Supersizing Success: The Holder Family’s McDonald’s Franchise Story

Jordan Meadows (Staff Writer)

In 1990, Deborah Holder, a former Flight Attendant from New York, found herself captivated by a television advertisement featuring McDonald’s operator Robert Lee Dunham discussing the intricacies of owning and operating a McDonald’s franchise.

Intrigued by the potential of this opportunity, Deborah wanted to learn more. Through persistent daily phone calls, she eventually connected with Dunham, who generously guided her through the rigorous application process.

This comprehensive process entailed two and a half years of immersive experience within various McDonald’s locations for zero pay. From flipping burgers to attending Hamburger University, Deborah underwent a hands-on process, gaining invaluable insights into the responsibilities of franchise ownership.

This intensive training regimen aimed to equip applicants with a thorough understanding of the demands and nuances of running a successful McDonald’s business, ensuring they were prepared for any challenge that may arise, while also deterring those who were not truly committed.

“How can I tell someone what to do if I won’t do it myself?,” Deborah said.

Shortly thereafter, Deborah’s husband, Will Holder, joined in on the endeavor. Making the transition from law enforcement with the New York Police Department to entrepreneurship, Will, in partnership with Deborah, underwent a rigorous two-hour interview with McDonald’s corporate. Understanding the significance of meticulous preparation, the Holders dedicated their free time to studying the book of Ray Kroc – the former CEO and global expansionist of McDonald’s – providing them with a competitive edge during the interview process.

“When people are looking to get involved in something like that, you have to study it, and learn all the little nuances,” Deborah said.

The essence of business acumen lies in hands-on experience, according to Will. He firmly believes that immersing oneself in the daily operations of a business is the ultimate test of character.

“The best way to learn a business is to work in it: it’s a test of your character. Are you willing to sacrifice, are you willing to pay these dues – because they know that once you get in, it’s like hitting the lottery,” Will said.

In 1992, thanks to Dunham’s assistance, the Holder’s secured their first store in LaGuardia Airport in New York. This milestone marked the establishment of the first-ever McDonald’s franchise within an airport – an achievement that brought both excitement and uncertainties of business trends and the unique challenges inherent in operating within an airport setting.

Amanda Holder Giles, the daughter of Will and Deborah, represents the convergence of academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit. From being pre-med in college and earning a degree from Johns Hopkins University in public health, she initially harbored aspirations of entering government service. However, faced with the challenge of finding a job that truly resonated with her, she found herself at a crossroads.

Despite her initial hesitance, she decided to immerse herself in her parents’ McDonald’s franchise – initially viewing it as a means to pass the time. Starting as a line cook and crew member, she gradually became more engaged and intrigued by the operations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, her education in public health proved unexpectedly invaluable; drawing on her expertise in incident and illness tracking, she assumed a pivotal role in implementing rigorous safety measures and addressing the socio-economic factors influencing the crisis.

“We’re going to prioritize our people; we started paying people for PTO for sick leave, paying people to get vaccinated and encouraging them to do it, and we closed our lobbies so we could serve the community while limiting opportunities for spreading inside,” Giles said.

As she continued to immerse herself into the role, she began to recognize the potential for improvement and innovation, particularly in leveraging new technologies to enhance efficiency. Giles completed the McDonald’s applicant program in just under two years, earning the qualification to purchase a franchise. With the opportunity presenting itself in Wendell, she seized the chance to become a McDonald’s franchise owner in 2022.

Giles’ sister, Ashley Holder, is also very involved in the business, overseeing payroll and community activities; the family emphasizes the importance of cohesion and shared values. Despite over three decades of collective experience, disagreements are inevitable, especially with the introduction of new technologies and shifting realities. Finding a balance between tradition and innovation is paramount to them, ensuring the longevity and relevance of their enterprise.

Drawing inspiration from Proverbs and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., Will underscores the importance of skillful craftsmanship and societal impact. He expressed that witnessing the success of fellow black entrepreneurs has the power to inspire, uplift, and illuminate opportunities within the community for others.

“There’s more NBA players than Black McDonald’s operators: that’s how small this club is,” Will said.

The family’s desire to escape the bustling streets of New York City led them on a journey southward; initially exploring opportunities in Florida and almost securing a franchise in Atlanta, their plans shifted last-minute. Ultimately, they discovered Raleigh and were drawn to its quaint charm, vibrant community, and affordable amenities. However, as of recently, they have noticed the city’s growth, with burgeoning infrastructure and heightened traffic, since their move in 2012.

The family is well aware of the competitive dynamics between McDonald’s store owners and neighboring franchises such as Bojangles, Hardees, and Chipotle. Despite the proximity, cooperation among McDonald’s owners is limited due to stringent regulations prohibiting price fixing.

“There’s so many parts that go into it that make a difference in how your business does. You really have to be stewards of the business. Learn your customers, learn your competition; if they are slowing we need to be faster, if theirs is bad we need to offer something better,” Giles said.

One out of every eight individuals has at some point worked at McDonald’s, highlighting the widespread impact and influence of the iconic fast-food chain on employment opportunities. Therefore, the family stresses the opportunities for personal and professional growth within the McDonald’s system.

“This is not a dead end job: it is far from it. You come in with a blank slate: we teach you how to be on time, how to come to work, how to respect other employees, how to be nice to customers and how to handle certain situations,” Deborah said.

For this family of McDonald’s operators, the franchise is more than a business; it’s a platform for social upliftment. Whether it’s providing backpacks for local schools or offering scholarships, they understand the symbiotic relationship between business success and community responsibility.

Looking towards the future, Giles’ vision is clear: to ensure the well-being and prosperity of her employees while maintaining a sustainable business model. Her goal of providing a comfortable retirement for her parents underscores her commitment to long-term success.

“My goal is to make sure that they retire comfortably, and at the same time, that I can develop enough infrastructure that I can still do the things I’m doing now, but there’s no pressure on me,” Giles said.

Despite being affiliated with a larger, globally recognized corporation, the family operates as small business owners, grappling with common challenges faced by many others in their position. These challenges encompass navigating political landscapes, adapting to shifts within the community, integrating new technologies, and responding to evolving societal values.

The McDonald’s locations owned by the Holder family are situated across the Triangle area. There is one in Zebulon, one in Knightdale, two in Wendell, and two in Raleigh. Deborah is the owner of three of these locations, Will owns two, and Amanda owns one. The family aims to expand and have a total of ten locations in the future.

Inspired by Lee Dunham’s pioneering efforts to promote diversity among small business owners, the family underscores the significance of supporting aspiring black entrepreneurs within the McDonald’s system. Through their involvement in the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association (NBMOA), they continue to champion the cause of empowering underrepresented communities in the business world.

“We sell hamburgers and french fries, but we’re a people company,” Giles said. 

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