By Alex Dominguez
DOWNEY – For many, the old McDonald's on the corner of Florence and Lakewood is just that: it’s the old McDonald's. For others, the site is a source of joy and pride as one of Downey’s many historical gems.
But for nearly 81-year-old Don Herlinger, the oldest-operating McDonald's is a source of fond memories and nostalgia.
Herlinger and his family moved into Downey in 1952. He was briefly a Downey High School Viking, before he exited in the middle of his 10th grade year to “seek his fortune.” He found himself at the all too familiar golden arches, hired as one of the original employees when the restaurant opened in 1953.
“McDonald's was a great experience for me,” said Herlinger. “I made 85 cents an hour, and all the hamburgers I could eat.”
The very same McDonald's that Herlinger once worked for now has the cachet of being the oldest McDonald's still in operation.
McDonald's showcased a much simpler menu back in 1953, consisting of burgers, fries, and malts.
“That was just about their menu. No Big Macs or anything like that,” said Herlinger.
Herlinger mainly presided over French fries. His uniform consisted of a white short sleeved dress shirt, a black bow tie and a paper cap.
When reflecting back on the time, Herlinger jokingly noted that gasoline was only 18 cents a gallon. The car culture that exploded in the 1950’s is well documented, and the then young teen was no exception to it.
Some of Herlinger’s fondest memories of the time include him and a few friends pitching in gas money and piling into one of their cars to cruise around Downey and the surrounding cities. Sometimes it was in his 1948 Chevrolet.
“About every night, we’d put in 25 cents apiece and fill up, you know, get gasoline,” said Herlinger. “We’d go cruise Downey, South Gate; never got into trouble. None of my friends ever got into any trouble.
"I’ve got to say, the 50’s was the best time in the world to be a teenager. Nobody knew what graffiti was. Nobody knew what ‘dope’ was…no drive-by shootings. It was just an excellent time to be a teenager…[McDonalds] was a good place to hang out back then, it was a safe environment. Downey is a good town – still a good town…”
Herlinger remembers that at the time of the burger joint’s opening it functioned more as a takeout stand, however customers would park their cars and eat in the parking lot. In the modern era, the location plays host to the occasional car show, and has only recent applied for the addition of a drive thru.
Herlinger travels back to the location from time to time, and is always willing to tell his story about his time under Speedee’s watchful neon-lit eyes.
“I feel like part of the McDonald’ family for working there, and working at the oldest McDonalds in the world,” said Herlinger.
Caption: Don Herlinger was 16 when he was hired at the Speedee McDonald's in 1953. Photo by Eric Pierce