McDonald’s franchise owner author’s book on overcoming disability
Kathy Young (left) and Eileen Kushner, owner of McDonald's at 1200 N. Arlington Heights Road in Buffalo Grove, pose for a portrait at Kushner's restaurant Monday. | Ruthie Hauge~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 22, 2012 7:38PM
The typical McDonald’s owner would have seen simply an application that belonged in the garbage. Eileen Kushner saw a problem that had an opportunity inside it: Where could she put a legally blind man to work?
On the grill, she decided. Despite the scalding hot surface and the responsibility of preparing the product her business is most famous for, Kushner found a way to turn a legally blind man into a burger-flipper.
“We brought in a huge spotlight,” Kushner said Friday. “He could see shapes.”
Along with two franchises in Palatine, Kushner owns the Golden Arches on the corner of Illinois Route 83 and Arlington Heights Road in Buffalo Grove, and has made a point of hiring people with handicaps for much of her career. Born with dyslexia, Kushner will publish a book in July about her rise from offering to work for free and still being denied a job to owning a successful business.
“I was born with it, and I’m going to die with it,” so Kushner said she reached a point, decades ago, where she decided she would have to learn how to live with dyslexia. “Every day is a challenge for me, but I’m a spunky person.”
Saying that she had little writing skill, Kushner asked longtime friend Kathy Young, a retired special education teacher, to help her create her life story. After five years of collaboration, they expect to self-publish “Smart on the Inside — A True Story About Succeeding in Spite of Learning Disabilities” through Writers of the Round Table.
“She’s always wanted her story told,” Young said Friday.
Their intent for the book is to offer a companion piece for discussion in classrooms and support groups, Young said. Their hope, she said, is that others with learning disabilities will read about Kushner’s work and push themselves to their own successes.
“I didn’t want to use educational jargon, and she wanted to keep it simple,” Young said.
The story begins in the 1950s in Oak Park, Mich., where no one knew that both Eileen Gold and her twin brother Elliot had dyslexia — but everyone knew that they were slow.
“When I was in school, the teachers told me how stupid I was,” Kushner recalled.
After sixth grade, her school was going to hold her back. Elliot, who does not suffer from dyslexia as greatly as Eileen, volunteered to stay in sixth grade, so she would not be alone.
“He was my defender,” Kushner said. “He wanted to be there with me.”
She grew, and married Larry Kushner, a banker. By the mid-1970s, he was working two jobs, but the family needed more money, and Eileen Kushner could not find employment anywhere.
Desperate, she walked into a flower shop and said that she would work for free — if the owner thought that she was good enough, he could start paying her when he chose to. But her desperation came across the wrong way.
“He looked at me and shook his head and said, ‘Now I don’t want you,’” Kushner recalled.
Her husband called on some of his connections, and got her an interview at the McDonald’s next door to his office. But, Kushner said, even he did not know the extent of her challenges.
“I used to hide it from him,” she said. “If I needed to read something, I’d say ‘Oh, I can’t find my glasses,’ or ‘Let someone else read it.’”
Having known only rejection, Kushner walked into Mickey and Barb Maris’s McDonald’s. She walked out stunned.
“Before we even finished the conversation, they said, ‘You’re hired,’” Kushner recalled.
Given a chance
She sold herself on her willingness to work hard, she said — desperation, taken the right way. But she cautioned her new manager:
“You can never ask me to do cash,” she said.
Kushner had found a place where she could shine, and in eight years, she became the manager. She was even handling the cash: When they came home from work, her husband, the banker, would find ways to explain money to her.
“We used to play McDonald’s,” she said. “Every night, Larry worked with me.”
Kushner became a swing manager at a McDonald’s located inside the corporate offices in Southfield, Mich. Every day, she impressed company executives with her friendliness and how she instructed her staff.
In the early 1980s, the Maris family decided to move to Florida and buy up some franchises down there — and asked Kushner if she would move with them and manage their operation. Mickey and Bard had not only become Kushner’s friends, their trust had filled her with a self-confidence she had never known before; when they asked her to pack up only to take the same job in a new locale, she teased them.
“As a joke, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I’m going to buy my own McDonald’s,’” Kushner said.
The Marises told her that was a great idea — only they were not joking.
Newly inspired, the Kushners started looking into become franchise owners; they found a brick wall, in the form of the $150,000 down payment applicants had to make. She still went to Hamburger University in Oak Brook, trying daily to hide her disability — but when her class of more than 200 took their final test, she received the lowest score.
“They were questioning my ability to be an owner,” Kushner understated.
But this had become her dream, and she said she would not let it go.
“They knew that I had a really good reputation,” she said of the executives she had auditioned for at the corporate center in Southfield. “They knew my ability through my actions.”
And, in 1985, wearing an outfit she bought at K-Mart, she convinced McDonald’s Corp. to not only let her buy a company-owned franchise in Bridgeview, but to loan her the down payment.
The Kushners lived in Buffalo Grove; Larry stayed in the banking field, but did the books for Eileen’s franchise at night. By 1987, they had impressed the Chicago region’s manager, and he told them about an opportunity that had come up: to buy a pair of stores in Palatine and a third across the street from Buffalo Grove High School.
Eileen said they knew the risks of making such a big move. Among them: Larry would have to quit his job and come to McDonald’s, because three franchises would be too much paperwork for spare time.
“Larry was not McDonaldized at that time,” Eileen said.
But he became McDonaldized, and the Kushners moved up the fast-food chain. In 2000, they sold the location near BGHS and bought the store that connects to the gas station at Route 83 and Arlington Heights Road.
Along the way, Kushner has made a point of hiring dozens of people with learning or physical disabilities.
“The worst four-letter word in the English language is ‘can’t,’” she said. “When you say ‘can’t,’ it stops you.”
Of course, it is likely that even Eileen Kushner has had to say that word a few times. Having developed renown as a business willing to give the discarded a chance, it seems probable that she has received applications from individuals too handicapped to be employed. Kushner did not wish to comment about turning disabled hopefuls down.
In her time there, the Golden Arches has changed its marketing strategies and interior designs numerous times. The woman who still struggles to read and write is comfortable with adapting to new business climates.
“We’re very flexible,” she said. “We do what our customers want, because that’s what we’re about.”
And, as the years went by, hiring the handicapped became not enough — Kushner wanted to help them at a younger age. Believing that her story could inspire many, she enlisted Young to help her write it; the result is the 70-page “Smart on the Inside,” which will be available for digital readers as well.