Georgia original series: This is the 11th in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person or persons each month.
Employees ranging from teenagers to middle-aged adults hustled at their stations during the fast-food restaurant’s lunch rush Tuesday afternoon.
Bob Swoszowski, owner of 12 McDonald’s restaurants in Northeast Georgia, looked around his newest eatery’s busy kitchen and said he couldn’t believe how much has changed since he opened his first franchise.
The newest location is on the corner of Jesse Jewell and Limestone parkways in the New Holland community in Gainesville. It opened a few days before Swoszowski’s 41st anniversary as a franchise owner.
The 74-year-old Florida native moved to the Gainesville area in the early 1970s when his business partner, the late Frank Markette, convinced him to go into the fast-food business. The pair opened their first McDonald’s location on Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville on April 1, 1973.
While he’s a successful businesses owner today, Swoszowski said he and Markette nearly lost the business after the first year. Swoszowski said the pair didn’t handle a quick increase in income as responsibly as they should have and were broke by the end of the year. He said they were fortunate to acquire a loan, allowing them to stay in business. They worked hard to pay it back.
“We worked our butts off,” Swoszowski said. “Every day for 10 hours a day, we worked in the stores. We didn’t take time off. We didn’t take a paycheck except to pay the light bill. We were broke and we got ourselves out of debt. Sometimes you have to learn a lesson the hard way.”
While Swoszowski might have struggled to get to where he is today, he’s eager to help those around him get off to a good start. For many of his employees, working at the restaurant is a first job that teaches them work ethic and discipline.
As he walked to the back of his restaurant,
Swoszowski made a point to personally greet each employee. Smiling, he admitted it can be difficult to remember the names of more than 600 employees. So he requires them to wear name tags.
Danny Hutson, store manager of the New Holland location, has worked for Swoszowski in his restaurants since he was 16 years old. He will celebrate his 34th anniversary with the company this year.
Hutson said it’s because of the opportunity to work for Swoszowski and McDonald’s that he and his wife have been able to become business owners.
“Bob is a very good boss to work for,” Hutson said. “Me and my wife also own (Alene’s Flower Cottage.) And if it wasn’t for Bob, we wouldn’t have ever been able to have the shop. He’s been a great person to work for. The biggest thing is he cares about people and he cares about his employees. He cares about his people and that goes a long way.”
Like any business owner, Swoszowski wants his employees to stick around, but he said he doesn’t mind when they quit as long as it’s for a good reason such as furthering their education.
Swoszowski said he’s a “freak about education.”
“We have youngsters working for us who say ‘Bob, I’m enjoying my job, but I want to go to college. Would you be upset if I quit?’” Swoszowski said. “My comment is ‘Absolutely quit. Don’t ever pass up a chance to get an education.’”
When he was a child, his godfather, a Jewish physician who escaped from Germany shortly before Adolf Hitler came to power, taught him how vital an education is to a person’s well-being.
“He left with only his suitcase and family,” Swoszowski said. “He came to America and re-established himself as a physician and being my godfather he would always admonish me. He said ‘Bobby, whatever you do in your life get an education. People can take your home away from you. They can take away everything you own. But nobody can take away your education.’”
Swoszowski took those words to heart. He was rewarded with a football scholarship from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology there.
In addition to his work with the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities, an organization that provides a comfortable space for parents with children in hospitals, Swoszowski tries to help students as they seek their own education through scholarships. He has set up scholarships for students at his alma mater, FSU, the University of North Georgia and Brenau University.
Cynthia Wilkins, 35, has been working for Swoszowski and McDonald’s for the past four years while attending nursing school at Brenau University. The assistant manager at the Oakwood restaurant and mother of three said she’s fortunate to be able to get reimbursed for the cost of her textbooks each semester through a company program.
Wilkins said she feels Swoszowski and McDonald’s make an effort to help employees get an education.
“It’s helped tremendously with me,” Wilkins said. “It’s hard to go to work and pay for college and go to school.”
He’s also begun a scholarship program with Junior Achievement, on which he serves on the board of directors, that will provide $1,000 to local high school students in Hall and Lumpkin counties where he owns businesses.
Lee Highsmith, executive director of Junior Achievement of Northeast Georgia, said the scholarship shows Swoszowski’s belief in the “boundless potential of young people” and his alignment with the mission of Junior Achievement.
In addition to helping students with their education, Highsmith said Swoszowski and McDonald’s have taken an interest in preparing students for their careers with a business ethics program, job shadowing and mock interviews for students.
“He is very passionate about education,” Highsmith said. “He really appreciates the work ethic that he sees in young people. I think he also realizes that he wants to be part of educating young kids about what they need to know, that they understand what employers are looking for and what they need for their college careers. He wants to help them become employees that employers are going to want to hire.”