Their legacy thrives beneath the Golden Arches: J.C. Prado and his Bulls family now reign as Florida’s No. 1 McDonald’s owner-operators

The Prado family stands on the mini golf course behind The Prado Group offices with an overcast sky behind them.

When they bought their first restaurant, Jenifer and J.C., center, never anticipated that their children, Rachel, left, and J.C. Jr., right, would one day join the business. [Photo: John Tipton, USF Advancement]


THROUGH THE 1960S AND ’70S, Sunday afternoons in the Prado family’s West Tampa home meant time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, hanging out, sharing stories and playing games.

As the day drew to a close, Juan Carlos “J.C.” Prado’s dad or uncle would often gather the kids for a trip to McDonald’s.

“That was our treat for the week,” J.C. says.

“Seeing all the things McDonald’s has provided for us and our family, you look back and get nostalgic when you remember how important that brand was to us then and what it is to us now.”

J.C., his wife, Jenifer, and children Rachel and J.C. Jr. have become Florida’s largest McDonald’s franchise holders, with 43 restaurants owned by The Prado Group. Those golden arches symbolize more than a livelihood for this family of Bulls — they represent values passed from one generation to the next and years of hard work and sacrifice, a dynasty they hope continues for generations.

“It was a seven-day-a-week grind,” J.C. says of the early years. Rachel, a preschooler when her parents acquired their first restaurant in 1992, remembers going to bed in a sleeping bag under the food prep table when Mom and Dad worked late into the night.

• • • • •

J.C. AND JENIFER INVITE THEIR “KIDS” to the table at The Prado Group headquarters to share their family memories. Two life-sized Ronald McDonald statues greet visitors to the building and restaurant memorabilia decorates the walls. There’s plenty of laughter as J.C., a gregarious storyteller, punctuates each tale with a life lesson: family comes first, work hard, take chances.

He immigrated to the United States from Cuba with his parents and big brother, Frank, when he was 5 years old. “We didn’t have anything,” he says, “but I didn’t feel like I was ever lacking.”

From early on, he chose his own path — preferably one that would keep him close to home. When Frank enrolled at Jesuit High School, J.C. opted for Tampa Catholic, where he played basketball for the district champion Crusaders.

“Sports have always been a driving motivation behind who I am as a person,” he says, adding it taught him discipline, how to prepare and how to succeed. He’d go on to coach the team for years.

Tampa Catholic proved a fortuitous decision. There he met Jenifer Zambito — the future Jenifer Prado, his wife of 42 years.

When he graduated in 1976, his father urged him to follow his brother to Duke University. J.C. got in, but North Carolina seemed so far away. He and Jenifer instead enrolled at USF. An accounting major, he graduated in 1979; Jenifer followed in 1980 with a mass communications degree.

He was the first Bull in his family, but he blazed a trail. He estimates 80% of his clan have since become alumni, including Rachel, ’09, J.C. Jr., ’14 and both of their spouses, as well as cousins, nieces and nephews. Cousin Aurelio “Lelo” Prado and his wife, Pam, both Alumni Association Life Members, are longtime USF employees.

J.C. quickly landed a job with a CPA firm and later started his own. A client eventually offered to sell him a travel agency — a turning point he never saw coming.

The agency shared a building with the regional offices for McDonald’s Corp., a company Jenifer had worked with during her time at an advertising agency. Soon, the couple was booking all its travel.

In 1988, McDonald’s regional manager, Bruce Reid, approached the Prados about taking their relationship a step further. McDonald’s wanted to diversify their owner-operators, he said, noting Prado’s Cuban heritage. He’d also seen the couple had the work ethic necessary to succeed.

“We didn’t have kids, so we’d work till eight or nine o’clock at night,” Jenifer says.

For J.C., it was a no-brainer.

“McDonald’s was a brand of my youth,” he says.

The Prados underwent McDonald’s rigorous training program, including two to three days a week working, gratis, in roles from crew person to management. It culminated in two weeks at McDonald’s “Hamburger University.” Approved to become franchise owners in 1990, it would take two years to find an available restaurant close enough to Tampa to satisfy their homebody needs. They finally debuted in Brooksville, a 35-mile drive from home.

From the beginning it was a family affair, with most roles in The Prado Group filled by members of J.C.’s or Jenifer’s family. The Caspers company, Florida’s largest McDonald’s franchisee for decades, dominated the south, so the Prados grew north and west into Bushnell, Homosassa, Crystal River and New Port Richey. By 2015 they had 10 stores.

That year, Rachel won her McDonald’s seal of approval, so when nine restaurants in Clearwater became available, The Prado Group jumped.

“It was like the flood gates opened,” says J.C.

J.C. Jr. earned his happy stamp in 2020 and the family’s holdings continued to grow. They now include several Hillsborough County restaurants and, after Casper’s third-generation owners announced a sell-off last year, The Prado Group hopes to acquire a few of their former restaurants if McDonald’s elects to refranchise them.

McDonald’s golden arches logo is on a gray wall next to gold lettering that reads “The Prado Group.” A park bench sits perpendicular to the wall with a seated life-sized statue of Ronald McDonald. His arm is draped around a framed family photo.

Visitors to The Prado Group offices are greeted by a life-sized statue of Ronald McDonald, his arm around a portrait of three generations of the Prado family. [Photo: John Tipton, USF Advancement]

Reid says the key to J.C.’s success was how he got the whole family involved from the start. “He and his family have really done well. They are among the best that McDonald’s has,” says Reid, who has remained friends with the Prados over the last 35-plus years and sold his eight Lakeland restaurants to them when he retired.

Between the advent of smartphones and delivery services — and the COVID-19 pandemic — the business has seen revolutionary changes. Florida McDonald’s, for instance, were the first to use Uber Eats.

“The younger operators were all over it,” J.C. says. “They understood it.”

And younger customers have embraced the plethora of ways to get their Mickey D’s, he says.

“McDonald’s is cool to them again.”

All this change has caused many older operators to bow out. But not the Prados.

Having the “kids” involved helps. “A lot of times they’ll explain it to us,” says Jenifer.

Rachel appreciates that role and the significance it may one day have.

“We’re part of something that in the next 30 years, when our kids are having kids, they’ll say, ‘Wow, you guys were involved when you started doing delivery.’ It’s cool,” she says.

The thing the Prados enjoy most about McDonald’s is that it’s a people business.

“It’s all about your employees, your customers and the interactions you get to have in the restaurants with them. It’s special,” J.C. says.

“We impact a lot of lives.”

J.C. Jr. agrees. “Being able to impact so many different people’s lives, it’s our bread and butter.”

The Prados say two institutions have profoundly influenced their lives in the best of ways, and it’s reassuring to know they’ll continue to do so. USF will always be their school.

“That’s where my grandchildren are going!” says Jenifer.

And those golden arches will always represent family time.

“It’s not just my dad and my mom. It’s not even just me and my brother anymore,” Rachel says. “Now it’s our kids and possibly even our kids’ kids. We’re doing something now that will last generations to come.”