Some people assume a job at a fast-food restaurant is meant to be just a stop along the way to “bigger things,” but Chris Hawkins, Director of Training and Development for Meoli Company McDonalds, will tell you otherwise. For Hawkins, his nearly 35 years with McDonald’s was not just a part of his life. It is the journey through which he has built his life—inspiring everything from his career and educational pursuits to who he married and the raising of his children.
If you asked Chris Hawkins the teenager to predict his life 30 years in the future, it would have been quite different. Most likely, he would have described himself as a “loner scientist,” focused on his work.
“By junior year in high school I had it all planned out,” said Hawkins. “I’d get my bachelor’s in biology and my master’s in environmental biology. I saw myself working on the Delaware and Chesapeake bays—an ideal situation from my introverted self.”
While Hawkins aspired to be a biologist, he also wanted what every 16-year-old wants—his first car. Growing up in a working-class, one-income family, Hawkins needed to pay for his own insurance, although his father purchased the car. So, Hawkins started job hunting, a “rite of passage” that launched a continuum of life-shaping experiences and opportunities. That job search led him to a McDonald’s in Millsboro, DE where he completed an application.
“We didn’t travel much, so I’d eaten at a McDonald’s maybe twice in my life. Of the many places I applied, the Millsboro McDonald’s was the one that called me back for an interview. I remember it well. I noticed all the managers were wearing ties. So, when during the interview I was asked what one of my biggest challenges would be, my answer was that I didn’t know how to tie a tie.”
A few days later, Hawkins started at the McDonald’s, which has since come under the ownership of the Meoli Companies. Immediately he made his mark by being the first-ever male crew person working exclusively in the service area of the restaurant. Beyond helping to finance his car insurance, Hawkins realized the social value of being part of the McDonald’s family.
“The job brought me out of my shell and helped me overcome the stigma of attending a small high school. My naivete started to be replaced by engaging with others and the drive that came from a job I really loved.”
While Hawkins still entertained his idea of being a biologist, after three semesters, the college way of life didn’t seem to suit him. But he loved his time and recognized the opportunities for growth and career that existed at McDonald’s. He fondly shares the story of meeting owner Mike Meoli for the first time.
“I remember paying attention to other managers and thinking I could do that. Then I met Mike Meoli. He asked where I saw myself in five years. I told him I wanted to become a biologist, but that the idea of being a manager was appealing too. Mike told me that as long as I wanted it, he had a position for me.”
Hawkins took Meoli up on the offer, working his way from hourly manager to assistant manager to general manager. It was along this stage of his journey that he realized another “opportunity”—although it certainly won’t be found in any McDonald’s handbook. It was at the Millboro McDonald’s that Hawkins met his wife, Holly.
“She was the opening manager, and I was the closing manager. She was extroverted, me introverted. We had so much telling us we should clash. But we developed a best friendship at McDonalds, and this summer we’ll be married for 29 years! Our story tells a lot about the family dynamic Meoli McDonald’s creates. They support you. We support each other. Mike truly believes we are a family. He takes it to heart when something happens in our lives.”
Another influence in Hawkins’ drive to advance was the birth of his first, then second daughter. With a family to support, he knew a career at McDonald’s would provide the opportunity and support that would help make it happen. After his accomplishments along the restaurant management tract, Hawkins continued to leverage opportunities to expand his career. He earned his way up to become a supervisor for Meoli Companies, followed by a director and eventually to his current position of Director of Training and Development.
Then Hawkins “got the bug” to complete his college degree. With his wife holding a master’s and both his daughters having graduated college, he decided it was time. The emerging online option worked well with his work, home and social life. And the McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity Program provided the financial support. As Director of Training and Development, Hawkins had a responsibility to encourage use of the program among Meoli crew members. He decided it was time to heed his own advice and this winter proudly obtained his bachelor’s degree.
Hawkins McDonald’s journey—which is still going strong—is full of lessons. It is one he proudly shares as an incredible advocate working to completely upend the notion of the “McJob.” Proof point one is the fact that he encouraged both of his daughters to work at McDonalds while in high school.
“My daughters are very successful in their young careers. Partly because they worked at a Meoli McDonald’s. A job there teaches you responsibility, leadership and how to communicate with others. No matter what industry you’re in, those three skills are key.”
Hawkins also humbly puts himself in the spotlight to demonstrate how attitudes can change—and the incredible opportunities and life that can evolve when it does. Earlier in his career he referred to his job as working for a “restaurant company.” He never mentioned McDonald’s by name and removed his golden arches in the presence of others.
“There was a time when I wasn’t proud. But something changed when we were looking at colleges for my oldest. My biggest hope for my children was they’d be able to go away to school. My career at McDonald’s allowed me to do that. I had the financial flexibility to send my kids to college. And my wife and I made it happen for both of them. Now when I’m out with friends, I’m proud of what I did. And I am grateful to McDonald’s for supporting my entire journey.”