By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Inside the electronic geofence that registers the arrival of a car pulling up to pick up food, past the posters showing chocolate-dipped donut sticks, around the electronic kiosks taking orders automatically, past the smiling face of the franchise owner, behind counters that are ubiquitous around the world— sits a surprise.
Not everyone gets to walk into the kitchen of a neighborhood McDonald’s and observe the cheese slices laid out for burgers, the stacks of buns in the back, or the young man at a griddle—but, as franchise owner William Cho pulls apart the plastic hanging strips that cordon off the refrigerated storeroom in the back, the opening reveals a secret that not everyone knows about —stacks of real, white eggs.
“It makes me really mad when people say that at—” (he names the name of an uptown competitor) “— people say you’re getting real food.”
“There, they just put things in the microwave. Here, we actually crack real eggs,” he said.
It’s not easy being a franchise owner of the biggest fast food chain in the world. But the challenges are not what might be expected.
Burgers for a changing market
Cho, 58, is also the Asian consumer marketing chair of the McDonald’s marketing body. His group comprises about 20 corporate members, advertising executives, and half a dozen franchise owners/operators.
Facing national demographic changes, McDonald’s is working through the committee to elaborate on its traditional strategies for outreach.
The company has traditionally offered philanthropy through the Ronald McDonald House Charities and scholarships for Black and Latinx/Hispanic students and its own employees. Local franchises have also practiced philanthropy.
But now that its customer base is almost 50 percent non-white, McDonald’s is becoming even more sophisticated, not just in its use of artificial intelligence in its franchises, but also in its approach to outreach and marketing.
Nationwide, six percent of its customers are Asian Pacific Islanders (API) while on the West Coast the number “is in the double digits,” said Cho.
As part of its outreach, the company will now offering its first national scholarship for API high school students.
Starting in the spring of 2020, there will be $500,000 worth of scholarships to 55 API high school students ranging from $5,000 to $20,000.
The scholarships are part of a campaign to reach out to the API community through education.
Less than two decades ago, scholarships for Asian students funded by McDonalds were coordinated through the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), said Cho.
It was only in 2003 that McDonalds, along with other major donors, coordinated with the Asian Pacific American Advocates (OCA) to found a nonprofit specifically aimed at giving to API students—now called the Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) Scholars .
Another challenge was educating the roughly 2,000 owner-operators in the United States about the scholarship, said Cho.
“We’ve been trying to get McDonald’s to sponsor an Asian element,” he said. “We look at education as one of three big pillars in reaching the Asian McDonald’s community.”
Earlier this year, McDonald’s hosted an event at a local high school on the Eastside, bringing in speakers and college counselors to explain the application process.
“We explain the process, letting them know that there are other avenues to higher education,” he said.
The other two “pillars” involve music and reaching families through community festivals.
When Cho told his father—a retired professor of political science and four-time congressman in Korea—about the scholarship program, his father had a hard time understanding its significance at first.
“He was asking about Pell grants,” said Cho, referring to a federally–funded grant that is more familiar to university administrators. “He didn’t understand what it took to get this.”
But unlike some of the well–known federal scholarships that have been around for decades, the McDonald’s scholarship is aimed not only at four–year institutions but also at community colleges.
“We wanted it to be available for the neediest,” said Cho.
It provides 15 API students with $5,000 a year for the four years they are in college. Forty students will receive a one–year, one–time scholarship of $5,000.
Despite the relative prevalence of college degrees among APIs—one half of all APIs have college degrees while only one third of all Americans do—tremendous disparities exist within the community, according to APIA Scholars.
“Only 25% of Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Southeast Asian Americans have college degrees and the top 10% of APIAs earn more than ten times the bottom 10% of APIAs,” according to APIA Scholars in a McDonald’s press release.
“Emphasis will be placed on students who are first generation college attendees and demonstrate high financial need,” it stated.
Education in one API family
Cho’s father, who at 90 is battling cancer, certainly understands the importance of education.
He came to the United States and studied at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science.
Afterwards, he returned to Korea and took up a position at the highly prestigious Seoul National University, where he had done his undergraduate work.
But he was outspoken about the Park regime and the family got word one day he was going to be arrested the following day.
They fled to Japan, where the family spent several years as political refugees.
Eventually, returning to the U.S., Cho’s father taught at several universities until he earned a tenure position at University of Missouri, where the younger Cho did his undergraduate work.
Cho studied geology, which encouraged his love of the outdoors, including skiing and hiking.
His first jobs in college were in the food industry. And he later worked at a ski resort in Aspen, Colorado in a sushi restaurant, working his way up.
But it was his love of the outdoors that led to his marriage.
He was in Los Angeles, now 30, working with friends in real estate, and was introduced to his wife, Julia.
Also the child of Korean immigrants who had grown up in the Midwest, she enjoyed the outdoors as much as he did.
On their first date, they took a tram up to the San Jacinto Mountains, which were still snow-clad during the spring, and traipsed around in the wilderness.
“I said to myself, ‘Hey, she likes this as much as I do,’” said Cho.
Today, they have two sons, and they are devoted to their education. Both sons went to Lakeside. The older one is studying neuroscience at Vassar.
From franchise owner to cultural navigator
After getting married, they put their heads together and decided on a future path.
She was an optometrist. But Cho wanted to work in the food industry.
“McDonald’s was always number one,” he said. He recalled memories of going to a local franchise as a kid.
“If we did something good, we’d get hamburger and fries,” he said.
It was rare for someone that did not have a corporate background to be accepted as a franchisee.
Cho did however have extensive experience in major project developments, which may have helped.
Before he met his wife, he had spent time in Hawaii, as part of a group developing a golf course on the North Shore of Oahu. Earlier, he had worked in finance for Korean Airlines.
When he got the McDonald’s franchise, he was thrilled.
He went into training for two years, working various jobs, putting in 30-40 hours per week, more than the required.
Eventually, he landed two franchises in Lake Forest, in Orange County.
After six years, the company encouraged him to move to the Seattle area as part of a growth strategy.
They were familiar with the Pacific Northwest from traveling. And Cho had spent several years as a child both in Seattle and in Oregon when his father was a professor at the University of Washington and later at the University of Oregon.
But the biggest hallmark was that the move coincided with birth of their second son.
Sitting in his first franchise, Cho explains that actually the original building was across the street. He bought it in 2002, then moved it to its current location in 2007.
By then, he was operating other franchises. He has just opened his eighth in Tacoma.
As part of his work as chair for the Asian marketing group, Cho travels to major Asian community events around the country with his team.
The last meeting was held in Vancouver, B.C.
“We wanted to see what the ethnic marketing was like in the Canadian marketing system,” he said.
Earlier in the year, they were involved with a cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C. For the Lunar New Year, they are scheduled to meet in San Francisco.
McDonald’s food also reflects the changing demographics of its customer base. Cho compared the donut sticks advertised on a poster to traditional Chinese dipping bread, called youtiao. He said that in Hawaii, the local franchises offer a type of burger modeled on Korean barbecue beef.
“And they even have rice cookers,” he added. “Tourists may not know about it, but the locals ask for rice.”
For Cho, it’s the Sausage Egg McMuffin that grabs him. That’s where they use the freshly–cracked egg.
How to apply for the scholarship
APIA Scholars is currently accepting online applications for the McDonald’s/APIA Scholarship at apiascholars.org until Jan. 22, 2020 at 5:00 p.m. EST.
Applicants must meet the requirements below in order to be eligible:
● Be of Asian and/or Pacific Islander ethnicity as defined by the U.S. Census
● Be a citizen, national, or legal permanent resident of the United States. Citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau are also eligible to apply
● Be enrolling as an undergraduate student in a U.S. accredited college or university in the Fall 2020
● Have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.7 on a 4.0 scale (unweighted) or have earned a GED
● Must apply for federal financial aid for the 2020-2021 academic year using the Free Application for the Federal Student Aid (FASFA) by early April 2020
● Submit one letter of recommendation online.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.