Frankie Stone was a war veteran loaded with ideas. From the day he landed on Omaha Beach to the last bullet he fired just after the Nazi surrender, he mulled over peacetime ideas of what to do if he were to survive this nasty war. Remarkably, he had only suffered a sniper wound that crossed the bridge of his nose. A half and inch further would have spelled the end for the young man from Chicago. But he was holding the right cards and, upon return to his bustling home town, he married his high school sweetheart, Lefty Novak, and continued to work on his ideas.
It was an odd match. Frankie Stone, just under six foot with strong lean arms, was a quiet analytical soul. Whereas, his bride was a hard-drinking south-sider with bleached hair who would smoke her cigarettes down to the stub and then fling them as far as she could with her left hand. Once married, they honeymooned motorcycling up to the Wisconsin Dells. Then the couple spent the next three years in a small apartment on the Northwest side of the city while Frankie attended college on the G.I. Bill at the temporary Navy Pier branch of the University of Illinois. Lefty went to work as a waitress at a grill on north Clark Street.
It was on a summer day during his last year of school that Frankie’s ideas began to gel. Running his fingers through dark wavy hair from the customer side of the counter at the grill, he said to Lefty, “America’s changing, kiddo. People are finally getting jobs and they’ll be in a hurry now.” He was wearing a white shirt and a tie, required for job he had taken as an automobile salesman.
“So, what does that mean?” Lefty said blowing a solid stream of smoke downward from behind the counter. She had on a white blouse and a red apron over a knee length skirt. Her shapely legs had caught the eye of more than one customer. She didn’t mind the looks.
“It means there’s money in quick turnarounds. Fast in, fast out for lunch, for example.”
“So you want to open something like a hot dog stand?”
“No, no,” Frankie answered promptly. “That’s too much work with only a modest profit. The big money comes from having a large number of joints. A sort of license type set up.”
“I don’t understand. You mean like having a driver’s license?”
Frankie thought on that some while Lefty took a strong last drag on her cigarette and then stepped from behind the counter to open a door a few feet away and pitch her cigarette out onto Clark Street. Frankie had asked his wife some time back why she was bent on throwing her butts out-of-doors with such intensity rather than crush them out in any myriad of ash trays available most anywhere. She just grunted as if her husband had asked why the sun is hot, so he just let it go. Lefty returned and took a coffee pot from a warmer to top off the cups of any customers.
“You might call it that,” Frankie said having given his wife’s question about driver licenses some thought. “Let’s say that the owner of the licenses is the State of Illinois and every driving resident in the state has to take a test and then pay for a license that has to be renewed each year – also at a cost.”
“Yeah?” Lefty questioned waiting for more after placing the pot back on the warmer.
“People would have to qualify for a hot dog or hamburger stand by maybe having enough money and a required set of standards to get a license to open one of these places.”
“Why wouldn’t he just open a hot dog or hamburger stand on his own without going to the trouble of a license?”
“He wouldn’t have the name of the place that would eventually be known throughout the country for its specialties.”
“It sounds kind of screwy to me. How did you get this idea?”
“I first began thinking about it when we had some rest time in Saint Lo – that’s in France.” He leaned back, nodding to himself as a sort of confirmation, and continued, “Then there was this guy that bought a Ford from me the other day at the car lot. He sells mixers for bars and restaurants and talked about some hamburger joint out in California that needed a large number of mixers for their malted milks. He said this hamburger place would sell a couple hundred burgers at lunch because they made them all the same, no changes. Busy working people would be in and out in just a few minutes. And because they sold so many, he could make a profit at a dime less than other stands would charge.”
“So, what’s the bit about a license?”
“Well, that’s what I talked about with him. It’s the very thing I was contemplating over in Europe. These licenses. Another word you could call them are franchises.”
“Franchises! What the hell are they?”
“It’s something new,” Frankie replied getting excited. “Let’s say I start a business and give it a name – maybe ‘Stone’s Hamburgers’. Then it becomes well known. So well-known that Joe Blow wants a ‘Stone’s Hamburgers’ restaurant. I sell him a franchise down in Kentucky, for example. He pays the licensing fee and agrees to pay me a percentage of the profits. Then I do the same with another and then another until I have a large number of franchisees making money for me.”
“Sounds great,” Lefty said as a customer came through the door and she walked a menu with a glass of water to his table.
“So what about the guy that bought a Ford?” she asked upon returning.
“Well, I think he’s going to try my idea out with a couple of brothers with an Irish name at that place out in California.
Lefty nodded and reached for her package of cigarettes. “It’s just as well, Frankie. He’ll probably lose his shirt.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” Frankie agreed, though he wished they were the ones driving out to California.
A few weeks later Frankie and Lefty took a trip down south to see some Civil War battlefields. It was July with the humidity nearly as high as the temperature. Gravel roads throughout Tennessee continuously rattled the car’s undercarriage. And Alabama offered little relieve with dusty clay roads.
Exhausted and filthy from driving with open windows to avoid suffocating, they checked into a motel in Huntsville only to find that the showers had been turned off due to a water shortage. After hand bathing as best they could with water from the sink, they crawled into sheets that hadn’t been washed for a week, due of course, to the water shortage.
The next morning over grits at a café across a dirt street from the motel, Lefty said to her husband, “This is unbearable. I need a lake or something to jump into.”
Frankie nodded in agreement, but said nothing as he began to think. And then he nodded more vigorously as if an electric current had suddenly been turned on.
“You’ve got an idea,” Lefty remarked seeing the familiar body language of her husband when an idea of some sort popped up. “I don’t want to hear it. I just want some hot water. Any water! Those sheets last night actually cracked when I turned over.”
“That’s it. My franchise idea! Last night was probably a family owned business that just provides the bare essentials.”
“There weren’t any essentials there, Frankie!” Lefty reminded him.
“I know, I know. But think of a motel that’s part of a good franchise chain. They know the name. They know what amenities will be provided. They know the cost. No surprises.”
“That’s fine for our next trip assuming we don’t come down with a fatal disease from being filthy. Right now I’ll give anything for soap and water.”
At that moment a heavy-set man about Frankie’s age at an adjacent table turned his chair to face them. He wore an open-collar white shirt that was already wet from perspiration. “Excuse me,” he said with a strong southern accent. “I couldn’t help overhearing you talk about franchises.”
Always excited to talk about his idea, Frankie scooted his chair a couple of feet in the man’s direction. “You familiar with franchises?”
“Not really. The name’s Wilson. I’m from Memphis.” They shook hands and the man tipped his straw fedora to Lefty. “Ma’am.”
She extended a forced smile, and Wilson turned his attention back to Frankie. “I’m thinking of opening a motel in Memphis, but I’m considering something more than just the motel.”
“Like what?” Frankie asked.
“Well, to be quite honest, I’m not sure. At first I was thinking of a high class hotel, but this is still the poor south and I don’t think that will fly down here like it would in one of the big northern cities. And then one day, not long ago, I happened to experience what you two fine people did yesterday across the street. I’m thinking of a reasonably priced motel that people will know what to expect just by the name. The trick is to get that sort of reputation.” Wilson took out a package of Chesterfields and offered both one. Frankie shook his head while Lefty took one and Wilson lit hers first and then his. “Now tell me about franchises if you would be so kind.”
Frankie gladly commenced to tell about his idea he had come up with while overseas to Wilson who was all ears. And then he added, “Just now I thought of how it might be successful with motels. During the war I remember how easy the Germen’s were able travel along the Audubon. It won’t be long before we have highways like that here. In fact, Eisenhower has mentioned in his campaign speeches the need for those.” He turned to his wife and said, “Did I ever tell you I met Ike the night before D-Day when he visited with the troops?”
Lefty exhaled smoke away from the men and shook her head.
“You were in D-Day?” Wilson asked with raised eyebrows.
“I was supposed to be with the first wave on Omaha Beach, but I came down with what was thought to be a contagious disease so they held me up for a day.”
“Omaha Beach! Good God!”
“I guess I was lucky. There were so many hit, they were still taking care of the unlucky ones when I got there. But getting back to my idea, if major highways are built, where would you think the best location for a motel might be?”
Wilson thought a moment and then brought a smile to Frankie when he replied, “By the exits!”
“Exactly,” Frankie agreed with elation. “Put a big franchise name up on a sign so it can be seen a half a mile away and you’re in business.”
“You are on to something,” Wilson praised. He looked at his watch and said, “I have to be going to an appointment. This has been a most agreeable visit, and I want to help you two out. I heard you talk about the showers at your motel. There’s a truck stop over in Decatur with a shower that works.” He scribbled on a note. “Give this to the manager. He’ll let you get cleaned up.” He stood, shook Frankie’s hand and tipped his hat to Lefty. “You both have an enjoyable day.”
The two Chicagoans watched Wilson leave through a screen door that needed paint, and Lefty said, “What are we waiting for?”
Frankie paid the bill and met his wife at the door. “You know, Lefty, I think Mr. Wilson is going after my idea.”
“Frankie, for soap and hot water, it’s his idea now. And more power to him! Let’s get over to Decatur.” She pushed open the screen door and threw her cigarette hard out onto the red clay road.