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Rock Hill’s Sweetman retiring after 47 years with McDonald’s

Growing up with five sisters and two brothers, Bob Sweetman knew not to count on his dad for money.

To have the walking around change so necessary for teens, Sweetman would have to have a steady job.

So every afternoon during the week, Sweetman filled the baskets on his bike with the old Washington Star, delivering newspapers in his suburban Maryland neighborhood.

Later, he got a job as a cook in a nursing home and one summer he tried construction. He lasted only a few weeks pouring concrete. That job taught him the difference between hard work and HARD WORK.

At 17, he got a job flipping burgers at the local McDonald’s restaurant. At the time the minimum wage was $1, Sweetman remembers. His starting pay was $1.25.

“I was flying high,” Sweetman said.

That job began a relationship that lasted almost five decades. Sweetman – who went from the grill to owning seven McDonald’s restaurants in York County that employed 450 people – is retiring. He sold his stores to David Powell, who operates five McDonald’s locations in Charlotte.

Sweetman is slowly closing his office on Oakland Avenue and hopes to be fully retired soon, with even more time to enjoy his grandchildren, baseball, golf and wherever retirement leads him.

Like any great relationship, Sweetman easily recalls his McDonald’s memories.

At the top of the list is a youthful evening at the local McDonald’s in Silver Springs, Md.

He and his brother Tom had come to McDonald’s after a party, arriving in the family’s station wagon. In the next parking spot was a brand new, 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang. Its driver, also named Tom, also had been at the party. Sitting pretty in the Mustang was his date, Mary Melzer.

Bob and Mary stayed in their respective cars while the others went to buy burgers.

“I wanted to make a good impression on the girl,” Sweetman remembers.

He also recalls what he said next, admitting it probably wasn’t the best pick-up line.

“Do you want to go home in a good car?” he asked Mary.

Mary doesn’t remember her answer.

But she does remember seeing Bob at the next teen dance and discovering he was a good dancer. They met at 15, married at 21, and have been together ever since.

Sweetman also remembers his first day on the job at the local McDonald’s.

His manager was training him on how to make hamburgers, telling him to put the mustard and ketchup in the middle of the burger.

After Sweetman’s first attempt, manager Leon Kalina asked him to try again.

After Sweetman’s second attempt, Kalina asked Sweetman to try again, and again, and then finally said, in exasperation, “Don’t you know where the center is?”

It wasn’t the only math lesson Sweetman learned on the job. To simplify operations on the cash register, Sweetman would total the order in his head as he grabbed the food.

It wasn’t as challenging as it sounds.

Hamburgers were 10 cents then. A hamburger, fries and a soda were 47 cents with tax. That’s about all that was on the menu. The Big Mac was not introduced until 1968.

Even with the simpler menu, Sweetman’s bosses wanted to be the best of McDonald’s. Sweetman remembers their efforts to be the first store in their region to sell $600 in food in one day.

That was when McDonald’s had its “candy stripe” stores of red and white tiles and built-in golden arches.

There were only walk-up windows – no inside seating or drive-up windows.

The first time they tried for the goal, the store had $595 in sales. The next weekend they tried again, selling $697, prompting an assistant manager to ask, “couldn’t you have sold $3 more?”

The lesson of financial success hit home when one of his managers, Dick People, showed him his bonus check.

“It was more than his salary,” Sweetman said, and it prompted him to decide, “this is what I want to do.”

Sweetman said he liked the continuity and security of working for the same company. It afforded him time to raise his children, Mandy and Dan.

He also liked it “because I liked coming to work.”

He went from working at McDonald’s to managing restaurants, and then to the corporate offices, where he helped others run their restaurants.

After 11 years, he decided to test one of McDonald’s unwritten rules – work for the company for at least 10 years, and it would help you find a McDonald’s franchise.

He was offered a restaurant in Donora, Pa. While the baseball fan in Sweetman might have appreciated the place – it was the birthplace of Stan Musial – Sweetman the businessman realized it was a dying coal town.

A trip south from his Philadelphia home took him to Rock Hill, where he stopped to look over the Chester McDonald’s restaurant, which had been open for about three years.

He liked what he saw and moved his family to rural Chester County.

He took over operation of the Chester restaurant in 1981. He added restaurants on East Main Street in Rock Hill and in Richburg.

In 1993, he sold the Chester and Richburg restaurants and picked up two on Cherry Road in Rock Hill.

He added stores on Herlong Avenue in 1994, in Tega Cay in 1996, at Manchester Village in 2001, and his last store inside the Walmart in the Newport area in 2011.

In January, he sold the Rock Hill stores to Powell.

At 64, he said it was time to retire.

“Opening each one of those stores was a highlight,” he said.

Becoming involved the community was important too, he said. He and Mary started scholarship programs, brought teachers into the restaurants for a night of work, and took Ronald McDonald to various schools and events.

Sweetman also got to see his children grow up – at McDonald’s.

At 8, Danny was the “official playground test.”

At 10, Mandy would wipe tables and sneak behind the counter to run the register.

Mandy later ran the Tega Cay store for her father. Danny also went into the family business. He remembers his first “official” job was flipping pancakes for breakfast.

Most of all, Sweetman said, he learned, “it’s a people business. If you take care of the people they take care of you.”

Roy Lunsford was one of those Sweetman took care of. He hired Lunsford directly out of high school at his Chester store.

Thirty years later, Lunsford is still with McDonald’s – now an area supervisor for Powell, overseeing operations at four stores.

“Bob and Mary Sweetman are the perfect examples of the ideal bosses,” Lunsford said.

They helped employees in times of need, Lunsford said, offered perks and other incentives to motivate people, and “made me feel like part of the family.”

In return, Lunsford said, the employees worked hard and the business grew.

It is those relationships Sweetman admits he’ll miss the most. But, he won’t be entirely weaned from them.

He is too familiar a face to Rock Hill McDonald’s employees.

So he can count on knocking fists – fist bumps, in Sweetman’s lingo – with the employees operating the drive-up windows for some time to come, particularly when he makes a morning run for oatmeal.