I Love My Job: McDonald’s Owner Tanya Holliday

The first black woman to own and operate Mickey D’s restaurants in Philly talks Hamburger U., the company's new deal with Uber, and her take on the American Dream.

Tanya Holliday. Courtesy photo.

Whether you eat at McDonald’s or feel sick at the idea, franchise owner and operator Tanya Holliday wants to dispel some misconceptions about the classic American brand, namely that working there doesn’t count as a “real job.” She’s been with the global company for 38 years now, starting out as a part-time crew member and eventually working her way up through 13 different positions during 27 years on the corporate side.

Holliday is the first black woman to own and operate McDonald’s restaurants in the City of Philadelphia. She owns nine restaurants in the region, including all of the locations on the Main Line and still finds time to be president of the National Black McDonald’s Association for the Northeast Zone. Yes, we do own restaurants, Holliday says. She’s even hired 15,000 employees throughout her career. In this interview, the entrepreneur tells us why after almost 40 years, she’s eaten McDonald’s almost everyday (sometimes two or three times a day) and how she isn’t sick of it. She gives us the scoop on the elusive Hamburger University, her connection to Uber Eats, and shares her best advice for those looking to advance professionally. Holliday also details her fight against the stigma of being educated and working at McDonald’s and ends with her idea of the American Dream.

I grew up in … Richmond, Virginia. I split my time growing up between there and public housing in West Philly on 52nd and Girard. I attended 1st through 7th grade in West Philly.

I currently live in … Media, Pennsylvania.

My experience with school was … a great one. I attended Shoemaker for junior high school, and I finished my high school years at a school called Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. I attended Morgan State University, an HBCU (one of the reasons why I went there), and graduated cum laude with a degree in business administration and management all while I was working at McDonald’s.

I started working at McDonald’s … as a part-time crew member to help pay for college. I had some grants, but I also had some loans.

One of the very first things I learned to do as an employee there was … wait on a customer. And like every other rookie, I had to wipe tables, mop and clean bathrooms.

My favorite part of what I do is … the people. I love having the opportunity to have an impact on someone’s life, and this happens everyday in my business. Whether it’s my employees or customers, working with people is my pride and joy.

A hidden responsibility of my job is … that I wear multiple hats. Some days I have to be a mother, father, teacher, preacher, counselor, doctor. With the employees we have, we really have to be there for our people. We’re always coaching and doing all of the above.

Holliday with employees at Rosemont restaurant. Courtesy photo.

I have … one adult daughter who has worked for her doctorate degree in clinical psychology and she’s practicing in that field. And I have a three-year-old grandson and another grandchild on the way.

I chose to stay with McDonald’s because … I got promoted to the next level and then again to the next. It’s interesting because back then I kept saying to myself why did I get my degree, I was going to get a real job not thinking that McDonald’s is a real job. I’ve held over 13 positions over 27 years on the corporate side. It has been an awesome path for me that allowed me to expand my talents and skills. Your job is really what you make of it.

Some misconceptions about McDonald’s include … the big one I just mentioned—that it’s not a real job. People view it as a dead end job, that you can’t go anywhere. That you can’t get promoted. What I try to instill in my crew is that you can come in as a new person today and then another day you can come in as a restaurant manager. Most of my managers I’ve groomed from the bottom up. People can grow and learn a lot of skills.

People also don’t realize a lot of the things happening behind the scenes. We do have fresh cracked eggs in every Egg McMuffin that we make, for example. We’ve removed additives and preservatives from our ice cream. For a few months now we’ve been doing signature-crafted recipes for sandwiches, which have high-quality ingredients such as the pico and guacamole and sweet barbeque bacon and maple bacon. We have 100 percent beef for our quarter pounders. We have high quality food in our restaurants. Even after 38 years of working here, I still till this day eat McDonald’s almost every day. Sometimes even two or three times a day depending on how long I’m out there.

My favorite menu item is … the Egg McMuffin in the morning. In the afternoon I love the double cheese sandwich.

A McDonald’s menu item I’m not a fan of is … I love them all, interesting enough. I don’t eat the larger sandwiches all that much because I like the smaller ones. We have such great food. People always ask, “Don’t you get tired of McDonald’s food after all this time?” I say, “nope.”

The Main Line is … where I bought my first McDonald’s restaurant. Today I own all of the McDonald’s on the Main Line, all three of them. The Main Line has a different customer base because I’m surrounded by a lot of colleges there like Rosemont, Bryn Mawr, Harcum, Haverford, and Villanova. I am very particular about my customers there because I know they expect so so much, as every customer should. I’m happy to be on the Main Line.

I never thought I would … be a McDonald’s owner. As a kid I always dreamed of being an entrepreneur and businesswoman but never connected that with McDonald’s.

On the weekends I … try to spend time with my grandson. I also go out around to my restaurants and to church.

A difficult time in my career was when … I actually became an entrepreneur. Before owning the restaurants I was working for an employer and got a paycheck every two weeks. But that changed, and it was rough especially during those first couple of months.

A funny story from my career … is when I was in college, and I had a full schedule of business and econ classes and work at McDonald’s. I’d always have to catch the bus to work and then catch the bus right back to school, so I’d wear my uniform. My college friends would always ask me why I wore the uniform, but I wore my McDonald’s uniform proudly. And they’d ask me why I was working at McDonald’s when I was getting a college degree. I laughed at that later after graduation when many of them couldn’t find jobs, but I had a job. Right when I graduated I went to McDonald’s management program. I chuckle at all of this now because people teased me and laughed at me then.

Something most people don’t know about working at McDonald’s is … that we have a real Hamburger University. It’s located in Oak Brook, Illinois. To be a restaurant manager you have to go to Hamburger University to attend a class.

Innovation at my nine stores includes … giving customers the ability to call an order in and get it delivered through Uber Eats. But when you are a franchise, there are guidelines you have to go by so when I think of innovation I also think of personal touches for my employees that I add to my restaurants. I try to incorporate little things like rallies to get my crew pumped and keep them motivated.

In terms of benefits, we offer employees … competitive wage benefits packages based on the local marketplace. We do a lot of things around free meals and free uniforms, flexible working hours. We have something we call Archway to Opportunities, giving folks a chance to get their high school diploma if they don’t have one, get some college classes or learn English as a second language for example.

For most of my employees … this is typically their first job. There’s a statistic out there that says 7 out of 10 people have worked in a McDonald’s. Because it’s their first job, I feel like I have a duty to pay it forward and help individuals really exude their talents and build upon their skill sets to help them get to the next level.

Turnover and retention at the business … is always a challenge. I’ve had to teach a lot of my workers about being on time and being disciplined and even that can lead to turnover if they aren’t responsible.

The National Black McDonald’s Owners Association (NBMOA) … is the national organization, and I’m the president of the Northeast zone. But locally here we have the Philadelphia Black McDonald’s Owners Association that includes all seven of us. It’s an organization that’s considered to be very powerful. We’re often in the communities and we work with the Ronald McDonald House. We own McDonald’s not only in the city but also in the suburban areas in Jersey and in Delaware. Oftentimes people don’t realize that there are black owners. We do own restaurants.

Left: Tanya Holliday and her husband Wayne Holliday. Right: The PBMOA- From Left: Rita Mack, Ken Youngblood, Anna Ford-Keels, Tim Nelson, Tanya Holliday, Wayne Holliday and Danielle Dawkins-Alston. Courtesy photos.

People look up to me because … they often see me as a leader and role model. I try to be the person I want others to be. They look at me and emulate the things I do to grow. They appreciate the path I’ve traveled and many folks want to follow in those footsteps, especially employees in my restaurants.

Something the black community still needs when it comes to business and entrepreneurship is … exposure. Exposure is huge. For example, many people don’t realize that there are black people who own McDonald’s restaurants. I had that stigma attached to me on the Main Line. We also need more doors to open because they aren’t as open as they should be for us.

There aren’t many other Black women in a position like mine because … it’s not easy. We have to have funds. We have to have money. The doors don’t open up as we may wish. We need more role models and more of us networking. We need a melting pot where we can all melt together and pay it forward.

My best advice for someone looking to get from point A to point B in his or her career is … start with the end in mind. Wherever you want to be, start with that in mind. Also find a role model. See if they can sponsor or mentor you. When I give talks I tell people they have to daring, diligent and discipline, meaning you take risks and work hard in our own lives and for the business. You can’t give up even though there’s a rainy day. You can’t let anyone rain on your parade.

I’ve become successful because … of those things I just talked about.

Being a leader means … having the ability to extract the potential and best out of others. This is what will grant others the room to grow. When I was in high school and used to run track, I had a white male coach. He knew my mom couldn’t afford my uniform. He bought them all for me, but more importantly, when I acted up, he got on me. He pushed me until I became a state champion in Virginia. He recognized the potential in me. He didn’t give up on me. I use this in my business today. When you’re not using that potential, Mrs. Holliday isn’t happy.

Holliday speaking at McDonald’s Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour. Courtesy photo.

My biggest threat … is me. I say that because sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. If we don’t think things are fair, we tend to beat ourselves up. I operate by the Serenity Prayer. You have to or otherwise you’ll go crazy.

I wish I had more time to … not relax but learn how to relax. I didn’t realize I didn’t know how to relax until someone told me about five or six years ago. The nature of the business, after being in it for 38 years, is that I’m always going and going.

In ten years I’ll … still be grinding it out at the business. I’m a workaholic.

My schedule is … different everyday. Some days I’m out by 7 or 8 and back by 7 or 8. I have a home office so sometimes I’ll be at the stores during the day and at the office at night. There’s a lot of administrative paperwork, and I work that around my travel schedule.

The American Dream means … that I’m working all day and putting these hours in, but it doesn’t feel like work. To me that’s the Dream. I love what I do, and I do what I love.

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