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Paul Ross at his Central Square McDonald’s store on Oct. 30. Photo by Chuck Wainwright

50 Years Selling Burgers and Fries

Paul Ross invested about $200,000 to open his first McDonald’s store in Nedrow. Now, 50 years later, he owns and operates 15 stores in CNY, including in Pulaski, Mexico, Brewerton, Fulton and Central Square

By Stefan Yablonski

McDonald’s store on Route 481 in Fulton. When Paul Ross acquired it in 1975, it was one of the lowest volume restaurants in the state. Years later it became one of the highest volume stores.

A local McDonald’s owner operator is celebrating 50 years providing food and support in his community.

Paul Ross, 78, has done more than flipping burgers during his more than 50 years with McDonald’s — he has been instrumental in creating and sustaining the Ronald McDonald House program.

“While I originally grew up in Boston and went to school there, I consider Syracuse my home. I was in the military for six years until 1973 and I landed in Syracuse. I’ve been here ever since!” he said.

He recently bought a home in Arizona to be closer to his children and grandchildren, he added.

“I was ready to get out of the military and had a wife and two kids. It was time for me to get a job and McDonald’s was a young company at the time looking to expand its franchise,” he explained. “I started the program to become an owner-operator and had my first store in November of 1973 and we grew from there one store at a time. I started when I was 28 years old and I was one of the youngest owner-operators in the system at the time.”

“I actually started my business in 1973; I looked into getting a McDonald’s restaurant in 1972,” he added. “You don’t just walk up to the front door of a McDonald’s and say, ‘OK I got the money, here ya go. I’m ready to start tomorrow.’”

There’s a significant amount of training that they have for franchisees so that took about a year to get through, he said.

“Yeah, it’s like going back to school — and like going to school, you don’t get paid, either,” he quipped. “It is what it is.”

“Back in 1973, when I opened my first restaurant, the cost to get into business — when I tell ya what the number was, you’ll probably go ‘that’s not bad’ — but when you compare it to the value of money in 2023…  So it’s not dissimilar to when I was 28, when I started the business, the cost of a gallon of gas was like 45 or 50 cents; people made 60 cents an hour. You have to look at those numbers in terms of what the value of a dollar was then,” he said.

The cost to get started in 1973 was “about $200,000.”

“That’s what the franchisee, meaning me, had to put up to pay for all of the equipment, décor, to train my first crew, to buy all my supplies,” he said. “In terms of what the economy was as compared to today 200,000 dollars was a lot of money.”

That being the case, today, the approximate cost to start a new McDonald’s restaurant exceeds $2 million, he added.

McDonald’s had a requirement that you had to have at least 25% of that 200,000 in funds that were unencumbered. While the numbers are bigger today, the concept is still the same — between 25% and 30% in unencumbered funds.

Tough times and a lucky break

Paul Ross in July 1996 during the grand opening of his Mexico store in Oswego County.

“In 1974, I came so close to going bankrupt. Part of the reason was the first restaurant I opened didn’t meet the sales expectations that McDonald’s had set for us. Then, remember, we had a gas crisis. There were long, long lines. You could only buy gas on every other day (it was). There were huge lines at gas stations and so people’s lives changed — business wasn’t as good as it was expected it to be.

“But I was very fortunate. In 1975, McDonald’s had a restaurant in Fulton, New York, that was extremely low volume. McDonald’s made me an offer — I could have that store, they had something that was called a BFL (a business facilities lease) where you had to put up the money for the store and you pay them a higher than normal rent. That restaurant was probably one of the lowest volume restaurants in the United States at the time.”

Over the next year and a half, it became one of the highest volume restaurants in the Central New York area.

“Some things were my control, some things were just the way life works out,” he said. “Miller Brewery came to town, Huhtamaki expanded. Hopefully I changed the culture in that McDonald’s restaurant from what it was to what it became. It was like all the right ingredients went into the job … and poof!”

Ross started making money then, which was good “because my first restaurant was still under-achieving at that time,” he said. “My first restaurant, I still own it, I really didn’t become really prosperous on that restaurant until probably the mid-1990s. It was almost 20 years later. Made enough money to pay the bills and pay the bank; but there wasn’t much left over, not much at all that’s for sure.”

Everybody thinks that because it is a McDonald’s restaurant that you have trucks backing up every night to take away all the cash, he added.

“Business is not easy and a successful business is even harder. You’re always trying to do better than you did before,” he said.

Arizona heat

Ross said he isn’t trying to start a new McDonald’s in Arizona even though he spends some of his time there.

He has two children, Gregory and Nicole.

“No, no, no. My daughter moved out here about eight years ago with my grandchildren. They used to live in Cazenovia. We used to see them just about every day,” he explained. “We came out to visit them here just to see what it was like — we fell in love with Arizona. It’s a beautiful place.”

They would come to visit every three months or so for like a week. They maintained a great relationship with their grandchildren and children.

“And then about three years ago, I said to my wife, Lois, ‘you know, I think it’s time we bought a house in Arizona.’ We wound up buying a home here. Feel very fortunate to be able to do something like that and Arizona is just a beautiful place — despite the heat. I can work on golf game 12 months out of the year!”

He still has a smattering of the Boston accent.

When he goes back to Boston, he can’t believe the accent that they have.

“And then when we leave, it’s like it is super-charged our accent to what it was when we were young,” he said. “That lasts, you know, about a month or so. Then it starts to fall off again. But everybody picks up on the accent.”

His first restaurant was in Nedrow (6105 S. Salina St., in Syracuse).

“I still have that restaurant to this day! We last expanded five and a half years ago when I had the opportunity to purchase six McDonald’s in North Country,” “I’m not looking to add any more; but rather enjoy the fruits of my labor and think about retirement.”


A leader – and a mentor

“He is wonderful. I started working for Paul in 1989, 34 years now,” Cindy Tyrell, office manager, said.

Ross is “a definite leader and also a mentor.” She said she’s learned “an incredible amount” from him over the years working for him.

“I could go on and on — he’s great. He’s a great boss. I would never go anywhere else and I will be with him until he retires,” she added. “He has taught me so much over the years.”

Tyrell tells people all the time one of the greatest things he has taught her is that there is always two sides to every story.

“You have to make sure you get all your facts and get everything together before you make a decision,” she said.

He has changed over the years, too, she added.

“But he’s always been baseline Paul. He cares about his people, he’s a good leader, he makes work fun which is tough. Fast food is a stressful industry; things happen quickly — no two days are the same.”

He makes things fun for his people and he likes to do things for his people — he appreciates his people, she said.

“He has supported Ronald McDonald House Charities for years; both personally and I’m sure you know about the Round-up campaign. We raised $1.5 million over the last couple of years, just for our organization, that is pretty good,” Tyrell said. “He has our people invested in it, too. And, he educates them as to what the house is for. We have stores taking turns preparing dinners for the house. One of our store managers believes very strongly in that and organizes that for us. Once a month a different store would be responsible for providing a meal.”

It’s all because of the example Paul sets for his people, according to Tyrell.


Giving Back

Paul Ross has supported Ronald McDonald’s House in Syracuse from the early beginnings

‘It’s What I love’

Paul Ross (second from left) with Lois Ross and Thomas Sardino, former Syracuse police chief, at the grand opening of South Geddes Street restaurant April 1978.

Paul Ross is an original founder of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central New York, which has provided a home away from home for families with sick children receiving treatment in local hospitals.

“The Ronald McDonald House Charities is an organization that is near and dear to me. Growing up, my little brother was partially paralyzed and I told myself that when I got older, if I had the opportunity to give back to those that couldn’t do for themselves that I would,” he said. “I was part of the building committee for the first Ronald McDonald House in Central New York in 1982 and have continued to stay involved with the organization ever since.”

“Paul Ross’ involvement with Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central New York dates back to our inception. Deeply rooted in our community, Paul was a founder of the original CNY Ronald McDonald House and has been a champion of children and families for more than 40 years,” said Beth Trunfio, executive director, Ronald McDonald House Charities of CNY.

“I raise funds both on a personal level and through my restaurants with the Round-Up Campaign. The campaign allows customers to round up their change or otherwise donate a dollar amount to RMHC when they cash out,” he said. “While it was a slow process in the beginning, I’ve been able to incentivize and motivate my crew to make the campaign a priority over the last few years and it has seen some great results.”

Collectively, his 15 restaurants (including restaurants in Pulaski, Mexico, Brewerton, Fulton and Central Square) recently passed generating $1.5 million for Round-Up to support RMHC of Central New York. Over the last three years, in total, McDonald’s owner-operators throughout Central, Northern New York and Northern Pennsylvania have raised $2.2 million for the program.

“Customers really appreciate when we ask if they’d like to round up for RMHC and my employees have also gotten more involved volunteering at the house because of it as well,” he said.

“I do this because it’s what I love. Watching my employees grow while giving back to my community has made my career one of the greatest joys of my life,” he said. “I feel fulfilled having been able to make a difference in my community through RMHC and in my restaurants seeing success in people and how their lives have evolved.”

There are so many amazing parts of his day every day, he added.

“What resonates with me the most is being part of change in my community and supporting the people I work with. I’ve had my hand in being part of people living good lives and that is most meaningful to me,” he said. “Of course, every job comes with learning opportunities. Making tough business decisions when needed can be difficult, although I can confidently say the positives have outweighed the negatives.”

“Paul always encourages people to dream big, which in our case, has led to the founding of several large fundraising events, as well as the building of our new house more than 10 years ago,” Trunfio said. “We are now embarking on an expansion of our current house to allow us to serve even more families in need and continue Paul’s legacy of improving the lives of children and their families in this community!”


In 1968, the Big Mac was released nationwide.

A look at Some McDonald’s Items — Then & Now

• The very first McDonald’s menu was large. However, in 1948, the McDonald brothers reduced the restaurant’s offerings down to just nine items.

• Ray Kroc opened his first franchise in 1955.

• The first new item to be added to the national menu was the Filet-O-Fish sandwich in 1965.

• In 1968, the Big Mac was released nationwide.

• Today, an estimated 900 million Big Macs are sold each year around the world.

• Chicken McNuggets were added to menus in 1983.

• McDonald’s debuted the McChicken in 1980, and it was a disappointment at first.

• Happy Meals came out in 1979.

• The McRib sandwich first appeared on McDonald’s menus in 1981.

• In 2004, Mcdonald’s released its “Real Life Choices” menu with “healthier” options.

• In 1972, Herb Peterson of Santa Barbara, California, pitched his latest creation to McDonald’s owner Ray Croc — it was what we now know as the Egg McMuffin.

• The chain also sells coffee — in 1993, McDonald’s opened the first McCafé in Melbourne, Australia.

• McDonald’s restaurants in Hawaii began serving Spam, eggs and rice for breakfast in 2002.

SOURCE: Business Insider


Paul Ross McDonald’s Locations

1. North Syracuse

2. Fulton

3. Potsdam

4. Nedrow

5. Ogdensburg

6. Pulaski

7. Gouverneur

8. Brewerton

9. Cicero2 (Route 31)

10. Mexico

11. Adams

12. Central Square

13. Baldwinsville

14. Cicero1 (Route 11)

15. Canton