COLUMBIA CITY — After five weeks without Happy Meals and Big Macs, the Columbia City community welcomed the opening of the new McDonald’s Restaurant.

Visitors filled the lobby for a Black Friday ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 30 led by McOpCo Operations Manager Brian Hedrick, who has witnessed the Columbia City operation come full circle.

Hedrick got his start at McDonald’s in 1993, when he was a 16-year-old Columbia City High School student.

“I was in band at the high school, and I walked over here during band camp and said, ‘Hey, I need a job for gas money.’ They hired me that day and by the next Saturday I was working,” Hedrick said.

He’s been working for McDonald’s ever since, now as operations manager for McOpCo, overseeing 37 McDonald’s Restaurants in Indiana and Kentucky.

“The most exciting part for me is that while I’ve worked for McDonald’s in many states, I’ve lived in Whitley County and got my start here. It’s pretty exciting,” Hedrick said.

Though five weeks may have seemed like a long time, Hedrick said Columbia City’s unique situation allowed for the old restaurant to be open longer.

“Normally it’s a three-month process,” Hedrick said. “We’ve been able to be down a lot less by doing this tandem building.”

Since the company owned a substantial amount of land to the south of its former building, construction crews were able to get started on the new building well before the old one needed to be closed.

The company originally planned to remodel the lobby of the former building, but about 1.5 years ago made the decision to do more.

“It would have been for the lobby. The existing restaurant behind would have been the same. The same drive-thru issues with the cars lined up to the street, the same issues in the grill area with equipment placed in the wrong area.

“We realized building a new restaurant would not only be better for the lot, it would be better for the community.”

Not only do community members have a new restaurant, but the modern-looking facility will attract passers-by on U.S. 30 to stop.

“I’m happy they reinvested in Columbia City. You see it and you want to stop,” said Chip Hill, Columbia City community development director.

Inside, the restaurant has some of the latest technology, such as self-order kiosks, the ability to order from your phone, interactive tables, and touch-screen games at some tables.

“A lot of people think the kiosks are taking employees away, but that’s not the mindset,” Hedrick said. “When there are more ways to order, you don’t have to wait in line. You can start your order right away and we deliver all the food right to your table.”

In fact, the restaurant has added staff since opening the new restaurant, and is always hiring.

“Ever since I started here in 1993 we have always been hiring,” Hedrick said. “We’re always on the lookout for good people to come join us.”

Cyndi Mitchel is the general manager for the Columbia City McDonald’s, and said the crew has been excited for the new facility to open.

“I couldn’t wait to bring this to the community,” Mitchel said. “I really wanted to give this town a brand-new restaurant. It’s amazing to see this.”

Mitchel said she did not lose any of her 70 employees, 12 managers and two maintenance employees during the transition.

There is now a third drive-thru window, which will make service more efficient. Rather than having customers pull forward and park while waiting for delayed food, they can pull forward to the third window until their order is ready.

Behind the scenes, the food preparation process has been streamlined with the latest technology, including an optimized prep line with conveyor belt, and a new hallway designed for drink preparation.

The lobby was filled with customers for the ribbon-cutting, and it didn’t take long for cars to flood the drive-thru.

“I’ve been missing it since it was closed,” said 12-year-old Audrey Tyler. “I’m excited for it to open. It looks nice in here.”

The Columbia City McDonald’s first opened in 1976, with opening day sales of about $1,800. Hedrick expects that the restaurant will net more than that in an hour once the restaurant is fully functional.

Over the next two weeks, Hedrick said the parking lot will be finished and landscaping will be updated.

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