Julia Lee loves her work as a McDonald's restaurant manager, for "the atmosphere and the people, a very friendly environment."
"Everybody's helpful and supportive," she said. "It's very team-oriented."
It turns out McDonald's is an even bigger fan of Lee.
McDonald's officials Wednesday descended on the restaurant on Sheridan Drive near Hopkins Road in Amherst, to surprise Lee with the news she had won a Ray Kroc Award. The award goes to the top 1 percent of McDonald's U.S. restaurant managers, or less than 150 of them nationwide.
What is the secret to Lee's success as a manager? In her low-key manner, she deflected credit to the restaurant's employees and loyal customers.
"[Regulars] come in here, they say because of the friendliness," she said. "We've established that everyone in here is always professional to them. No matter what the problem is, we always fix it with a smile."
Lee, 42, attributed her growth as a manager to support from the restaurant's owner/operator, as well good coaching and training of the employees. Courtesy counts, too. "Just treating people like they're guests in my own home, basically, my crew and my customers, is part of the reason I got to where I am today."
When McDonald's chooses its Kroc Award winners, it looks at a range of performance criteria, including sales and customer counts, customer satisfaction scores, quality and restaurant cleanliness, said William Tice, vice president of operations for a McDonald's region that includes Buffalo.
"There's quite a vetting process," Tice said. "It all goes to day-to-day operations of the restaurant."
The award also takes into account a manager's community involvement. Lee works as an EMT with the Strykersville Fire Company, skills that have come in handy at the restaurant.
Last summer, a customer at the counter showed the classic signs of a stroke. Lee recognized that and called 911 to get him help, knowing quick action was crucial to a successful recovery.
"He's actually been back in here to congratulate and thank me for noticing and helping him out," Lee said. "He's a regular customer."
Collette Richardson, the owner/operator of the restaurant who nominated Lee, said Lee made an impact soon after coming aboard in 2008. The location had reopened to slow sales after being closed due to a fire. That soon changed.
"We have a huge customer base of people that come every single day, and they come because of not only of Julia, but my other assistant managers," Richardson said. "She has developed a team of people that are creating business not just because of our food product, but because of their personality and their relationships with our customers."
Each winner of the Kroc Award named for the McDonald's founder -- gets a cash prize of $2,500, a trophy and pin. They are also invited to Chicago for an awards gala hosted by Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA.
All of the attention Wednesday seemed to overwhelm Lee a bit. Richardson, for her part, was relieved to finally be able to celebrate news that she had to keep secret for a week and a half. "I'm so pleased she got this award, because she deserves it," Richardson said. "She's worked hard for it. It exemplifies she is the top 1 percent."