A single mother of six in 1979, Karen Skinner came across a Help Wanted sign at her local McDonald’s in Holiday, Fla.

“I thought: Oh gee, I don’t want to work for McDonald’s. McDonald’s is for kids,” Skinner says.

But she needed a job. So she put her pride aside and accepted that first job as a breakfast grill cook. From there, her ascent was quick. It took only three years to become the first female supervisor at any McDonald’s in Florida .

But she didn’t stop there.

Today, with 12 McDonald’s franchises under the umbrella of her company, McKaren Industries, it turns out her mothering skills were a perfect match when it came to working for the world’s largest fast-food corporation.

“I think having to run a household and keep things in order is very much like having to run a business,” she says. “You have to shop and cook the food.”

And much like a mother, she takes offense to people criticizing her food.

“McDonald’s is a restaurant,” she says. “This thing about ‘junk food’ — I take so much against that. It’s meat, it’s bread, it’s vegetables, fruit and yogurt parfaits; it’s everything that you have in your home.”

Skinner opened her first franchise, the McDonald’s at Ross and Greenville, after moving to Dallas in 1989. She soon learned that becoming successful would require more than just keeping customers happy.

“The neighborhood at that time was very, very, very in trouble,” Skinner says.

Originally a “city girl” from Chicago, Skinner wasn’t deterred. She dug in anyway and brought her kids with her. Son Michael, 22 at the time, learned to work the grill and close the restaurant; daughter Robin, 14, took the bus after school and worked the front counter. Apart from the drug addicts, vagrants and some just plain hostile neighbors, Skinner says she knew there was a different element waiting to come out … when it felt safe enough to do so.

“A lot of people are afraid of downtrodden neighborhoods, but there were very nice people who lived in there, and everyone wants the same thing,” she says. “They want a nice place, and to be respected. This was very special to them because it was probably the nicest place around where they could come and have a meal with their children at a good price.”

Skinner and the people who helped her — such as the man on “permanent bum control” who patrolled her parking lot and kept drug addicts locked in the bathroom until the police arrived — were setting a precedent for every community in which she would eventually open a McDonald’s. Her restaurants are the brightest, cleanest places on what were some pretty bleak blocks, she says.

For example, her restaurant at the downtown Commerce location was a shot in the arm for the entire block.

When she first took over the existing restaurant, the only eye candy around was “pimps and prostitutes,” Skinner says. So Skinner did what she does best — worked hard to run a tight ship. The City of Dallas allowed Skinner’s company to purchase a short, one-way street located between her property and an adjacent one, and the street became the locale for the restaurant’s drive-thru. Since then, media giant Belo (owner of the Dallas Morning News and Channel 8) has inhabited the property next door, and DART operates a nearby bus stop.

Skinner’s work in the community hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 1997 and 2001, her company received a Small Business Award from the Northeast Dallas Chamber of Commerce for its support of local schools.

“The company (McKaren) sets the example of what corporate should be doing to support education in this country,” says Don Wilson, president of the Northeast Dallas Chamber.

“They are extremely involved in the community, participating in tutoring programs and clothing drives,” he says.

“I adopt all the schools in the community,” Skinner says, “and we do it because we’re grateful to the community. If they’re here to support us, then we have an obligation to support them.”

Neighborhood schoolchildren have been rewarded by McKaren Industries for things such as good attendance, making the A and B Honor Roll, and have held car washes in her restaurant parking lots to raise money for band uniforms. The company also is involved with area drug rehabilitation and mentoring programs, and recently donated 500 McDonald’s Be My Guest cards to the JFK Elementary Learning Center school on Ross Avenue for its Cinco de Mayo celebration.

“We’re not here just to take away from the community, we’re here to become part of the community. Plus,” she says, “it’s just not in me to say no. I’m a mother with 11 grandchildren.”

Recently, however, Skinner did finally put her foot down where it concerned her business.

Last year, Skinner was offered a new McDonald’s franchise location at the corner of East Grand Avenue and I-30. It was a perfect location as far as Skinner was concerned: The neighborhood was in trouble, with few retailers willing to come in and set up house.

But the lot was near a large Hare Krishna community, a sect that has done much to make the area habitable. But Hare Krishnas don’t eat meat, and they objected to allowing a restaurant that cooks meat in the vicinity.

The Krishnas and several other groups took the matter to City Council, which initially sided with the Krishnas. After six months of working on the project, a frustrated Skinner threw in the towel and went after another, friendlier opportunity.

“I like to deal with people who are pleasant,” Skinner says of her decision to bow out of the Grand location.

“It was going to be a beautiful restaurant, but it’s a very vocal minority … it’s not just the
Krishnas , but organizations that locked in with them, that have a negative attitude toward any corporation or capitalism.”

Meanwhile, Skinner has moved on to other projects, including a themed restaurant at the Dallas Zoo. And she remains upbeat about her company and its prospects.

“All of this has been more than I ever expected. A lot of people can work very hard and only get a paycheck. Fortunate people like me are in the right place at the right time.”

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