Albert Okura in the unofficial McDonald’s museum. All photos by Justin Caffier
Albert Okura is a man obsessed with his destiny. The third-generation Japanese-American believes it was his destiny when he founded Juan Pollo, a Mexican-themed rotisserie chicken restaurant chain, in 1984. As he puts it, he is fated to roast more chickens than any man on Earth. By his own estimates, he’s already personally cooked over one million birds. But he is far from done.
Okura also operates an unofficial McDonald’s museum in San Bernardino, California, on the site of the chain’s first ever restaurant. This too plays a role in his destiny fulfillment, and he will do anything—including swapping bodies—to ensure this destiny is fulfilled. But more on that later.
The site where the museum stands was originally home to an octagonal shack where brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald served barbecue-smoked meats and tamales to local teens and Route 66 tourists in the 1940s. Today, Okura’s museum houses old photos and memorabilia, chronicling the growth of the chain—from its humble pre-war beginnings, to its Ray Kroc-helmed franchise explosion, to its current international sprawl.
Okura greeted me at the museum’s entrance and immediately made it known that the site is in no way, shape, or form affiliated with the McDonald’s corporation.
“They don’t officially recognize us and they haven’t made official contact, but I know they’re monitoring us,” Okura told me. “They understandably don’t want us capitalizing off their name. I own a restaurant business and I have my office here, but I don’t promote that part. I just see this as such a historically significant place.”
And it’s easy to believe Okura when he says that. He’s very careful to stay within the letter of the law with the museum. He explained that while he can make reference to the historic nature of the site, he can’t claim any corporate affiliation with McDonald’s. There are no gentle nudges for “donations” that you might find at other attractions that pepper the towns of historic Route 66. He’s able to display the bronze plaque which notes the site as a landmark, but only because it happened to come with the property—another indicator of “destiny,” as Okura sees it.
Okura showed me shelves filled with every conceivable bit of history from the restaurant’s early days: Autographed photos of the restaurant’s employees. Tiles saved from another early McDonald’s location, which was shut down and bulldozed. Even an early straw wrapper, from the original restaurant, flattened and framed.
“I want to find the story behind each item,” Okura said, which explained why the walls and cases were plastered with handwritten notes detailing the origins of each object. Cardboard boxes of foreign entrées, promotional tie-in placemats, and various, horrifying iterations of Ronald McDonald were everywhere, and Okura had a story for each one.
We made our way to the back section of the room where Happy Meal toys—both international and domestic—were shelved. For some reason, two entire cases were devoted to a hodgepodge of “competitor toys,” from restaurants like Wendy’s and Burger King.
That’s the thing about this place: There’s a massive collection of “stuff” in the museum, but not much curation. Okura’s policy that no item is too trivial for his McRepository left me feeling like I was in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, unsure of where to direct my attention.
But this place is no joke to Okura. He belongs to a dying breed of people who still see the American Dream as an attainable reality, and his McDonald’s fandom is rooted in his idolatry of the three men who made the company what it is today. He’s read all the books about and by them, and eagerly awaits the forthcoming biopic, The Founder, which tells the story of the chain’s formative years, ending with Ray Kroc leading the brand to global domination.
Like Kroc, Okura plans to turn his restaurant, which currently has over 25 locations, into an international staple. Okura gave me a copy of his book, The Chicken Man With a 50 Year Plan, pointing out that he purposefully wore sunglasses for the cover photo, so that people might mistakenly assume he was Hispanic, not Asian, thus lending authenticity to his Mexican-themed chicken chain.
Okura invited me to try Juan Pollo’s chicken for myself, so I followed him to his restaurant. While I ate—half a chicken, with a side of macaroni casserole and beans, at Okura’s recommendation—he told me about his three adult children. It wasn’t just fatherly boasting. They too are part of his master plan. All three studied business, and are set to take over the chain and expand it to the social media age. “It’s their destiny,” he added.
For a man so focused on fatalism, Okura seemed to put a lot of thought and energy into ideas that would dramatically alter his future, sometimes in fantastical ways.
For instance, now that he’s in his 60s, Okura says he’s trying to acquire as much money as possible—not just to grow his chain, but to potentially place his brain in a “younger, stronger, faster” body, should such technology become available in his lifetime. “The poor never get anything like that so I’ll need to have enough money to make that happen.” If things don’t pan out that way, Okura feels he can at least make it to 120 years old, given medical advancements and his family’s history of living long.
And what will happen once he’s roasted more poultry than anyone else? He says he’ll follow in the footsteps of another of his idols, General George S. Patton, best known for leading the United States Army to victory in the invasion of Normandy during World War II.
“He believed his whole life that he was meant to lead armies into battle as a great general and he worked his whole life towards that. He was the only American general the Germans feared,” Okura explained. “He fulfilled his destiny. Then, right after the war ended, a freak car accident, and he was dead.”
I have no clue as to whether or not it’s Okura’s destiny to rotisserie grill chickens all the way into the next millennium, or whether he’ll live forever in an ever-changing stable of host bodies. But his chicken was pretty good, and if there’s anyone with the drive and focus to pull off such an improbable goal, it’s him. He doesn’t even need a Ray Kroc.
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