Carlos Mateos Sr. is no ordinary McDonald’s franchisee.
The Cuban-American entrepreneur, who oversees operations of more than 40 McDonald’s units with the help of his family, came to the U.S. when he was 6 years old.
Decades later, he now runs some of the most successful and well-known McDonalds in the DMV, including the restaurant located in the Pentagon and the one at Quantico Marine Corps Base. It was Mateos Sr.’s McDonald’s that delivered more than $5,000 worth of food to the White House in January 2019 when the national champion Clemson football team visited.
How did a former law enforcement officer from New Jersey build a franchising empire? To understand where he gets his work ethic and drive from, you have to start at the beginning.
As the son of refugees, Mateos Sr. knew early on what hard work looked like. His mother worked in a factory and his father was a bus driver. At the age of 10, Mateos Sr. began delivering newspapers and later working nights in a factory.
“I have a saying that I tell people,” Mateos Sr. says. “People see the fruit of my labor. Nobody ever saw the labor. They don’t see what it took.”
The entrepreneurial spirit has long been ingrained in him. When Mateos Sr. grew out of his paper route, he began a career in law enforcement, but that wasn’t the only source of income. When his daughters were born, he and his wife opened their home and turned it into a daycare business.
He loved his job and never planned on venturing into the world of franchising until a fellow officer approached him with news he’d be leaving the force to become a McDonald’s operator.
“I was like, you’ve got to tell me how you did it and what to do,” he says.
Initially, he was skeptical. Part of his job’s attraction was the pension that kicked in after a certain number of years served, something he had yet to achieve. But after hearing about the application process and what it took to become a franchisee, his interest was piqued.
“I said, well you know what? If you can do it, I can do it,” he says. “I’m going to do the same thing.”
In secret, Mateos Sr. began the application process. He went online and filled out the necessary paperwork and waited for a response.
“I didn’t tell a soul, not even my wife,” he says.
After securing an initial interview, McDonald’s informed him his application to become a franchisee had been denied. Though disappointed, Mateos Sr. was not deterred. He waited six months and reapplied.
The second time around he landed multiple interviews and was eventually accepted into the training program for potential franchisees. The process usually takes about 24 months, he says, so both parties can determine if they are the right fit. Never one to be slowed down, Mateos Sr. says he completed his training well ahead of schedule, a harbinger for his future with the brand.
“I completed the entire process in 13 months,” he says.
[float_image image=”https://www.qsrmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/gordonramsayfishandchips.jpg” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”Carlos Mateos Sr. (left), Carlos Mateos Jr.
” alt=”Gordon Ramsay's Fish & Chips Exterior” align=”left” /]
When training was completed, the search for a location began. He looked at several units across the country, but nothing seemed to be a good fit. For one reason or another, locations in Texas, Indiana, and Massachusetts didn’t make sense.
Mateos Sr. says it was partially because of where they were located––he’s a self-described “East Coast guy.” Having spent his whole life in New Jersey directly across from New York City, he struggled to imagine living somewhere that wasn’t near a metropolis.
The back and forth to find a location continued until the east division’s franchising manager for McDonald’s found a unit in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C.
At first glance, the Virginia location was anything but prime real estate. The restaurant was in serious need of a makeover, both on the surface and behind the scenes. Along with the physical store itself, the business being generated at that location needed revitalization, too.
“There were six air conditioning units at that location,” he says. “Five of them were down. Most of the grills were not working. It was a complete and chaotic mess. But I took the chance. We went through a lot of struggles the first three, four, five months.”
Those initial struggles didn’t last long as the restaurant eventually saw monthly comp sales increase 40–50 percent. The success of his first store led to more opportunities. He turned around a second unit in similar fashion, which led to his biggest chance with the company.
McDonald’s offered Mateos Sr. the opportunity to buy nine struggling locations in the D.C. area, with hopes that he could work his magic on those stores.
“I went back to them and told them I wasn’t going to buy all nine stores,” he says. “I know what I can do and I don’t like to fail. Failure is not an option.”
So, instead of taking on nine subpar units, he opted to purchase five. He says within two to three months, the stores were heading in a better direction.
“I did exactly the same thing I did with my first restaurant,” he says. “We went from one store in 1999 to 41 in 2021.”
Having proven himself as a more-than-capable franchisee, Mateos Sr. now operates some of the most recognizable units in the D.C. area, like the McDonald’s around the corner from the White House.
But he isn’t running his empire by himself—it’s a family affair in the DMV. His two oldest daughters and son are all owner/operators of McDonald’s franchises.
Mateos Sr.’s son, Carlos Mateos Jr., teamed up with his father directly. After playing baseball in college, Mateos Jr. was figuring out what he wanted to do in life.
“I can pinpoint the day I said this is what I want to do,” Mateos Jr. says.
Having hung up his baseball cleats, Mateos Jr. started working as a cashier in one of his father’s D.C. McDonald’s. This led to him becoming a crew trainer, a position requiring knowledge of all areas inside a restaurant, and one with the ability to train any employee at every station.
“After I became a verified crew trainer, I told my dad that this is what I want to do,” he says. “I told him I want to pursue this 100 percent.”
Eventually, Mateos Jr. moved to a corporate store to gain more experience and learn from a position where he wasn’t the owner’s son.
“It was good for me to get a different outlook and perspective,” he says.
Mateos Jr. climbed the ranks of the corporate ladder and became an approved owner-operator in 2017. That would be the start of the partnership between he and his father, dubbing themselves the “MCD Mateos.”
“It’s been such a transformative journey for us,” he says. “I can only imagine what it’s like for him [Mateos Sr.] because in his eyes I started out as a cashier and he’s watching my development.”
He adds it can be difficult at times working with family, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else,” he says. “Because that’s my best friend.”
Reflecting on his journey, Mateos Sr. says at times it’s hard to believe where he is in life. As the son of refugees and an immigrant himself, owning some of the most prominent McDonald’s locations in the nation’s capital can sometimes feel surreal.
“Being an immigrant, if you had asked me 25 to 30 years ago if I ever dreamt accomplishing what I’ve accomplished … no, absolutely not,” he says.
Part of what drives Mateos Sr. to succeed is his desire to provide something more for his family than what he grew up with.
“I never settled, and my son could tell you that,” he says. “We always try to be number one in everything. Obviously, we don’t succeed every time, but most of the time we do. I tell my kids second place is reserved for the first loser. I don’t like to be the first loser.”
The MCD Mateos partnership doesn’t end with the golden arches. The father-and-son duo are also heavily involved with local charities and regularly support local police and fire departments and schools.
“Whenever someone asks what the best thing about being an owner is, I tell them the ability to give people an opportunity that they otherwise might not have,” Mateos Jr. says. “That’s so special and something we have the ability to do.”
Mateos Sr. adds remembering where he came from is a big reason why he gets involved with various charities.
“I know where I am, I know where I’m going, but I never forget where I come from,” he says. “For us to be able to help other people, number one, is a blessing. Number two, I know what it’s like to be there. I know what it’s like to not be able to pay rent or to have to put groceries back at the checkout line because I didn’t have enough money in my pocket.”
Looking toward the future, Mateos Jr. says he and his father don’t have any set number related to how much they want their empire to grow. Instead, the pair is focusing on organic growth and making an impact in the communities where they work.
“We always want to leave a positive, lasting imprint everywhere we go,” he says.
Mateos Sr. echoed his son’s thoughts, adding they want to grow “smart” and to not grow just for the sake of it. He says the most important part of running an operation like theirs is remembering to take care of the people who make up the business.
“Helping those people realize their full potential…that’s it” he says.” “I believe without the right people we would never have been able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished. You treat them right and you treat them with respect. It’s who we are.”