Moments earlier, Pat Kahler, McDonald’s Restaurants of Hawai‘i president, had called her into his office. The meeting was unexpected; even Kahler’s secretary had no clue.
Even nearly thirty years later, she can replay the conversation in her mind. Erlinda asked “What happened?” Kahler replied “Nothing but I have a store for you.” Erlinda recalls immediately saying, “Yes!” Kahler, however, advised Erlinda to think it over: “I want you to go home and talk to your husband and family.”
Erlinda recalls standing her ground and confirmed she would take the offer. “The store is in Maui” reminded Kahler and Erlinda, without any hesitation, repeated “We will take it on Maui.” “I want you to go home” insisted Kahler but Erlinda firmly told Kahler “No, we will take it.” “Are you making a decision without consulting your family?” Kahler asked. “It’s my job to convince my family,” she replied.
Erlinda’s family was very important to her. As the eldest of six, born to Hipolito and Macaria Ceria of Magsingal, Ilocos Sur, Erlinda had taken on many responsibilities. Uncle Lawrence Ceria, one of the last batch of 1946 Sakadas, had petitioned her dad Hipolito, the youngest of eight. Hipolito arrived in Hawai‘i in 1967 and Erlinda arrived in 1969.
Erlinda began working at the Waiakamilo/Dillingham McDonald’s in Kalihi in 1970, earning $1.25 per hour as a crew member. During the summer, Erlinda also worked in the evenings at Dole Cannery as a trimmer and like many others, developed rash. Erlinda and her father worked hard so the rest of the family—her Mom, two sisters and three brothers—could come to Hawai‘i.
In 1970, Erlinda traveled back to Magsingal to marry her high school sweetheart, Gregorio Rosario. “I’ll come back for you, wait for me” she told Gregorio when she left the Philippines in 1969. “But it happened sooner rather than later. I guess I missed him.” After Gregorio arrived in 1970, his family in turn joined them in Hawai‘i.
Sitting in her office, Erlinda decided she would first convince her son Grelyn that moving to Maui was a great idea. Grelyn was about to graduate from Aiea High School. She talked to him, told him he had a choice to go to college on the mainland or in Hawai‘i. Grelyn just looked at Erlinda and asked which store. Erlinda told him that it was Maui and added, “I need you to be home to convince Dad.”
In certain cultural terms, Erlinda would admit her outright decision to accept the franchise offer was unusual but becoming a McDonald’s owner had become her career goal. In seven years, Erlinda had steadily advanced within McDonald’s. After a few years as a crew member, she became a crew trainer, then promoted upward to positions as a swing manager, assistant manager, first manager, and then in 1977, store manager. She became a supervisor in 1984 and then took over Field Service in 1987, dealing with all the franchise owners in Hawai‘i. Working with the existing franchise owners, her eyes opened as to the entrepreneurial possibilities for herself. “I can do this,” she thought. “This is what I want to do.”
That evening, after Gregorio cooked dinner, Erlinda told her husband and her son she had something to tell both of them. Grelyn already knew but Gregorio had this stare in his eyes. Gregorio’s initial reaction was shock. “He had a lot of questions and was very hesitant,” Erlinda recalls. But two hours later, without even discussing the financials, Gregorio agreed. Gregorio had some familiarity with Maui from building the Kea Lani subdivision as a mason contractor with Pacific Construction. Gregorio also knew Erlinda loved her job and decided to support Erlinda’s decision.
Convincing Gregorio and Grelyn was easy, compared to what Erlinda had to go through to convince Kahler. A couple years earlier, when Erlinda first mentioned she wanted to be a franchise owner someday, Kahler said, “What? Excuse me. You’re crazy.” Despite Kahler’s skepticism, Erlinda missed few opportunities to remind Kahler, including during a trip to Lahaina, Maui. Kahler remained reluctant, pointing out McDonald’s corporate investment in Erlinda. “Your investment will not go to waste because I will build the brand and you will get more out of me,” Erlinda argued.
With her family’s consent, Erlinda began the process. She withdrew all of her profit sharing for the twenty-five percent deposit. All other expenses for moving came from their savings. Due to confidentiality requirements, Erlinda could not disclose the purchase price.
On June 1, 1990, Erlinda became the franchise owner of the McDonald’s in Pukalani. A year later, Erlinda became the franchise owner of the Kahului restaurant, followed by Ka‘ahumanu Shopping Center in 1994, Dairy Road in 1998, Wal-Mart in 2001, and Kahana, Lahaina, and Whaler’s Village in 2002. Due to increasing lease rents and hour limitations, she closed the Whaler’s Village location in 2013 and the Ka‘ahumanu Shopping Center location in 2015.
Like other business owners, Erlinda faced many challenges that came with the rewards of owning the most McDonald’s franchises in the state. But Erlinda’s greatest personal challenge was Gregorio’s unexpected death in 2009. “My whole life turned upside down. I still grieve today,” Erlinda admits. A year after Gregorio’s death, Erlinda received a telephone call from the former CEO of McDonald’s Maui. “I know you want to stop,” he said. “And I know that you and your family will be well off financially.” Erlinda admitted she was thinking about stopping. “Let me tell you this,” he said. “Before you make a decision, think of all the people you impact. Not only your family but your maintenance man, your newest employee. Don’t tell me someone else can replace you. They can never replace you. Not to mention your community because all of them are counting on you.” Erlinda listened and cried. Even as she retells the conversation, Erlinda is crying. “You will never heal. You will always grieve,” he said, speaking from experience as he himself had lost his spouse two years earlier. “Just know you need to continue because a lot of people count on you.”
“So I took that to heart,” said Erlinda. “I never thought about how a new owner would care for the employees.”
Erlinda’s concerns extend to the Maui community. “We provide financial support to many causes,” said Erlinda. “The one that is close to my heart is Hospice. Unless you experience it, you don’t know about it. They don’t get recognized for what they do.” The Pacific Cancer Foundation is another of Erlinda’s favorite charities.
Kabalikat at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College is also another of Erlinda’s favorite causes. “The purpose of Kabalikat is to encourage Filipino students to pursue higher education and for local born Filipinos to be exposed to Philippine culture,” explained Erlinda. After five years, it is still a work in progress with officials from Mariano Marcos University visiting Maui about three years ago and students from the Philippines interning at Royal Lahaina.
McDonald’s is also very supportive of schools. The McTeacher’s Nights allows schools, sports teams, or school organizations to raise funds; they receive 20% of the sales during the scheduled period. In March, the Kabatak Club at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College held a McTeacher’s Night fundraiser from 5 to 8 p.m. and raised several hundred dollars.
Erlinda’s business acumen and contributions to the community have garnered her many awards, including the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce’s Gintong Pamana Leadership Award and the YWCA Woman Leader Award. “Every award is special” said Erlinda. She didn’t realize the impact of such awards and publicity until after ABS-CBN profiled her and “there were so many letters that came through.”
Erlinda’s franchises employ 350 employees, including summer hires and those with a J1 visa. Kahului has about 70 employees, Lahaina has about 45 employees, and Dairy Road has about 55 employees. The hourly rate for entry employees is $9.50, with the average employee hourly rate at $11.85. All employees, including managers, have flexible schedules.
At work, Erlinda’s greatest challenge is people. “Staffing is the greatest challenge. Once you get them into the door, how do you retain them, how do you motivate them?” said Erlinda. “McDonald’s is very systematic and that dictates the employees’ behavior.” She notes, looking forward, for every four employees who retire, there’s only one to two entering the workforce to replace those who retire.
“The difference between us McDonald’s franchise owners and other businesses is we are held to a higher standard than other businesses,” Erlinda observes. “For example, our customers expect their food will be delivered in three minutes.” Moreover, McDonald’s, which holds the #1 market share of all fast food franchises, is constantly re-branding itself. With input from the franchise owners, McDonald’s started in 2015 towards healthier ingredients and items and in 2016, McDonald’s began serving breakfast all day. Erlinda favored serving breakfast all day and business has improved. McDonald’s is no stranger to adapting to local tastes. Only in Hawai‘i can you find a menu that includes Portugese sausage, saimin, spam, and fruit punch, and occasionally taro pies.
Today, the 65 year old Erlinda owns 52% of the company while her 45 year old son Grelyn owns 48%. Erlinda says she will keep going as long as she’s healthy. “I always loved my job” explained Erlinda. “Even after over twenty years and even though there’s stresses in the job, I still look forward to waking up and going to work.”