Before they clock in, many Team Members at 144 Fulton Street begin their shift by visiting the cold prep area where the salads and wraps are made. The restaurant is five levels, and down on the bottom, on the floor called The Cellar, GiGi Rodriguez waits to greet them with a smile as she washes the day’s produce. Some even walk back among the fruit cups and boxes of lemons to receive a warm hug.
While the smile she shares is genuine, it’s also hard-earned; for beneath the joy is a strength forged by trials.
Her parents met in NYC after arriving separately from Puerto Rico, and raised their family in the heart of the Bronx. Her mom placed a heavy emphasis on work, because it was “the key to getting what you wanted,” so a young GiGi started her first job in the housing projects, cleaning and taking out garbage, or painting playgrounds and fences.
Growing up in a generation absent of social media and video games, kids in her neighborhood passed time by playing kick the can, hopscotch, and freeze tag. In middle school, other students bullied her because she was tiny. “I looked like I belonged in elementary school, made me an easy target…but it didn’t intimidate me, it shaped me, made me stronger.”
GiGi washes dishes as she answers questions, Team Members passing by, showering her with love and encouragement. She waits until they leave, grins slightly, and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm, and gently enters into the part of her story she hadn’t intended to share…
“Basically, I had a rough life…I was married when I was nineteen, had three young boys…my husband was not a good man.”
During a time when domestic violence was more whispered about than talked about, GiGi raised her children while enduring abuse at his hands, living in fear that if she ever left, he’d chase her down. The breaking point came on her birthday, after a celebration with co-workers. Her husband discovered she’d been out with friends, and angrily drove to her company looking for her. “That was the final sign. I got out that day.”
But her relief was only temporary. “He found where I was hiding. I lost my job, and my house. Police moved me from shelter to shelter. They wanted to change my identity, but I said no.”
GiGi's escape journeyed through Massachusetts, New Jersey, and down to her beloved Puerto Rico. By her perseverance, those three young boys became three young men, and a sister, and she raised them to adulthood in NYC.
"I call them my 'Amazing Four.' I taught them to respect women and people, that even when you’re angry, you treat people right. And my sons treat their wives like queens." Even though her sons and daughter have blessed marriages, "they still need to call mom to talk." She has one grandchild already, and another on the way, and also found a healthy relationship herself the past two years, a relationship full of respect, trust, and love.
The transformation that took her from a woman who “used to walk looking over my shoulder” to the person who radiates confidence and peace from her station in The Cellar is reflected in the word choice she uses when speaking of domestic violence. “We used to be called victims. But we’re not victims, we’re survivors.”
After she and her family eventually settled, she sought out fellow survivors, to encourage them. “I’m not proud of that time in my life, but in another way I’m glad I can share my story to help others. I try to volunteer at shelters at least twice a month. I sit and listen to their stories, makes me feel like I’m the lucky one, to cheer them on, take them to lunch, give them hope: ‘I did it with 3 little kids.’”
That’s also why GiGi loves loves serving at Chick-fil-A, because it provides her “the opportunity to lift others up.” Her energy flows from encouraging the current generation to persevere.
“There’s some great kids in the world, we need to cheer them on! That makes me happy…I could be having a miserable day, but I’m going to stop and encourage any of these young people who I see who might be sad. It’s truly like a family, even though we can get tense with each other, we love each other hard. It’s tough work, but rewarding. I look forward to it, I get up, and though I’m tired sometimes, I look forward to my job. Everybody takes the time to get to know you…even the directors.”
She’s also fiercely loyal to her prep station and never wants to leave, finding joy even in cutting the lettuce. “I love food, it’s my passion. I’ll go to an international food market, I let the food talk to me. When I make a salad or a wrap, I put my heart and soul in it. When a guest tastes it, I want them to sense the love.”
What does she think people should know about Chick-fil-A?
“It’s so good! They need to come! It’s all fresh, come experience it! Especially Cow Appreciation Day!” And what does she want people to walk away with when they hear the story of GiGi?
"I don't want pity. I want them to know I'm a survivor."
She's more than a survivor, she's a hero who represents the best of Chick-fil-A, and the heart of the 144.
(If you'd like to donate to survivors of domestic violence, or you need someone to share your story with, GiGi recommends clicking here)