Elma Smith has always been a planner. She considers her options, figures out what she wants, and then makes a plan.
As a child in Atlanta, GA, she mapped out two dream scenarios. In the first one, she pictured herself unmarried, no kids, and driving a Ferrari to work at a Fortune 500 company. In the other, she was married with kids, and an actress who also worked at the Juliard school. The details even included what type of acting. “Definitely on Broadway or movies, but no sitcoms.”
While those two options haven’t become reality for her yet, her heart for planning has remained the same, even when life consistently messes with her blueprints.
She’s worked for Chick-fil-A for twelve years, but she never intended to be in the restaurant business. After being laid off from the local YMCA for budget reasons, Elma went to the local mall to seek out a job at Bath and Body Works until she could get back on her feet.
As she filled out the application in the food court while eating Chick-fil-A, a woman who worked there offered to refresh her beverage. They struck up a conversation when the woman revealed her mother was named Elma as well, and before lunch was over, Elma received an invitation to a Chick-fil-A Group Audition.
Impressed by the woman's hospitality, Elma decided to attend. Forty people showed up, but she was the only one who left with a job.
She soon became a certified trainer, and traveled around various Atlanta area Chick-fil-A restaurants serving in a variety of roles. Eventually her training experience landed her the opportunity to come to NYC and help open the world’s largest Chick-fil-A. She’d been born there, and her mom still lived in the city, so she jumped at the opportunity.
When the wild and busy Grand Opening weeks ended, she returned south to the familiar patterns of home, not thinking she’d be back in NYC anytime soon.
But once again, life sent her on another unexpected detour.
Her mom was sick with colon cancer and needed her care immediately.
She immediately thought of the Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street, and whether they’d be willing to hire her on short notice. Her text barely went out before an answer came back. Luke and the team would love to have her on the crew.
Elma jumped right back into the fast-paced life of the restaurant, and was touched that many of the original Team Members she’d trained not only remembered her, but were excited that she’d returned.
Her planning nature soon kicked in and she began picturing how she would fit in and what roles were best suited for her. Just as the new plans began to settle into place, another disruption arrived when she attended a meeting with Austin Haydel, the Chief Operating Officer.
“I went into the meeting very content in my role: building relationships, and just being a normal leader…but he shut me down several times. He told me I was too comfortable.”
Luke and Austin had decided to promote her to Director, a move that both honored her and challenged her. The surprise twist redeemed a the tough season she'd recently endured. “There really are people out there who think you’re awesome and are willing to take you to the next level with them.”
She hopes her story can inspire others. “Knowing that somebody who didn’t have a silver spoon in her mouth, that had to work hard for everything, who had no inner connections in the business...they need to know that something like this is possible.”
And while her childhood plans didn’t include this stop on the journey, it’s a welcome one that didn’t require too much editing to the original plans. “In five years, I will be an Operator and a mom of two boys. That’s it. Two boys. I’m done. It’s a wrap.” She laughs, but also makes it known that is definitely the plan.
Her mom made it through multiple procedures and is doing much better now. Elma watches over her and comes in early everyday to 144 Fulton Street with her faithful wire notebook full of detailed schedules and action items.
She’s thriving in a role she never planned for in a city she didn’t know she’d call home.
“Coming back to NYC, I was full of fear…my mom was sick, I was leaving behind every thing I knew. Facing your fear tests your faith. Are you really rocking with God, if it’s just when everything is good? Or can you rock with God when everything is crazy, and you don’t know what’s going on. I was in a box in Atlanta, being a certain way all the time. God was like, that’s not how I designed you. The move turned out to be one of the greatest things in my life.”