Jonathan Puello has no problem telling you he was a total class clown as a kid. Making his classmates laugh by acting out brought him more satisfaction than listening to teachers. He was so known for his antics that during a party when he was eleven, he almost drowned when everyone thought he was goofing off rather than genuinely struggling for air.

A huge fan of superstar Tracy McGrady, Puello dreamed of playing basketball in the NBA, but wasn’t allowed to play on his high school team because of disciplinary issues, most stemming from his clowning nature. 

As he he grew older, his free spirit led to a series of “dumb decisions” as he sought money for nice things, particularly cars. The choices led to consequences, and he spent the last five years in prison, incarcerated for his involvement with drugs and burglary.

While there, he learned patience, and shares that he knows more than ever how to “enjoy the little things, taking walks in the park or just opening the refrigerator door. It’s a little thing, but you appreciate it.”

There were tough moments, like the emotional visits from his mom, but the constant support from his family and friends helped him endure. Puello never brings up those experiences in conversations, and while they shaped him, they don’t define him. If he could go back and talk to his younger self during that time, he’d give himself the classic warning: “It’s not worth it, you may get the nice stuff, but it can be taken away in an instant.”

He started his transition back into regular life this past January, and not long into that process he found out Chick-fil-A Fulton Street was hiring its grand opening team. His social worker got him into the Group Audition where he heard the operator Luke’s story. It impacted him that though Luke owned a franchise, he’d started as a Team Member. “It made me think that maybe I could do it too.”

It seemed like a perfect chance to begin again and rebuild his dreams. “I was a little nervous, but then I got an interview…and it was with Mandy, which made me even more nervous, like great, it’s the boss’s wife, I really need to impress her.”

Mandy remembers the interview well. “He was nervous,” she says, “visibly shaken and very cautious with his words. He spoke from the heart about his family, and was extremely humble. It was a heart connection that I had with Jonathan. I think he wanted a job so badly, but because of his past didn’t think he deserved a second chance. When I called to offer him the job, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind I made the right decision. He was so thankful. No one has ever thanked me for offering a job before. To see how far Jonathan has come in a few months from that interview makes me so proud. He’s a more confident and hopeful person.”

Examining where he is now and where he could be, there’s a pride in knowing that his journey is in a healthy place. “I’m growing and learning more every day. I’ve become an advanced team member, and certified trainer, but it’s so much more than that. It’s been surprising to be this far along since January. I gave something my all and it paid off.”

In five years, he’d like to have completed his bachelor’s degree, and would love to be married and have kids. His sights are also set on becoming an owner and operator with Chick-fil-A, preferably opening a restaurant in a brand new market. “I’m interested in going international. Maybe Dubai or Spain. If I got there, that would mean I’ve come so far from where I was, with both education and leadership.”

He’s actively working on his leadership skills and style, trying to balance the fun with firm consistency. The class clown still lives deep in him, and he loves to cut up with the Team. He’s passionate about making sure the food goes out fast and correct, but wants to make sure there’s joy and spontaneity among the Team Members.

“I find the most satisfaction when everyone is happy and smiling, everything is running smooth, just a good state of mind with everyone in the kitchen.”

Puello is quick to mention that the guidance of Austin Haydel, who he considers a mentor, has been huge in his development. “He’s given me opportunities, kept pushing me and continues to push me. He’s training me in so many ways, telling me what books to read, how to be a great leader.” He also mentions directors Thomas Haralson and Jeremiah King as two leaders that work side by side with him as they train in all aspects of the business.

“From my experience, the leaders really care and want you to grow, and give you opportunities to grow. They’re willing to sit down with you for hours and talk, to work through challenges with you to find solutions.”

Working through challenges to find solutions has been Puello’s heartbeat these past six months, and the class clown who used to chase things the wrong way is enjoying the benefits of these hard-won opportunities.

He smirks, “I still love nice cars, that didn’t change, I just changed how I’m getting them.”