Entrepreneur channels San Bernardino's history


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    Albert Okura wants to sell more chicken than anyone on the planet.

    - Russel Calkins

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    The kitchen at Okura's flagship store in West San Bernardino.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Welcome to Juan Pollo.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Okura saw the success of McDonald's kid friendly restaurants and set out to do the same with Juan Pollo.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Another lesson Okura learned from Ray Krock, "Never be boring."

    - Russel Calkins

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    Okura doesn't get involved in politics. He just sells chicken. In this photo Okura talks with city council member Virginia Marquez.

    - Russel Calkins

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    The flagship Juan Pollo features a Route 66 museum and a barbershop.

    - Russel Calkins

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    The barber shop inside the flagship Juan Pollo.

    - Russel Calkins

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    The Route 66 museum inside Juan Pollo.

    - Russel Calkins

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    When Albert Okura saw that the site of the original McDonald's was in foreclosure and for sale he purchased it and turned it into an unofficial McDonald's museum.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Memorabilia in the original McDonald's museum.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Juan Pollo marketing-mobiles.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Albert Okura is a man of destiny.

    - Russel Calkins

Albert Okura has always been obsessed with McDonald's -- especially the story of how its executive Ray Kroc turned the golden arches into the world’s No. 1 corporate symbol. Kroc's story inspired Okura to start his own fast food restaurant -- a rotisserie chicken joint called Juan Pollo. In 1986, he came to San Bernardino to open his second location.

That same year, he read a history of the McDonald’s corporation, and decided to check out the spot of the first McDonald’s, on 14th and E Streets.

“I went there and looked at it,” he recalls. “And that street was all depressed same as it is now.”

Six years later, Okura bought that property for $135,000, took the boards off the windows and opened an unofficial McDonald’s museum. He calls it part of his “destiny.”

“I realized from the time I was born I had a destiny in something but I didn't know what it was,” he says. “It took me to be 35 when I realized what that destiny was.”

Now 60, Okura says it’s his destiny to sell more chicken than anyone else on the planet, and he’s trying to do it from San Bernardino -- a city of more than 200,000 that’s struggling with economic decline and that sought bankruptcy protection in August.

Despite the problems facing the city, Okura operates almost three dozen Juan Pollo restaurants in and around San Bernardino. He’s one of the few figures in town who’s not angry about the bankruptcy.

“I learned in business go with the flow,” he says.” A lot of people ask me who I'm going to vote for. I don't vote. I haven't voted in 30 years because if I take a position on anything half the people are gonna hate you.”

Even now, after the bankruptcy, Okura still believes San Bernardino was the perfect place to launch his career. After all, it's the city that created McDonald's and Taco Bell.

But at the same time, Okura recognizes the limits of San Bernardino.

“The people that have the potential to really help, the movers and shakers, they've long gone,” he says. So he’s looking to expand well beyond San Bernardino -- to India and China.

He's working on a computer controlled rotisserie cooker that will replace the ones he uses today. Those he bought from McDonald's, which acquired the machines from Boston Market after it filed for bankruptcy in 2000.

Once the new rotisseries are up and running, Okura says he will be one step closer to fulfilling his destiny.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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