Carolyn Hunter works way up from McDonald’s grill to store owner

Carolyn Hunter started working in a McDonald's in Virginia in 1977 and she now owns 3 of the fast-food restaurants. She visited the College Park Road location, where Jimmy Loponte (left) works as store manager, on Tuesday March 5, 2013. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com) Buy this photo

Carolyn Hunter was graduating from a community college in 1977 when her uncle suggested she take a job on a McDonald’s grill.

The offer didn’t thrill her. But when she arrived, Hunter found she loved the place.

And she had a vision. Standing at the grill, 20 minutes from a Virginia hometown so small it lacked a traffic light, she imagined running the place. With time and hard work, she moved to management.

Eventually, she moved to New York. But early on, she found out a male colleague was being paid more than her for the same job. She asked her boss for equal pay.

“He told me he could not afford to pay me that,” she said.

Hunter thought about leaving. But within a month, he gave her the raise.

Then she met a manager who would become her mentor. Lee Dunham was a tough McDonald’s store owner, but in him she saw a fellow African-American who was at the helm. In her, he saw a promising young talent.

“Whenever you see someone you can identify with, they can inspire you,” Hunter said.

Dunham’s advice when she told him she wanted to own a store? “Save $50,000 and come back to me.”

She saved $75,000 in five years, scrimping pennies and working long hours. She went back to Dunham. “After he picked his jaw up off the floor, he told me what to do.”

With her then-husband and 3-year-old son, Hunter moved to South Carolina and purchased a store in Moncks Corner.

It took a decade to turn a profit. But Hunter always envisioned one next step to take.

Today, the Goose Creek resident is president and owner of C&A Unlimited Inc., which owns three franchises in Ladson, Moncks Corner and Summerville. She employs about 200 people.

And in 2011, the woman who started her career on a McDonald’s grill pledged $1 million to Trident Technical College, the school’s largest single donation.

A Trident scholarship is named in honor of her mother, the late Rachel Hunter Thompson, who raised five children and taught Hunter her work ethic. Today, Hunter sits in the role model’s chair.

“Who is in leadership now? It is still overwhelmingly men,” Hunter said. “But we can change things. We can make our expectations and desires known to those people who can do something about them.” Like that young woman working the grill did.

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