Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, used to say he liked hiring people with "ketchup in their veins.'' • If that's the case, Zella Powell has enough for every Big Mac and french fry in her restaurant. • Powell manages the McDonald's at Missouri Avenue and Jasper Street in Largo and recently was named one of 142 winners nationwide of the 2014 Ray Kroc Award, one of eight in Florida. The award is given to the top 1 percent of McDonald's managers who fulfill Kroc's vision of excellence and help super-size the chain's bottom line. • At a time of not so golden earnings for the fast-food giant, she's at the top of the arches and proud of it.
Powell, 50, didn't start her career flipping burgers in high school, like many other McDonald's leaders. She spent 13 years in the health care field, first as a cook at a nursing home and later as a nutritionist at a hospital.
But getting attached to people who sometimes died was depressing. She got burned out and wanted a happier job.
She applied at the McDonald's at U.S. 19 and Curlew Road because it was close to her home and had a fun, friendly vibe. She knew nothing about the fast-food business, except for how it tasted.
"I wanted to do something different, but I wanted to continue to interact with people,'' she said. "Every time I went there, I had a good experience.''
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She joined McDonald's in 2005 as a shift manager and excelled quickly, adopting as her own the mantra, "I'm lovin' it.'' A single mother of three boys, she made $28,500 a year, slightly more than her previous job at a hospital. Money was still tight, but she saw opportunity.
In 2008, Powell was promoted to assistant manager and transferred to the McDonald's on Missouri. Her duties expanded from running food orders to also arranging work schedules and hiring personnel. By then, she was winning local company awards and diving into the nitty-gritty business of McDonald's, a chain that did $28.1 billion in revenues last year.
"I thought, 'This is going to be my future,' '' said Powell, a Dunedin High School graduate who dropped out of St. Petersburg Junior College when she became pregnant.
In 2009, she was named store manager based on her track record in dealing with customers, running the restaurant and growing sales one Extra Value Meal at a time. She tirelessly reminds her staff of 52 that smiles don't cost a dime but go a long way toward building loyalty.
"We all know not everyone has a good day. I want the experience here to be a good one,'' she said. "It helps me and it also grows my business.''
Running one of the world's 34,000 McDonald's restaurants takes good people skills, a strong work ethic and a certain degree of humility. Powell works about 60 hours a week, taking Thursdays and Sundays off because she says having two days off in a row causes her to fall behind. No task is beneath her, whether it's mopping floors or bagging orders during the lunch rush, which she does often.
And she isn't getting rich. Powell earns about $45,000 a year, a figure that can vary widely among store managers.
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Moving customers through the restaurant's two-lane drive-through is one of her top priorities, and for good reason. Drive-through sales account for 72 percent of her business and, therefore, are critical to her success.
She calls out to the crew when a car pulls into the lot and hates it when transactions average longer than 3 minutes, 30 seconds — the standard. She knows motorists who see a line wrapped around the building means a few bucks lost.
As a Ray Kroc Award winner, Powell thrives on performance. Her location did $2.6 million in sales last year, a figure she hopes to grow to $3 million this year. Ask her how, and she points to the shopping center with T.J.Maxx and Ross opening across the street.
Donavon Groen, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Ines, said Powell constantly looks for opportunities to build relationships with businesses, schools and community members. She lives by the words of the late Kroc: "Take care of our people, and the business will take care of itself.''
"Zella is intentional about her excellence, and excellence doesn't just happen,'' said Groen, who nominated her for the award. "She decides to make it happen.''
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Powell isn't the only Tampa Bay area manager to be recognized. Alicia Abichid, manager of the McDonald's at 4650 McIntosh Road in Dover, also won the Ray Kroc Award, which comes with a $2,500 prize, trophy, pin and trip to Chicago for an awards gala March 18.
Their achievement comes amid challenging times for McDonald's, which faces growing competition from Burger King and Wendy's as well as fast-casual concepts such as Panera Bread and Subway. In 2013, global comparable sales for restaurants open at least a year were just about flat — up 0.2 percent. During the last quarter, comparable U.S. sales dropped 1.4 percent.
Powell has also overcome her own problems. In the 1980s, she pleaded guilty to welfare fraud and adjudication was withheld. Later, she was arrested on bad checks charges, for which she was ordered to pay fines, restitution and serve probation.
Her boss said "Zella's past mistakes are not reflective of her performance'' with the company. "Her ability to turn her life around and dedicate herself to positive endeavors is demonstrated with this recognition," Groen said.
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These days, Powell stays focused on her four walls, running her restaurant strictly but compassionately. She works around the schedules of employees in school or with children and, at the end of every shift, says thank you. On Thanksgiving, she cooked a turkey for the crew, who call her "Mama.''
Powell doesn't hesitate to promote the ketchup in her veins, whether it's talking up her staff or greeting her restaurant regulars. She almost went crazy when she missed seven weeks of work because of knee replacement surgery in December, a $78,000 procedure covered almost completely by her McDonald's insurance. Even her boss had to tell her to relax.
If someone frowns when she tells them she works at McDonald's, she says she's quick to tell them, "You have no idea.'' Then she might encourage them to apply.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.