THE VILLAGES, Fla. – If you visit The Villages, chance are high you’ll come across some men and women wearing caps commemorating their time in America’s armed forces.
It’s those caps that led to the creation of a group of breakfast pals, and then to an unexpected friendship.
You can witness it yourself at the Colony Boulevard McDonald’s location. Most early mornings, you’ll find a group laughing, commiserating and enjoying morning coffee and breakfast. Although the entire group isn’t just veterans, it’s how the group originally started.
“I was here and I saw him come in,” said Steve Eaton, Army Ranger veteran. “He had a Marine cap, I had an Army cap, so I said, ‘We’ll let a Marine sit with us,’ and then Zach had an Air Force cap.”
That camaraderie was the easy part.
“If you identify another veteran, you automatically respect what they have done, and they respect what you have done,” said Harry Robinson, Army.
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Fast forward about seven years, and now the group has about 20 members, both men and women. For many of them, it’s their favorite way to start the day.
“The camaraderie,” said Jim Jordon, Marines. “You get the right start to the day. It’s just gonna give you a purpose, to get out of bed early and enjoy the company of others.”
They understand each other, the struggles that veterans sometimes face, and the things that those who have never served just don’t.
“A lot of us have experienced the same similar things I’ve had,” Eaton said. “One of the good things about us meeting, we’ll get talking about something and Harry will say, ‘Well, I got this at VA. Or I got this at MacDill.’ And so we exchange ideas and information of places that we can go to do things or help others that maybe we didn’t know about but through the group we find out about it, that’s good.”
“We like to say we’ve solved the problems of the world,” Jordon said, and the group laughed.
But it’s not just the conversation that keeps them coming back to this particular McDonald’s day after day -- it’s the service they receive.
“We all had the same common thing that we talked about, that was the greatest service that we ever seen at a McDonald’s,” Jordon said.
Isabel Garcia, a 20-year employee of McDonald’s, leads the charge at this location most mornings. At first, they thought the exceptional service was just for them, to thank them for serving the country.
But they quickly realized that was not the case.
“She treats everybody like that,” said Mark Gibbons, Navy Reserves. “Just like that gentleman over there. They bring him his food every day. When he orders, they make sure that every it’s taken to him. And he doesn’t have to get up with his walker to get it.”
“What restores my faith is to see people that really still want to work hard,” Eaton said. “And there’s a lot of employees that I see here that really want to work hard. But, you know, Isabel is a great example, she leads by example.”
For Garcia, she just loves serving with a smile.
“If you love what you do, you never work,” Garcia said. “They come back and they say, ‘Oh you’re here, I got it, I know I’m going to get it right,’ and that makes my day.”
“She opens the doors and greets the customers and makes sure from the very first customer to walk in the door that they have a wonderful experience,” said location co-owner Rebecca Babalian. “We value that and we appreciate her. I know they do. They have told me, ‘Oh my gosh, Isabel is just awesome. She makes this place,’ and I think that we are truly grateful that they reached out and wanted to recognize her.”
“My favorite part is to make sure they come every day,” Garcia said. “So if somebody is missing, I make sure to ask what happened. If I get the phone number, I call. I always offer, ‘If you need something just let me know.’ So when other employees say, ‘What are you going to do if everybody says they need something from you?’ Trust me, I will make time for each.”
“I’m glad that I met her, she’s a part of us even though she’s not military,” Jordon said.
It’s that sentiment that operator Babalian and her husband Mark agree with, and it’s why they’re recognizing Isabel with some special gifts.
“Thanks for all you do, you cast a great shadow to all of us,” Mark said. “We always look to her and say, you know, she knows, she gets it. It’s all about our guests, and how they’re treated when they walk in the door. She’s just a wonderful person.”
Garcia was surprised and touched to be honored, but it wasn’t long before she was back at the drive-thru window smiling, and serving, doing what she does best.
“Have a nice day!”