MANATEE -- Nathan Hoeksema hasn’t filled out a job application since he was 16.
It was the summer of 1993, and the Bradenton native was eager for his first job.
He applied at the Chick-fil-A at DeSoto Square mall, hoping for a chance to build a savings account.
Hoeksema not only did that -- he also became one of the most successful franchisees among the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A brand.
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The store, of which Hoeksema became owner at age 23 in 2001, generated an estimated $1.13 million in sales last year. As a result, Hoeksema this year won Chick-fil-A’s highest honor for a restaurant operator, The Symbol of Success award, which recognizes franchisees who reach high sales goals.
“I love my job just as much if not more than when I started 18 years ago,” Hoeksema said.
Starting at $4.15 an hour
Hoeksema chose to apply at Chick-fil-A because his sister and friends from Bradenton Christian School worked there, too.
“I’m a shy individual, so I felt like I’d be comfortable working here and that I’d fit in,” the 33-year-old said in a recent interview.
At the time, Chick-fil-A had a full dining room at DeSoto Square. Hoeksema was earning $4.15 an hour to bus the tables, clean the dining room and take out the trash. Soon he would be working the cash registers, and by his late teens he became a supervisor.
“He seemed extremely serious, extremely focused,” said Lloyd Andersen, who hired Hoeksema. Andersen owned the DeSoto Square Chick-fil-A from 1990 to 1997.
“The young man had a plan; he definitely had a plan in mind from an early age,” Andersen said.
Hoeksema first became a franchisee in 2000, purchasing the Chick-fil-A at the Coast Mall in Naples. A year later, when the DeSoto Square Chick-fil-A became available, he applied for that opportunity.
“I did the month-end profit and loss statement on the Naples restaurant on April 30, 2002, closed out the books, and drove overnight to Bradenton to take over this store on May 1,” Hoeksema said.
“I never thought I’d be here 18 years later,” Hoeksema said. “Number one, being it’s the restaurant industry sometimes you can get burned out in this business, and two, we’ve gone through some pretty tough times here.”
The DeSoto Square was hit hard when the recession started in 2007.
In 2008, Starbucks closed its doors. Then in 2009, several major stores closed there, including Waldenbooks, Old Navy, Lady Footlocker, Hallmark, Allsports 24/7, Boater’s World and Dillard’s. Last year, McDonald’s closed.
The mall has since found new tenants. Over the past 18 months, DeSoto Square has added Lucky’s Game Room, Elizabeth’s Apparel, Jenny’s Wigs, and a lunar mini golf course called Saturn 5.
In 2008, sales declined by 10 percent at Chick-fil-A. It was the first time since Hoeksema worked at the restaurant that annual sales dropped.
“It was a tough year,” Hoeksema said. “We started losing a lot of traffic. But you can see the mall starting to pick up again.”
It’s all about the people
Norma Smith arrives at DeSoto Square at least four mornings a week to take her daily walk. When she passes Chick-fil-A, Hoeksema or his staff has a cup of coffee waiting for her.
“I call for him to come out to the counter for a break because he’s always working so hard in the back,” said Smith, 80. “He has high standards with his own work ethic. That’s what I like about Nathan.”
It’s the people Hoeksema meets while on the job that he says is the most rewarding aspect of his job.
“It gives me a greater purpose that I strive for, and that’s building relationships with people,” he said. “We build relationships 60 seconds at a time because we are a quick-service restaurant. But when customers keep coming back, you get to know them as a person.”
Mall walker Dean Rhoades enjoys days like Tuesday when Hoeksema’s 2-year-old daughter, Cooper, is in the food court for a visit.
“When we found out he was going to be a father, we were so happy and always asked how the baby was doing,” Rhoades said. “We think of him as family.”
All in the family
Cooper sits on Hoeksema’s lap on a recent Tuesday as he takes a break in the food court.
His daughter and wife, Cynthia, who is due with a son May 6, have come to visit as they try to do at least once a week.
“I’m trying to get out of the house as often as I can before this little guy comes,” says Hoeksema, 34, rubbing her belly.
Cooper leans in against Hoeksema’s chest and he runs his fingers through her golden locks that have a hint of curl in them.
“She’s shy, just like her daddy,” says Cynthia Hoeksema.
Nathan and Cynthia Hoeksema were high-school sweethearts. They dated for two years during their freshman and sophomore years but parted ways. It wasn’t until 12 years later that they reconnected.
They attribute Chick-fil-A for bringing them back together.
“My parents were walking through the mall and he recognized them and said hello, Cynthia says. “They told me he was still working there and I thought, no way he’s still at Chick-fil-A. I was still picturing him as the fry guy, but they said no, he’s the owner. I was so impressed.”
Cynthia called Nathan at the Chick-fil-A in November 2004, and they began dating again. He proposed on Valentine’s Day 2005, and they married that April.
“I would love to see that job application he filled out,” Cynthia says.
Over the years, Hoeksema has hired a fair share of teenagers starting their first jobs. With each new hire, he stresses the rewards that can come with hard work on the job.
“When I hold an orientation for new employees, I tell them, ‘You have the opportunity to become a business owner one day’ and they chuckle,” Hoeksema said. “And I say ‘Don’t laugh -- it happened to me.’”