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McDonald’s Restaurant owner James O’Donnell to cap off storied career with sale of 10 franchises


One gutsy risk is sometimes all it takes to spark a lifelong career.

Enter McDonald’s restaurant franchise owner James L. O’Donnell, who is now on the brink of retirement after a career that stretched over four decades.

As a 25-year-old with a take-charge attitude, Mr. O’Donnell in 1970 moved from Santa Monica, Calif., to hatch a McDonald’s restaurant in Pennsylvania. Back then, the young entrepreneur had no clue he would later become the face of the McDonald’s franchise in the north country as the owner of 10 restaurants in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

Now, 42 years later, the 66-year-old will cross the finish line of his storied career by selling his 10 restaurants and retiring. They are slated to be sold to McDonald’s Corp. on Aug. 15.

The corporation called Mr. O’Donnell out of the blue last month to offer a lucrative deal for the stores, which are all posting a profit. Collectively the stores employ some 750 full- and part-time employees during the summer, and 550 the rest of the year.

But “the fat lady hasn’t sung yet,” he said. The corporation hasn’t announced what it plans to do with the locations, although Mr. O’Donnell believes they will all stay open. “McDonald’s needs markets to develop new products, and that would be a good reason to keep the stores open.”

The way Mr. O’Donnell describes his career path is akin to a rollercoaster ride full of adventures, ups and downs. Recalling the first restaurant he opened as a young man in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the Clayton resident couldn’t hold back a chuckle. There was a good reason McDonald’s wanted to get rid of that particular restaurant, he said.

“The store barked, it was such a dog,” he said, explaining that it was built on a hill in the middle of nowhere, where a mall was supposedly going to be built. Though he may have been green at the time, he said the experience toughened him up in a hurry.

He remembers flipping burgers on the grill in the back while his first wife, the late Nancy T. O’Donnell, served customers.

“They told me I was the youngest operator who wasn’t a second-generation owner — too young for the job,” he laughed. “But I learned to own an operation without money.”

In 1977, McDonald’s Corp. pitched him a sale he couldn’t pass up: two restaurants in Watertown, at Arsenal and State streets, along with outlets in Potsdam and Ogdensburg. After making those stores an overnight success, he went on to launch several more stores over the next decade in Carthage, Lowville, Gouverneur, Calcium and Adams.

Describing him as an attentive owner who made sure his restaurants were doing quality work, marketing director Bonnie J. Corbin said most employees knew Mr. O’Donnell on a first-name basis. She has worked alongside him for 23 years.

She said when employees saw his truck pull into the parking lot, someone would invariably exclaim, “Jim’s here!” A rush to make the restaurant presentable would suddenly ensue.

“It wasn’t that they were afraid — they just always wanted to make sure they were doing their best and that it looked great when he walked through the door,” she said.

Mr. O’Donnell is also known for giving to programs that help children in the community, Mrs. Corbin said. The Ronald McDonald House of Northern New York, which was started in 1997, has granted more than $800,000 to causes in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

One highlight was raising money for a church to provide winter coats and boots. “It was really a down-home cause,” Mrs. Corbin said. “We help small charities out there that might not be eligible for big grants.”

What will Mr. O’Donnell miss the most in retirement?

“We helped a lot of people,” he said, adding that hundreds of teenagers landed their first job at his stores and went on to college. “High school kids are great. They sometimes think they know everything” but then find out that they “don’t know too much when they try to serve breakfast Saturday morning, the busiest morning of the week.”

When he retires, Mr. O’Donnell plans to vacation in France with his wife, Martha H., who taught French in the Watertown City School District for over two decades. Well known wherever they go locally, he said the couple can’t go to the supermarket without seeing someone they know — a signal of the lives they’ve touched.

“It’s been a wonderful trip,” he said.

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