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Home / McDonald’s largest Iowa franchise group sold as owner retires
CORALVILLE — A golden arches near you is now under new management.
Kevin O’Brien, of Iowa City, the owner-operator of 22 McDonald’s franchise locations across Iowa, announced his retirement Wednesday after over 40 years at the helm of the O’Brien Family McDonald’s.
Starting at 12:01 a.m., Thursday, all 22 locations will start under new ownership with the McDonald’s Corporation. The shift pivots the restaurant group from being the largest McDonald’s franchise group in Iowa to a minority among golden arches — only about 7 percent of McDonald’s worldwide are owned by the McDonald’s Corporation, rather than by independent local franchisees.
In 1958, Kevin’s parents, Bill and Dorothy O’Brien, started the group with an opening on Riverside Drive in Iowa City. Dorothy was the first woman franchise owner at a time women were not even allowed to work in the restaurants.
43 years in the business
Kevin started to take over the family business in 1978 as he finished college, just as Bill and Dorothy were opening their second restaurant on Second Avenue in Coralville. With 43 years in the business, Kevin said the time felt right to retire as he nears his 66th birthday.
“I actually made my first milkshake when I was 5, but I guess you can’t count that,” he said.
When the O’Brien family started the group, McDonald’s had roughly 60 locations. As the second-generation owner and operator retires, McDonald’s has over 36,000 locations.
The vast majority of the O’Brien Family’s franchise growth happened on Kevin’s watch. In between growth lulls, the group has growth spurts, adding about one restaurant each year — unusual growth, he said, compared with the typical rate of one every five to six years.
In the last seven years, the group has more than doubled in size. Locations in Ames, Boone, Carroll, Marshalltown, Nevada and Story City were acquired in 2018. The group also owns locations in Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Iowa City, Marion, Muscatine, North Liberty, Walcott, Washington, West Branch and Williamsburg.
“The last decade has been significant growth,” he said. “I was interested in growing the brand and was fortunate these opportunities opened up. We’ve been fortunate to work with great people and I have an amazing team.”
Even in the midst of unprecedented challenges for restaurants like McDonald’s, with labor shortages and supply chain interruptions emerging from the first few waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kevin said the business has managed to do “extremely well.”
“My biggest pride is the fact that we’ve been able to give opportunities to tens of thousands of people who’ve been able to work with us and stayed,” he said. “I’ve had doctors, lawyers, politicians call me back and say, ‘The things I learned that made me successful in life, I learned working for the O’Brien family.’”
An era of transformation
In addition to the franchises, Kevin said he was proud to help establish the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City, help numerous charities over the years and influence national policies that had a significant economic impact for the company.
Over the years, McDonald’s has had its ups and downs. Kevin has witnessed the quintessential American brand’s transformation through six different decade periods from 1978 to 2021. One of the biggest contrasts he noted was the embrace of technology that has modernized the business.
“There was a time six to seven years ago when McDonald’s was not cool, and there were some concerns about that,” he said.
Over time, the iconic red-and-white buildings he grew up in made way for today’s modern brick facades. In that time, the brand has responded to consumer trends and demands as it changed perceptions through media and marketing.
“Now we’re at the top of our game,” Kevin said. “But we still have work to do.”
Though the transition behind the scenes is rather complicated with transfers, changes to company accounts and changes to their equipment as the McDonald’s Corporation takes over, Kevin said all the faces that customers know will be there to serve them the same as any other day.
All current employees will be staying under new ownership, he said.
A new chapter
Like his parents, Kevin will never fully retire, he said. Bill and Dorothy, who died in 1994 and 2003, respectively, were active in the franchise group’s affairs until almost the end of their lives.
Kevin will explore his interests in social issues, plant-based foods and responsible food growth as he enters retirement — interests that line up with some of McDonald’s initiatives, he said.
“I’m not really one to retire,” he said. “I’m so proud of the brand and where we’re headed.”
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