Andrew Monroe considers himself lucky. At 30, he is a married father of two with a good-paying job. He’s also finishing a bachelor’s degree in operations management at Grand Valley State University.
A decade ago, he was in prison on a drug conviction.
Monroe says he owes much of his transformation to McDonald’s and franchise owner Tony Castillo, whom he began working for seven years ago.
He still isn’t sure why one of Castillo’s managers hired him in 2007 during the recession when applicants easily outnumbered jobs, and Monroe had more time behind bars than job experience.
“Nobody was hiring. I couldn’t get a job anywhere,” remembers Monroe, a soft-spoken man whose green eyes carry a sharp gaze. He is sharing his story at a table in the Holland area McDonald’s he now runs as the general manager.
Landing a minimum-wage spot on the restaurant crew would prove life-changing for Monroe.
He doesn’t elaborate much on that period of his life between high school graduation and going to work at McDonald’s, other than to say he had some troubles.
“I made quite a few bad decisions,” said the Traverse City native. “I was involved with drugs, and involved in selling drugs.”
His record shows he was sentenced for operating a drug house twice. First to less than a year behind bars, and then to 18 months in federal prison. That doesn’t include the months spent in and out of jail.
None of his about 50-person team he oversees has any inkling of his past, he said.
But Monroe is willing to share his story because he wants to explain how much Castillo – who was honored by McDonald’s with a lifetime achievement award – cares about his employees.
“He’s probably the best person I’ve worked for,” said Monroe. “He comes in and knows everyone by name. He comes in with a great attitude. It really makes a big difference in who you choose to work for.”
Even now, as Monroe prepares to finish his last class for his college degree that could lead to job offers outside of McDonald’s and the demanding fast-food industry, he isn’t sure he wants to leave Castillo’s team.
“McDonalds has been really good for me,” said Monroe. “To get me to leave will take a sweet deal because this is what I know. This is what I’m good at. I like my job.”
Over the years, Castillo has continued to provide him opportunities for advancement.
Within six months of going to work at McDonald’s, Monroe was promoted to assistant manager. That same year, he began taking classes at Grand Rapids Community College. Within four years, he graduated as one of the college’s top students, earning a 4.0 GPA while working more than 40 hours a week at the restaurant.
His work experience impressed his professors.
“We would learn new topics, and I would be ‘Yeah, I use that at work’,” Monroe said. “I really think I learned more working at McDonalds through their management than I did anywhere. They have really top-notch training for their managers. Other fast food restaurants, you want to be a manager, here you go. At McDonalds, you have to follow this curriculum and become certified, do this book work on your own, do an online class and go to a three-day training just to be a manager.”
Monroe is also fluent in Spanish, and credits his co-workers for helping him practice the language as he took classes at GRCC.
The language skill was helpful in courting his wife, Rubeli, who worked at another of Castillo’s restaurants. They met when he returned a product to the restaurant, and was introduced by a friend.
Nearly two years ago, he was offered the general manager position of Castillo’s McDonald’s location at 213 N River Ave. in Holland Township.
He and Castillo had already talked about his criminal past.
“This is a multi-million dollar restaurant. There has to be a significant amount of trust to be put in charge of all the money and all the people,” Monroe said. “They have to make sure this is in the best interest of business. I never did anything to make them question that decision.”
When Monroe started working at McDonald’s, he didn’t think about the future or whether there was an opportunity to grow with the company. He was just happy to have a job.
“I knew he was a keeper from day one,” said Castillo. “It wasn’t until a month or later, that the manager told me about his background. I said ‘We have to look at the man, not his past, and what he is doing now.’ It has all worked out.”
Castillo describes Monroe as incredibly loyal, passionate and someone who understands the value of opportunity. He noted Monroe accepted an invitation to serve on a regional managers council, which provides feedback on the corporation’s new menu items or other initiatives coming down the pipeline, and what issues they may raise on the store level, such as slowing down service.
Monroe thinks McDonald’s wages are competitive for the industry. He now earns an annual income of $40,000 to $50,000. It’s enough that his wife could give up her factory job to stay home, in their recently-purchased house, to take care of their two young daughters.
In addition to a salary, he is eligible for yearly bonuses tied to performance of the restaurant, and a health care package that is the same as what is offered to the franchise owners.
But he works hard for that pay and the perks which require him to clock between 40 to 50 hours a week, and work different shifts so he can interact with all his employees.
Monroe says it’s sometimes hard for even him to fathom how far he has come in less than a decade. He believes his arrests and time behind bars probably saved his life.
“Right before I got caught the second time, I was in the hospital,” said Monroe. “They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and really I think my kidneys were shutting down because I put too much junk in my body, so it wasn’t going to end well for me. This was really a big eye-opener for me. I was thinking, ‘Do I want to live the rest of my life like this? Is this really what I want? Is this the life I dreamed of as a little kid?’”
Monre says he is grateful he got one more chance to turn his life around. He doesn’t waste time regretting those mistakes.
“Honestly, I can’t believe I was that person,” said Monroe, adding: “I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences, but I don’t let it define who I am.”