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The man who sold the first McDonald’s hamburger once lived in Shell Beach

Art Bender of Shell Beach, with an ad for McDonald’s first franchise in Fresno and the spatula that flipped the 50 billionth hamburger.
Art Bender of Shell Beach, with an ad for McDonald’s first franchise in Fresno and the spatula that flipped the 50 billionth hamburger. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The man who sold the first McDonald’s burger retired in Shell Beach.

In celebration of National Hamburger Month, here’s the story of Art Bender as told by Patricia Porter in this Jan. 25, 1990, Telegram-Tribune story:

Burger baron flips for coast

He’s come a long way from flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Art Bender’s Shell Beach dream house commands a spectacular view of the Pacific, from Avila Beach all the way to Point Sal. Bender spends most of his time doing what he likes best, which is playing the drums.

But Bender, 72, was no ordinary burger-flipper.

He sold the first McDonald’s hamburger.

That was back in December 1948, when Dick and Mac McDonald opened the world’s first fast-food store at the corner of 14th and E streets in San Bernardino.

Bender, an unemployed musician who’d just made a unsuccessful attempt at opening a malt shop, was glad to have the work. He was hired by Mac McDonald, one of his customers at the malt shop.

The Brooklyn-born jazz musician discovered that he liked the fast-food business.

“It was a challenge getting the stuff out quickly, serving it properly, making people happy and getting the money into the cash register,” Bender said. “I kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut, and learned as much as I could about the business.”

That approach apparently worked for Bender, who retired in 1980 after selling his seven McDonald’s franchises.

But success did not come easy.

The struggle really began in July 1955, when he took over the first McDonald’s in Fresno. By 1957 Bender owned the franchise.

Money was always in short supply during the early years. Bender says he made it with the help of his wife Bernice.

There were a couple of times, however, when Bender didn’t think he’d make it. To stay afloat, he juggled.

“I was always 90 days behind on most of my bills unless something was discounted if I paid within 10 days,” Bender recalled. “My purveyors were really understanding. They knew I had a going thing and I wasn’t going to cheat them.”

The pickle company and the bun company would wait 90 days; the milk company 60 days.

Wishful thinking sometimes helped, according to Bender.

“I’d mail the checks out in hopes I’d have enough to cover them.”

One day he came up short.

His bank manager told him he had $300 in his account with $2,100 in checks outstanding, and that he’d have to deposit the difference or the checks would bounce.

After emptying the McDonald’s cigarette machine and the children’s piggy bank, inspiration struck.

“The bank had just sent me what they call a ready credit,” said Bender.

“You wrote in your own loan.”

The young entrepreneur wrote a check for $1,500, and gave it to an employee, and sent him to another branch to cash it.

His bank manager never knew what happened, said Bender, who paid back the loan “at tremendous interest.”

Little by little, the young couple got on their financial feet.

After open-heart surgery in 1974, Bender started to think about retiring. He decided to cash out in 1980 when his 20-year franchise expired.

He’d already helped his son, Ken, buy his own store. His other children, Janet and John, weren’t interested in the family business.

Bender was confident the corporation would take care of his employees. He’s proud that several have risen to high corporate positions and that four or five others now have their own stores.

Meanwhile, Bender, a self-described “hyper person,” was having trouble leaving Fresno, even though Bernice Bender was dying to move to the Central Coast.

Although the couple spent weekends at the condo they’d purchased in downtown Pismo Beach and were thinking of building on land they’d purchased in Shell Beach, Bender still didn’t want to leave Fresno.

He liked his big house there and enjoyed his work with local charities, such as Kiwanis and United Cerebral Palsy. He also wanted to be close to his grandson, David, who lives in Madera.

It was then that Bernice Bender made him an offer. They would build a house and move to Shell Beach but not sell the house in Fresno.

Bender said he’d give it a year; in five months he was ready to sell.

“I found out my problem,” said Bender, laughing.

“All my stuff was in Fresno. No wonder I didn’t feel at home in a condo. Once I brought all my junk over here, I was home.”

“I’ve been very happy,” said Bender, who in a sense has come full circle.

The Benders met in San Luis Obispo on VJ Day. Bernice Bender had come from Texas to be with a friend whose husband was stationed at Camp San Luis Obispo. Art Bender, a musician from Brooklyn, had just served three years in the Army, in Europe. He was on his way to Japan and had stopped in San Luis Obispo when the war ended.

The couple met in a truck stop cafe on Higuera Street. There was no place else to eat because the town was so crowded, recalled Bender.

They were married within a month.

Forty-five years later, they’re back on the Central Coast.

Even in retirement, Bender has a busy schedule.

He plays in a Dixieland group called the Nighthawks, whose members come from all over the Central Coast. And Bender recently joined the Central Coast Highland Society Pipe Band. He’ll be playing this weekend at the Robert Burns birthday celebration.

David Middlecamp: 805-781-7942, @DavidMiddlecamp

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