Written by Stephen Bronner
Did you see a future at the job you had in high school?
Paul Hendel started working at the Merrick McDonald’s when he was 16 years old. Forty years later, the Lloyd Harbor resident owns and operates 18 McDonald’s locations across Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island. He also serves on the board of the Long Island Ronald McDonald House.
Patch spoke with Hendel about climbing the corporate ladder and whether he still chows down on Big Macs.
You started working at McDonald’s as a teenager. How did you get to where you are today?
I started out as a crewperson at the Merrick McDonald’s in 1973. It was tough getting a job back then because all the baby boomers were out there looking for jobs. My brother worked there and he was my in. McDonald’s was a new concept on Long Island then.
I worked there for two years, finished high school, and in 1975 I was going to Farmingdale University and they asked me to be an assistant manager at the Glen Cove McDonald’s. Later I became general manager. I had thought I was going to work with my dad on Wall Street. The owner/operator I worked for, Peter Hunt, said to me, ‘I don’t want to leave, if you stay, I think you’re going to be a supervisor.’ I accepted the position. I loved what I was doing. I really thought I could continue my path in the restaurant business.
In 1986, they were redoing the McDonald’s location in Oceanside, and I spent a lot of time working with the McDonald’s corporation on that project. They said I could really be an owner/operator. In 1990, I got my first store in Brooklyn on Kings Highway. From there, almost every year I’ve gotten another restaurant.
Were the restaurants you operate existing stores or new locations?
Both. Some of them were restaurants that I bought from existing operators and some were brand new restaurants that we opened up. The one in Rockville Centre was a new restaurant. It used to be a Kenny Rogers.
McDonald’s is a huge corporation. How much local control is there?
An owner/operator has a lot of control in the sense that you’re responsible for the hiring and staffing of a restaurant. One of the things that I try to do at my organization is develop people. Early on, my boss used to say, ‘we’re not in the hamburger business, we’re in the people business.’ It really is about people — the customers you’re serving in the community and developing crew people and having a good staff. When I’m running 18 restaurants, I want them to think like me when I’m not around. Ninety percent of my management and supervision and my director of operations all came from crew.
Recently, my director of operations that started with me when he was 16 just became an owner/operator of two restaurants in Philadelphia. He’s 31 now. I always said that I have to give people the same opportunities I had. A lot of people think McDonald’s is a dead end job, but there’s a lot of chances for advancement. A lot of people go on about minimum wage, but it’s a start. About 50 percent of all the operators in the system came from crew.
What do you think got you to where you are now?
You got to really like what you’re doing. You have to be really good with people and have good communication and organizational skills. We have restaurants where you can have 20 people on the floor at the same time, we serve over 1,000 customers a day in the average McDonald’s — there’s a lot of moving pieces that you have to be on top of. It’s awareness too. To be a really good manager, you got to have eyes in the back of your head to pick up a situation before it goes bad.
Has McDonald’s changed over the past 40 years?
I look at the breadth of our menu, it’s come a long way. If you would have told me back in 1973, Paul, ‘we’re going to be selling smoothies, frappes and oatmeal,’ I would have said you were out of your mind. We’ve become a big player in the coffee business. That whole business, 20 years ago, wasn’t there. It’s really evolved a lot, and it’s going to continue to evolve with things people want to see on the menu.
So what’s your favorite item on the menu?My favorite is still a Quarter [Pounder With] Cheese or a Big Mac. People ask me all the time, ‘do you eat that every day?’ The answer is, if I’m in a McDonald’s restaurant, I’m eating McDonald’s, and I’m in my restaurants a lot. Even when I go away on vacation, I need my Quarter Pounder or Big Mac.