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Women in Foodservice
Holly Rivera Chick-fil-A Photo courtesy of Chick-fil-A
Holly Rivera outside of her Orlando, Fla., Chick-fil-A restaurant.

‘A joyous responsibility:’ How one of Chick-fil-A’s youngest operators got involved with the chain

After realizing she loved the ‘chaos’ of the restaurant industry, Holly Rivera went through a rigorous process and eventually opened her own Chick-fil-A.

Chick-fil-A restaurants in the Orlando market occasionally partner with the Opportunity Jobs Academy, which offers disadvantaged and at-risk high school teens and young adults the chance to engage with business leaders for mentoring and education. Skills taught in this program include how to interview for a job, how to present themselves in public, how to network, etc.

When an OJA group recently visited Holly Rivera’s Chick-fil-A restaurant in Orlando’s Lake Nona community, they were a bit surprised. They couldn’t believe how young she was, or that she was a woman, or Hispanic.

“Wait, you’re the owner?” one participant asked.

For Rivera, having the opportunity to show this diverse group the possibilities in front of them was very meaningful.

“I think of it as a joyous responsibility, not a heavy responsibility,” she said during a recent interview.

Rivera’s path to becoming a Chick-fil-A owner/operator in Lake Nona three and a half years ago is paved with serendipity. She studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management with an objective of “doing something service oriented.”

“I loved people, and I knew if I got that degree, I could be successful by taking care of people. Awesome,” she said.

She was leaning toward companies like Disney World and Marriot, but many such companies at that time – in 2011 – were still on hiring freezes from The Great Recession. After six months of searching, she grew frustrated and contemplated pushing her degree back until she found a perfect internship fit. Then she reconnected with a friend who just happened to work at Chick-fil-A.

“I had never given it a thought. I’m Disney, not fast food,” Rivera said. “But I knew how important it was to be humble and take the opportunity and learn what I can and so that’s what I did.”

That initial opportunity came from longtime Chick-fil-A operator Charlie Fish, who is known as an “operator tree with a knack to coach up” by some in the company. Rivera was placed in one of his restaurants for a six-month assignment to start and was promoted after three months. Eventually, Fish asked if she ever thought about being an operator, but she said it never crossed her mind “growing up without a lot of money.”

Chick-fil-A’s operator standards, however, are different than most of its competitors. Candidates go through an intense and lengthy selection process that often requires long hours and leading a team of mostly young, hourly-paid employees. When a candidate is able to prove their discipline through this process, operating a Chick-fil-A restaurant then requires a $10,000 initial financial commitment.

Once Fish planted the seed, Rivera committed to learning everything she could about running a restaurant – inventory management, scheduling, hiring, terminations. After graduation, she joined Chick-fil-A’s corporate offices in Atlanta and spent about two years in the company’s leadership development program. As part of that program, participants help run company-owned restaurants to sharpen their business skills and accelerate their personal and professional growth. Rivera helped run 12 restaurants in varying markets during this time.

“I experienced the craziest situations, but at the end of 24 months, I could apply to be a franchisee,” she said.

Her first official restaurant as an operator was a mall unit in The Galleria in Houston. It was 2017, she was 26 years old – one of the youngest in the entire system – and she was suddenly in charge of running one of the highest grossing units in the company. As if running a quick-service restaurant isn’t complex enough, mall units come with their own unique challenges, she notes.

“Your margins aren’t as high, so you have to run a tight ship and pour into your people,” Rivera said.

She spent three and a half years overseeing that location and then in August 2020 returned to her hometown in Orlando to open a store. Of course, despite the experience she had gained by then, nobody was equipped to open – or run – a restaurant well in 2020. Rivera said the Covid experience pushed her even further, however.

“This business has hard seasons, but it’s in those hard seasons where it solidified that this exactly what I want to be doing,” she said. “You have to be willing to go through challenges and for me, it always felt worth it.”

Now, with about eight years of operator experience under her belt, she is more convinced than ever about that serendipitously paved path.

“I’m not a 9 to 5 person. I love this industry so much. The fact that I’ll go into my restaurant this afternoon and have no idea what’s going to happen – is my dishwasher going to break? Is a guest going to be upset with me? – I thrive on that,” Rivera said. “I like chaos and turning it into order. If you’re OK with chaos, but have a knack for creating order, the restaurant industry is for you.”

Of course, she also likes the people part of the business, which is why she pursued a hospitality degree in the first place. She takes pride in building leadership benches and mentoring her employees, just like Charlie Fish did with her.

“My style is trying to help my team understand their skills are transferrable for any of their dreams,” Rivera said. “If I can add value to their life, then my business runs better.”

One of her former employee’s dreams is likely to come to fruition later this month, in fact. A young, Hispanic woman began working for Rivera at her Houston location during the summers while she was on break from teaching. The employee loved the experience so much, she finished her teaching career and moved to Orlando to help Rivera open the Lake Nona location. A year and a half ago, she was selected into Chick-fil-A’s leadership development program.

“She is a young, Hispanic female who saw her potential and that gives me a lot of joy,” Rivera said. “Her franchisee interview is coming up and it will be a full circle moment for me. Having the first franchisee come out of my organization will be otherworldly.”  

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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