Fifty years ago Friday, Zakos began the after-school job working for a middle-age, milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc, who thought he could make his fortune selling 15-cent hamburgers at a new restaurant he called McDonald's.
But every time he drives by a busy McDonald's restaurant, he can't help but wonder what could have been if he had taken up Kroc on his repeated offers to get more involved in the business.
"That's one thing I regret," said Zakos, 64, who ran the fryer when McDonald's No. 1 opened in Des Plaines on April 15, 1955. "Ray offered to let me into the business when they were building up their corporate offices in Oak Brook, but I had a sports scholarship for college. None of us had any idea what McDonald's would become. Even Ray, he had these great plans, but I don't think he even could have dreamed it would become this worldwide phenomena."
On Friday, McDonald's Corp. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first franchise with the opening of a 24,000-square-foot restaurant, a monumental replica of the Des Plaines store, in Chicago's River North neighborhood.
For McDonald's, the anniversary is a benchmark of the company's longevity, another notch in the belt of the fast food giant and a nice marketing device to underscore the chain's place in modern America.
But for Zakos, one of the first crewmembers Kroc hired, the day marks a high point in his own life story.
Zakos was only 14 when he started at McDonald's. He had dropped by the restaurant weeks before it opened and told store manager Ed MacLuckie that he was 15, the minimum age to be considered for a job, Zakos said.
At the time, Zakos was living with his aunt and uncle in their apartment in Des Plaines, not far from the McDonald's. Zakos had immigrated to the United States only three years before from Tripoli, Greece, after his father had fallen on hard times. His family stayed behind, sending him first to chart the way.
"The first summer I saved up $1,000 and sent it to my sister in Greece to buy a plot of land for her house," Zakos said proudly during a recent interview at his restaurant, Sun Mist, in Addison. "The second summer I sent her another $1,000 I saved to put down on building a house."
Kroc's idea for a fast food chain was born in 1954, not long after he bought the rights to distribute the Multimixer milkshake machine.
That year he went out to California to visit Dick and Mac McDonald, two brothers who used eight Multimixers for their drive-in hamburger stand.
The brothers were doing booming business selling a limited menu based on hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, milkshakes and soft drinks. Kroc persuaded them to give him exclusive rights to sell the McDonald's franchise in North America. By 1961, he had bought them out for a princely sum of $2.7 million.
In the weeks before McDonald's opened, Zakos and another youngster, Bob Cornog, became some of Kroc's first trainees. They learned the ropes from MacLuckie and Art Bender, who Kroc brought from California to get the Des Plaines restaurant working efficiently.
The first crew wore white short-sleeve shirts, white pants and paper hats. Glen Volkman, 66, who stopped by the restaurant on opening day with teammates from his Bensenville High School golf team, said there were only three or four cars parked when they pulled into the lot.
"I remember going back a couple of other times after football games and the lot was packed with cars," said Volkman, of Eau Claire, Wis., who McDonald's invited to be the first customer at the River North store on Friday. "It was like our Happy Days."
Cornog recalled how he and Zakos cut endless blocks of American cheese to learn what was the perfect slice--enough to cover the burger while thin enough to melt sufficiently.
"There must have been hundreds of blocks of cheese," Cornog, 66, said in a telephone interview from Florida.