THE DAY I TURNED SIXTEEN, in 1970, I started flipping burgers for McDonald’s in Southern California. I think my first wage was $1.35. It was a different world back then. I never had a great desire to go to college. I was working sixty or seventy hours right out of high school, and I was dedicated. I said to myself, “Hey, you know, not many people are looking at this food business as a career right now, and it will be a great situation for the cream to rise to the top and for someone who wants to move up quickly.” I worked about three years with McDonald’s, and then my first chance to be in management came along with another chain, called Del Taco. Eventually I took a managerial position with Church’s Chicken, where I worked for seventeen years.
Today I would certainly recommend that people get their schooling. I guess you always regret what you don’t have. I think education and technology are so important, but I would also say it is all about people. There’s nothing like having people skills and being able to relate to people and motivate them. You know, it sounds like a cliché, but I do try to treat people like I would like to be treated. Here I am in my position, and I’ll go out of my way to say hi to the mailroom person every day and to shake hands with people and call people by their first name. I think it makes people feel connected to the leadership of the company when you do that. Little things like that make a difference.
I’ve always felt that my success is directly related to the people that I’ve surrounded myself with. I had a good amount of people follow me from Church’s to Taco Cabana. If you have great people and they understand what’s expected of them, that’s what equals success—giving them the opportunity to do that.
Stephen Clark, the president and CEO of San Antonio-based Taco Cabana, was born in Marshall, Missouri, and grew up in California. He began working at McDonald’s in 1970, then took a managerial position with another chain, and eventually hired on with Church’s Chicken, working his way up through management. In 1995 Clark joined Taco Cabana as its president and COO and, eighteen months later, took on the additional title of CEO. Taco Cabana, which has 125 restaurants and more than four thousand employees, just completed its eleventh consecutive quarter of growth in same store sales. At press time, Taco Cabana announced an intent to merge with New York-based Carrols Corporation.