McDonald’s: It’s Family Business for the Coopers

Issue: December 2010 by in Archives, Business Profiles

When I was born, my parents lived in Section 8 housing. Eating out was a rare treat. In fact, my parents repeatedly tell the epic tale of “The Last $2 Bill.” It basically goes like this—with no food left in the apartment and payday still 24 hours away, they used a $2 bill that Dad had been saving since a kid to make the journey to McDonald’s. As my parents worked hard, their financial situation improved but as a kid we didn’t get to eat out often. On those occasions we did, we did so at McDonald’s. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are traced to the Golden Arches.

This might explain the first words out of my mouth the first time I met Troy Cooper, owner of several McDonald’s in the Lynchburg area: “Dude, you’re my hero!” Then he introduced me to his father, Keyto Cooper, the “Mr. McDonald’s” of Lynchburg. Together, the Cooper Family has built a hamburger haven that includes eight local stores and over 480 employees. And it all started like the best American stories often do—with no money, hard work and a dream.

Keyto moved to the U.S. from Honduras in 1958 and became a naturalized citizen.

“I was carrying sand to make tombstones for $0.50 a day, “ he said.

He needed to find a better place to work. Any place. He found that place at McDonald’s.

So Keyto began working for McDonald’s in St. Pete, Florida, in 1962 at the age of 17  at Store #112 and by 1968 had become an owner/partner. That year he literally loaded up the station wagon and moved his young family to Roanoke, Virginia, a place he had never even heard of before, in order to open his very first store.

Keyto is the first to admit that his Roanoke McDonald’s’ were not a success. In fact , the words of his previous boss began to ring true—“Being a good manager don’t make you a good owner.” In 1971, seeing an opportunity in a nearby market, Keyto moved the family again—this time to Lynchburg—to stay.

That move 60 miles east turned out to be the best and last move Keyto would make. The Cooper’s first Lynchburg store still stands in its same location on Wards Road. It looks a little different but the philosophy behind it is still the same.

“My goal is to run great stores. That’s been my passion,” Keyto said. “We want to offer fast, friendly and courteous service, have clean restaurants and offer a quality product.”

Keyto passed that same philosophy to his son, Troy, who began working at McDonald’s “unofficially” at the age of 12. Keyto laughs about it now, stating that “Child labor laws are different when its family.” But that didn’t sour Troy’s attitude towards the family business.

“It was a tradition. We would always go to the Wards Road McDonald’s after every Little League game—win or lose,” Troy remembered.

Troy would go on to spend a lot more time there. By the age of 20, he had graduated from college and was managing the Madison Heights store. In 1991, Troy bought the Timberlake Road store from his father.

Almost 20 years later, Keyto and Troy share more than a last name and work ethic. They operate their businesses in partnership. They share office space, services and even key personnel, such as David Watson, Director of Operations, who has been with the Coopers for over 12 years.

“The Coopers see it as a people business, not just a hamburger business,” Watson said.

And he is right in more than one way—it’s no longer just a hamburger business.

Their economic impact is stunning. Last year alone, the Coopers added over 150 jobs to the area (not including construction and maintenance of stores), and pay out over $5 million in payroll annually.

“We value our people,” Keyto said. “We like to develop leadership from within. We even offer training through McDonald’s that counts as college credit.”

Their latest development is the Forest store (#32,888 and counting), a store that may be smaller in square footage but is loaded with all the latest business bells and whistles, including a double drive-thru, a specialty coffee/drink station and a Honeywell energy panel that is web-based and operates all of their mechanicals at a huge energy savings. It’s savings that adds up quickly when you consider that the Cooper’s McDonald’s stores brews over 100 gallons of sweet tea per day, per store.

“Right now, we prepare 80 to 90 of our new specialty drinks each day per store,” Troy counted.

The Coopers hope that trend will continue to rise as they try to take more of a market share in specialty coffee and smoothies.

And if you’re wondering, even after 48 years in business with McDonald’s, Keyto still loves the food. His favorite is a Double Cheesburger. As for Troy, he is a Quarter Pounder with cheese kind of guy. As for me, anything from the $1 menu makes me smile—but these days, I pay for my order with single dollar bills.

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