Ami Patel dutifully followed her husband to the United States after a traditional arranged marriage in India when she was 18 years old. It wasn't her idea, but her husband dreamed of a better life in America.
Seventeen years later, they have found just that, thanks in no small part to her taking a part-time job at McDonald's to help polish her English.
She now earns six figures, including bonuses and a company car, running a high-volume McDonald's at 6013 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Tampa for Caspers Co., a franchisee that owns half the 100 McDonald's in the Tampa Bay area.
Patel recently won a Ray Kroc award, an honor given to the top 141 store managers among the 14,000 who run McDonald's restaurants across the country.
Patel, 36, is a U.S. citizen and raising two kids with her husband, Kamlesh, who eventually gave up the more traditional Indian immigrant route of owning a family-run gas/convenience store for an IT job with a mutual fund company.
In an interview last week, Patel talked about the arc of her life, why her McDonald's hums and what it's like working under the arches.
You have a degree in microbiology from India and were studying to be a registered nurse at USF. Why did you shuck that for a McDonald's career?
I got a part-time job at the register here to polish my English and get beyond the traditional path of working long hours in a family business. I wanted to experience life beyond the Indian community.
What could be more American than McDonald's? I loved interacting with customers and realized I didn't have a personality for nursing. Within a few months, my customers couldn't tell I was Indian except for my accent. I was willing to work more hours, so I was promoted to a full-time entry-level assistant manager job at $7.25 an hour.
I almost left a couple years later for a $12-an-hour job at Verizon, but my supervisor persuaded me that I had a bright future here and followed through. I went from register to store manager in five years.
What is the secret to running a fast-food restaurant?
Measurable goals and working on them one at time. To motivate employees, you had better be right there shoulder-to-shoulder with them and willing to get your hands dirty.
I set standards and am pretty strict. I don't give many second chances, but I am learning to ease up. When I was first made manager, I promoted everybody on my crew because they knew my ways, then pretty much cleaned house and hired, trained and coached my own people. Sometimes when people stay too long, they develop bad habits or are willing to work those extra hours because they are stealing.
A good McDonald's operates like a finely tuned food assembly plant. How is everything timed?
Every task is timed. We have video screens that let everybody working see exactly how the crew is doing keeping up with orders. If they fall behind, managers jump in and get right on it. These days, the crew sees the same video screen reports in real time, so they will volunteer to work on it even before a manager can say something. Food is supposed to be ready for pickup within 60 seconds at the counter, 45 seconds at the drive-through.
You won the Kroc award after sales at your store jumped almost 50 percent, mystery shopper scores were just shy of perfect and your annual employee turnover dropped to less than 50 percent. That's in an industry where average turnover is three times worse than that. What happened?
My people know the standards. We have good people, but the weak economy also played a role in keeping turnover down. I made a business case for a second drive-through lane because we just could not meet the company standard of serving every vehicle in the drive-through line within 3.5 minutes of arrival.
At peak times, we had waiting cars circle the store and backed up in the street. I heard customers over the headset complaining my people were trying to rush them taking their orders. We tested alternative layouts by having people take orders on walkie-talkies in places in the lot. I developed the facts to be confident about the solution. Now we're less than 2 minutes.
One in 12 people in the U.S. work force has been trained to work by McDonald's. About 37 percent of the McDonald's work force in the Tampa Bay area is Hispanic. How about the 62 people who work in your store?
We're a little United Nations. We have Anglos, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Bahamians and Indians here. We have a mother from Bangladesh and her two daughters. About half our staff can barely understand English. So you have to work with and really coach people.
We're helping one get a GED and have another getting college tuition reimbursement. In addition to on-the-job language training, we have a program that teaches English as a second language. That's the beauty of this company. McDonald's culture embraces everybody.
Do you prefer a Big Mac, Quarter Pounder or Angus Burger?
We're Hindu, so I am a vegetarian. I stick to salads or our snack wraps without the meat.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.