When Tony Philiou started working at McDonald’s in 1962, he was paid 90 cents an hour to slice cheese. He slowly took on more responsibility and became a supervisor, then manager — until he bought the franchise.
From the start, “I had pride in what I was doing,” said Philiou, 90, who originally took a part-time job at a McDonald’s in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, as a second source of income when he was 30.
At the time, he was newly married with two young children. Although he had a full-time job at an auto parts factory, he had recently bought a house that required renovations. He needed extra money.
“That was the beginning,” said Philiou, who immigrated to Cleveland from northern Greece in 1947, and served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1951.
He expected his McDonald’s job to be a short-term gig, but 60 years later, he’s still going strong — with no intention of retiring. Philiou continued to work simultaneously at the factory for 16 years, before taking the plunge and pivoting to McDonald’s full-time. There, he had strong mentors who helped him climb the ladder, he said, and now he hopes to do the same for his staff.
“They saw something in me that I didn’t know I had,” Philiou said of his employers. “I saw an opportunity, and that I belong in the service industry.”
He knows restaurants are a challenging business, and to him, ensuring employees are properly paid is a key to success. That’s why, when his restaurant closed for renovations for just over three months in late March, Philiou continued paying all 90 employees their regular wages.
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“How are these people going to make it without paychecks?” Philiou asked himself once the renovation plans were finalized. He made a bold financial decision: “We’re going to pay everybody the full thing.”
“There was nobody in the world who could change my mind on what I thought was the right thing to do,” he said. “Whatever they were already earning, that’s what they got.”
Paying employees while the restaurant was closed, “was a big investment,” said Philiou, who visits the store several times a day to schmooze with staff and customers and help with whatever is needed. “We depleted the account a little bit, but they helped make the account.”
“They did not lose a penny,” he added. “If I had to do it again, I would definitely do the same thing.”
The staff was stunned by his generosity.
“Employees were floored, and they were extremely appreciative,” said Ed Kocsis, 55, the general manager of the restaurant, where he began working at age 15. “I thought it was fabulous.”
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Kocsis started working under Philiou in 1982, while he was saving up for college. He went to Kent State and continued working at the McDonald’s during spring breaks and summer vacations. When Kocsis graduated with a degree in business management, Philiou encouraged him to carry on his career at the franchise as a supervisor. Kocsis has been working there ever since.
Like him, dozens of staff members have dedicated several decades of their lives to working at Philiou’s McDonald’s, many of them rising through the ranks from maintenance to managerial positions.
“Our turnover is very low compared with other quick-service restaurants,” said 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.”
That’s true for Mary Conti, 78, who started out at the restaurant in 1977 as a crew person. She never left — and has no foreseeable plans to. Conti, now a manager, took the job when her three children were old enough to go to school.
“I’ve been working here through their education, and put a couple of them into college,” she said. Over the years, Conti said, she has received countless “special perks” from Philiou, who has sent her on several trips — including a cruise — to reward her for her hard work.
“Tony has been very, very good to me and my family, and the whole crew,” said Conti, who is working four days a week and “enjoying partial retirement.”
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Given how well she has been treated at work, Conti said, she wasn’t surprised that Philiou continued to pay his staff during the store’s temporary closure. Still, she was delighted — and deeply relieved.
“Those bills were still coming in,” she said. “He took care of us. He did everything that he could do to make our three months at home a personal vacation.”
“He is very thoughtful. He takes everybody individually under his wing,” Conti continued. “He treats us like family. That’s the main thing.”
Philiou’s daughter, who grew up around the restaurant, agreed. She has worked in the business since she was 14.
“This is a second family for us over here,” said Mary Powers, 64, who owns a McDonald’s franchise with her husband four miles away in Chesterland. “Anything we can do to show them how much we appreciate them, we do.”
Her father “is the most passionate McDonald’s human being on the planet. He lives and breathes this business,” she said. “Family is first, but this is a close second.”
Philiou bought the franchise in 1978. He has been married to his wife, Effie, for 68 years, and they have three daughters, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Over the course of his career, he owned and then sold six other locations. He plans weekly pizza parties for his staff, as well as regular celebrations and events. He also likes to celebrate successes — no matter how small.
“Whenever they do something good, we pat their shoulder and say, ‘That’s a great sandwich you just made,’ ” said Philiou. “We praise them and thank them, and it definitely makes them reach for more.”
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“Each one of my employees has a talent,” added Philiou, who said he enjoys every item on the McDonald’s menu and always gets double pickles on his hamburger. “They motivate me, and I motivate them.”
The renovated restaurant — which was overhauled with new equipment and appliances, plus a remodeled dining room — reopened July 5 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“We opened up, and nobody wanted to go home,” Philiou said.
Teamwork, he believes, makes it all possible.
“I come here every day, and I work side by side with them” said Philiou. “I am beyond proud of my employees and the people in the community.”
“They are the battery that keeps charging me up,” he continued. “It has been a blessed venture for me.”
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