business experience in other industries. That means that a third generation of the Dukart family is now involved with the Newark McDonalds, one of only a few businesses in the area that have been owned by one family for so long.
For the 50th anniversary celebration, Dukart invited all the former employees back to mark the milestone. He is proud of the employees who have helped make the McDonald’s a success. Notable former employees include Frank Mayer, who founded Spicer-Mullikin Funeral Homes, and Vance Funk, an attorney and the longtime former mayor of Newark. Nancy Weldin was the first woman who worked at the Newark McDonald's, changing forever what had previously been an all-male staff.
Dukart Management now owns 11 McDonald’s in Delaware and Pennsylvania, but the McDonald’s on Main Street will always be special to the Dukart family.
“It’s historic,” Dukart explained. “This is my father’s baby, so to speak. People bring their grandchildren here because they ate here and have memories here. Newark is a wonderful city.”