Inspiration to Go: Hope and Happiness at McDonald's

Meet a young man who makes every meal a happy meal—and his job a joy.

Posted in , Dec 17, 2010

Joseph Embry brings hope and happiness to McDonald's customers

A personal touch is the last thing you’d expect at a fast-food drive-through window, right? Well, it’s what you get at the McDonald’s on National Road in Columbus, Indiana, where I live. Something extra comes with your coffee and Egg McMuffin. You get a friendly “How are you today?” from a young man who takes time to really listen to your answer and offer a word of kindness, encouragement, even prayer, if that’s what you need. And you get a smile so genuine and full of joy that you drive off feeling lighter and happier yourself. I go there as much for the smile as for the food.

It’s all courtesy of 25-year-old Joseph Embry. In the five years he’s worked the window, he’s built quite a following in our town. To his regulars he’s our ambassador of blessings. But ask Joseph about his gift for lifting people’s spirits, and he’ll say he wasn’t always so positive. His childhood wasn’t exactly idyllic. His father abandoned him when he was a toddler. He had a loving mother and stepfather, but their life in Anderson, Indiana, was a struggle to make ends meet. Jobs were scarce, money was tight and the family moved often. Joseph fell behind at school, never settling in. He was angry, “always looking for a fight,” he says. He dropped out his junior year and drifted, picking up some factory work, but nothing lasted for long.

One Sunday afternoon, his stepdad had it out with him. “My dad sat me down and said, ‘When are you going to get serious with God? He wants to get serious with you.’ Somehow that got through to me. What was God trying to say to me? Why didn’t I listen?”

About that time Joseph snagged the job at McDonald’s. It could have been just another minimum-wage dead end, but Joseph decided God had a personal mission for him. “I started asking people how they were,” Joseph says. “If they were grumpy, I’d say something funny and make them laugh. If they seemed down, I’d give them encouragement. Why not try to cheer them up?”

Joseph has an uncanny way of recognizing customers’ voices through the tinny drive-through speaker and remembering the little details that make each unique. There’s the woman who likes an extra granola packet with her yogurt parfait and the state trooper who takes extra milk and sugar with his coffee. Joseph’s interest in them goes deeper than their order. How’s work? How are their kids, the rest of their families? Last year one regular confided in him about making the tough decision to move her mother into a nursing home. To this day, he always asks how her mom is doing.

“I pray for people when I hear they’re going through something,” Joseph says. No need is too big or too small. He prays for the woman who lost her child in an accident. He asks for good weather for the landscaping crew in the pickup truck. He prays for the little blind dog who rides with one of his regulars and for a customer undergoing cancer treatment. “Don’t give up,” he says. “Have a blessed day.”

Sometimes customers are short-tempered. “I try to be understanding,” he says. “You never know what someone’s up against.” These days part of his job is helping new employees learn the ropes. But his secret to success—and happiness—goes way beyond the drive-through. As Joseph told me one morning when I stopped for coffee, “God wants us to love one another. That’s all you’ve gotta do.” You can supersize that!

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