Sometimes, empathy is the key to generosity.
In late March, Tony Philiou, a 90-year-old owner of multiple McDonald’s franchises in Ohio, realized that he would have to close his Mayfield Heights location for three months in order to do renovations. That meant that his employees, of which there were almost 90, were in danger of losing their livelihoods for that time and perhaps beyond it. That’s why, when Philiou closed the location, he decided to continue to pay every single employee their regular wages.
“As I’ve been in their shoes, I could sense their concern,” Philiou told TODAY Food. He said that his employees’ initial reaction to the news was pure astonishment with a hint of worry after he told employees the plans to close, remodel and build the brand-new store. He said that he knew about a month before he closed for renovations that he would make the move to keep his workers’ jobs — and their wallets — safe under his umbrella.
“You’re going to sit home, you’re going to get paid,” Philiou recalled the speech he delivered to his employees when he broke the news of the closure. “I’m hoping that you come back with me when I open up the store to run a beautiful store in this lovely community of Mayfield Heights.”
For Philiou, his journey with McDonald’s has been a long and fulfilling one. In 1962, he took a part-time job slicing cheese at a Mayfield Heights, Ohio McDonald’s for 90 cents an hour as a second source of income, supplementing renovations on a new house he shared with his wife and two children. Coming full circle to today, after 60 years, countless promotions and franchise ownership of at one point seven separate McDonald’s locations, this year’s renovation and Philiou’s generosity brought to light what a supportive boss can do to a community of coworkers.
During the closure, Philiou said he periodically checked in with employees who were glad to hear from him, telling them they appreciated the extra time they had at home to get things done, even while also enjoying their secure time off.
“Employees were floored, and they were extremely appreciative,” said Ed Kocsis, the general manager of the restaurant, to the Washington Post. “I thought it was fabulous.”
Kocsis himself has been working with Philiou on and off — but mostly on — since he was 15. He attended and graduated from Kent State while working at Philiou’s McDonald’s during spring breaks, summer vacation and finally as a supervisor at the franchise after he graduated with a degree in business management. He’s been working for Philiou ever since.
Since the U.S. is in the middle of the so-called "Great Resignation," some may wonder if any of his staff left before, during or after their time off. According to Philiou, the answer is no. Out of almost 90 employees, only two left during the closure — a pair of siblings — because "they moved to California," he said. "But I got everybody else back."
"Our turnover is very low compared with other quick-service restaurants," said Kocsis. There are other staff members that have been working for Philiou for years, even decades, according to Kocsis. "I think it’s because they enjoy working here, and they’re treated with respect. They feel good working here, so they want to stay."
“I’m so inspired by Tony’s commitment to his employees and all the meaningful ways he’s recognized them over the years," Tiffanie Boyd, McDonald's USA's senior vice president and chief people officer, told TODAY. She added that Philiou encourages team bonding with regular pizza parties and performs bigger gestures like offering tuition assistance and, of course, paying his employees during restaurant renovations. "It’s stories like his that have inspired us to celebrate even more crew who step up for our customers every day with our ‘Thank You Crew’ initiative, where owner/operators nationwide are finding special ways to thank their crew and managers."
The Mayfield Heights McDonald’s reopened to great fanfare on Wednesday, July 6, after about three months of reconstruction. The reopening also served as a sort of Diamond Jubilee for Philiou who celebrated his 60-year anniversary with McDonald’s.
“It was a great opening, because the dining room has been closed for over three years,” Philiou said, adding that his location had become a home away from home of sorts before the pandemic hit and made hanging out within the community difficult. "To see them back, and having a chance to have a cup of coffee with them and chat with them, it’s been a blessing."
The opening, complete with a ribbon cutting, was a hit with the community. The event attracted a large crowd who checked out the new and improved restaurant complete with new equipment, appliances and a remodeled dining room.
“My staff is extremely happy to be back in contact with customers they haven’t seen in a long time,” Philiou said. He is similarly joyful his restaurant is open again: Philiou has a reputation for visiting the store a few times throughout the day to help out and converse with staff and customers alike. He said he’s extremely happy he gets to do so once again.
For business owners, bosses and other team leaders who might be wondering how to be more like Philiou, especially in a job market where 70% of restaurants feel they are lacking mission-critical staff and three out of four employees are planning to leave their jobs in the next year, according to 2022’s State of the Restaurant Industry report, it’s really quite simple — just be nice.
“My managers always acknowledge the people who do a good job. If you acknowledge the job that they do they will try to do even better next time,” Philiou said, adding that managers often falter when they look at negatives more than they look at the positive traits in an employee. “Acknowledge them and tell them they do make a difference.”
In this job market, business owners who know how to keep the people that make their businesses extraordinary are few and far between. But, as one fast-food restaurant owner proves, they do, in fact, exist.
"I encourage my employees to stay with me," Philiou said. "As I grow, they will grow."