In the latest edition of Rochester Woman Online magazine, we are honored to have three incredible female entrepreneurs and owners of a collective of 16 of the local McDonald’s franchises. Please welcome Sharon Potter, her daughter in-law Mari Potter and Nancy Wilkes. These women are true leaders in an industry that is male-dominated and are truly setting themselves apart from the rest.

We know their interview with RWO will inspire you, and as Mari says, “It is never too late to launch your next career endeavor!”

Rochester Woman Magazine, Thursday, January 25, 2024, 2024.01.25, winter, female McDonald’s owners, upstate NY, Ronald McDonald House,
Photo by Brandon Vick Photography LLC,

Can you introduce yourselves and share a bit about your background before becoming franchise owners of the Rochester and surrounding area McDonald’s?

MARI: Hi! I’m Mari Potter. I am the Owner Operator of 13 McDonald’s restaurants in the Rochester area. I have held many different titles in various industries before becoming a franchisee – I even started a martial arts school! It wasn’t until I was 49 years old that I decided to take my entrepreneurial skills, a new perspective and fresh ideas to the family business. It took three years of extensive training and achieving lofty goals to become a McDonald’s Owner Operator, but it was worth it. It’s never too late to launch your next career endeavor!

NANCY: Hi! I’m Nancy Wilkes, and I am a part of my family’s long-standing McDonald’s business. My dad opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1982. I worked there as a crew person in high school before I went to college. I went to culinary school and worked as a pastry chef at Strathallan Hotel before returning to McDonald’s.

SHARON: Hi! I’m Sharon Potter. I’m a McDonald’s Owner Operator with my husband, son and daughter-in-law. Before becoming an operator, my husband was in the service. When he got out in 1969, he worked for the McDonald’s Corporation for 17 years. Between those two jobs, we moved our family 10 times in 20 years, and my husband traveled often for his job. We knew it was time for a change.

What inspired or motivated you to become franchise owners of McDonald’s in this particular region?

MARI: We are so grateful to be a part of this community. My in-laws, Elmer and Sharon Potter, opened their first McDonald’s restaurant here in 1986. After my husband, Tim, graduated college, he joined his family’s business, and trained and studied to become an Owner Operator. After six years of hard work, Tim purchased two of his parents’ restaurants. When his parents decided to retire, Tim and I purchased their remaining eight restaurants, and expanded the company with the purchase of an additional three restaurants. We now own and operate 13 restaurants in the area.

NANCY: With all the hard work, success and joy my father experienced in the McDonald’s business, I was inspired to continue the legacy here in Rochester. I have an entrepreneurial spirit by nature and knew that I wanted to stay within the McFamily. After a successful stint in the pastry business, I returned to the family business. I started in the back office and eventually became an operator, alongside my brother. We purchased my dad’s restaurants from him, and the rest is history. We love this community and feel fortunate to be a part of it.

SHARON: My husband Elmer and I decided to move our family to upstate New York where we knew the McDonald’s operators and were familiar with the restaurants that we would purchase. It was a natural, seamless transition because we knew the business. The career change was not a risky one – with Elmer’s knowledge of the business and both of our love and passion for working with people, we knew we would succeed. We have been doing just that for almost 40 years and consider Rochester our home.

As female leaders in a predominantly male-dominated industry, what challenges have you encountered, and how have you navigated through them?

MARI: While I have certainly encountered challenges in my previous roles, particularly when I worked in the tech industry, I have not once encountered an issue as a woman in my career as a McDonald’s Owner Operator. With 10 women operators throughout the Empire region, I am part of a large, supportive group of female entrepreneurs – all of whom are amazing women that I take inspiration from. I have never felt unheard or unseen by my peers in leadership. I’ve always had a seat at the table, and even contribute in various elected leadership roles within the Empire Business Unit, which consists of all McDonald’s restaurants from Buffalo to Albany.

NANCY: While we continue to see more and more women successfully own their own businesses across industries, this shift hasn’t come without challenges. Luckily, McDonald’s has always been supportive of me and my career goals. They’ve provided me with endless guidance and opportunities to grow. I continue to surround myself with other female entrepreneurs who inspire me through local women’s organizations.

SHARON: The biggest challenge was becoming an operator in the late 80s when there were truly not many women at all in the same position as me. Things are much different today. It gives me great joy to see so many women taking ownership and joining me in this incredible position with such a supportive and caring brand.

What unique qualities or approaches set you apart from other McDonald’s franchise owners?

MARI: While all Owner Operators have their own set of unique skills that they bring to the role, having the background in various industries, especially in technology and online sales and advertising, helped me bring a fresh perspective to the position. Unlike a lot of Owner Operators, I didn’t have an extensive McDonald’s background and therefore I had to lean into the skills I gained in other roles to help me think outside of the box and propose new ideas.

NANCY: We are a people business, not a hamburger business. As franchise owners, we all collectively care about our people – both in front of and behind the counter. We’re natural born leaders, entrepreneurs and community advocates. We want to see our people and the towns and cities we serve succeed. While we all share these qualities, I think what sets me apart is my determination to succeed as a woman in this business. As a minority, I work just a little bit harder and have had to have a bit more grit to get to where I am today.

SHARON: As operators, we all share the same passion and drive to succeed and support our people. I enjoy working with people! Collectively, my family and I focus on developing our team and providing them with the tools they need to be the best they can be. This includes a flexible work schedule, competitive pay, team building activities, holiday parties, and the option to participate in Archways to Opportunity – a program that provides crew members tuition assistance and access to free education and career advising services, as well as the chance to learn English as a second language.

Could you share your involvement and history with the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Rochester, New York?

MARI: My history with Ronald McDonald House Charities began well before I was a McDonald’s franchisee. I had a sick child who needed surgery and leveraged services provided by the organization. Through that experience, I saw first-hand how much RMHC helps families and provides the care and assistance families need during difficult times. Later down the road, my older daughter was admitted to Strong Memorial Hospital and, again, we looked to RMHC for support. Additionally, my in-laws, Elmer and Sharon, were instrumental in the Rochester House’s development, inspiring a strong family tie to the organization locally.
Today, as an owner/operator, my relationship with the House has only grown stronger. I am on the Board for RMHC in Rochester and also serve as the Development Committee Chair. I’m proud to be giving back to an organization that has had such a positive impact on my life and the lives of others in the community.

NANCY: My history with RMHC is both personal and professional. I was one of the first people to stay at the Rochester House. I had a premature baby in 1990 and my family needed to be close to the hospital as my baby was in the NICU for quite some time. I later joined the Board and worked on RMHC committees. I am most proud of the role I played in creating support services provided by the Ronald McDonald House for youth with mental health challenges. Prior to me joining the board, the only children served by the House were children who were medically ill. Rochester was the first House in the world to accomplish this and through my relentless efforts, I helped bring this to fruition. And because of the bold step we took, other Houses have now started serving this population. I’ve always believed in their mission, what they represent and what they do in local communities. It’s been my mission, as both a mother and an Owner Operator, to help children and their families.

SHARON: When we moved to Rochester in 1986, RMHC of Rochester was just beginning. We were here for just a few months before we began volunteering our time and raising money for the House. Over the past 38 years, my husband and I have been advocating for the House, we’ve both been on the Board of Directors, and our restaurants and our crew are heavily involved. Each of our restaurants participate in “Round-Up for RMHC,” where customers are asked after they order if they’d like to “Round-Up” their total to donate to the House. We also collect pop tabs for the House – every little bit helps this incredible organization, and we are so proud to be a part of it.

What significance do you see in the historical relationship between McDonald’s franchises and the Ronald McDonald House Charities?

MARI: McDonald’s is the founding and forever partner for Ronald McDonald House Charities and I think that speaks volumes about the people that make up our brand. I’ve always found Owner Operators and crew members to be very warm and caring people and that really is who we are at our core. Everyone is always willing to help the House and it’s something that has been woven into the culture here at McDonald’s since the inception of RMHC. We strive to ask every guest if they would like to Round Up to the next dollar with their purchase to help the House. This resulted in the Owner Operators in our area helping to raise more than $80,000 for RMHC of Rochester last year.

SHARON: I was raised by a mother who taught me the importance of helping the community. I believe my passion for working with, and helping, people come from her. In addition to my work with RMHC, our organization is involved in many charitable endeavors such as filling backpacks for children with the supplies they need to have a successful school year, food drives, pet supply drives, Angel Tree through the Salvation Army and we are even stewards of Little Free Libraries at each location.

What personal values or beliefs drive and inspire you in your work and community involvement?

MARI: As Owner Operators, my husband, Tim, and I have said from the beginning that we want to support our people. This goes beyond our crew. As Owner Operators, we are in the position to provide opportunities and support for those that make our organization what it is – whether it be our customers, our crew members or our community. Our core belief is that if we can provide an opportunity through employment, education, professional development, or community events, then that’s what we want to do with our lives and in our business.

NANCY: I was taught “The Golden Rule” at a young age: to treat others the way you’d like to be treated. I live by this in both my work and my community involvement. I believe everyone should be given a fair chance – both my crew and customers. I want my employees to be the best they can be and to grow and be given the opportunities they need to succeed, which is why I offer flexible schedules, competitive salaries and Archways to Opportunity – a program that provides crew members tuition assistance and access to free education and career advising services, as well as the chance to learn English as a second language.

SHARON: I was raised by a mother who taught me the importance of helping the community. I believe my passion for working with, and helping, people come from her. In addition to my work with RMHC, our organization is involved in many charitable endeavors such as filling backpacks for children with the supplies they need to have a successful school year, food drives, pet supply drives, Angel Tree through the Salvation Army and we are even stewards of Little Free Libraries at each location.

What aspects of your role as franchise owners do you find most fulfilling or rewarding?

MARI: We are a people first business. Seeing our people succeed is definitely at the top of my list. Nothing makes me happier than seeing our crew members do great things and excel in their careers, whether they stay within our company or move on and become teachers or psychiatrists. It is amazing to witness and be a part of the growth of our people.

NANCY: The most fulfilling and rewarding part of my role as a franchise owner is watching the development of my 350 employees – whether they stay with McDonald’s or move on to other careers. 1 in 8 Americans have worked for McDonald’s, and it’s so neat to watch those people come through and work here and go on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers, and entrepreneurs. It’s also great to see the ones who stay and work their way up from crew members to managers within our company, taking advantage of the benefits and growth opportunities offered here.

  • How has your connection with the Ronald McDonald House impacted your perspective on your work as McDonald’s franchise owners?

MARI: Our dedication and work with RMHC shows that what we do is about so much more than selling burgers. We are a restaurant, of course, but it’s about so much more than the food – it’s about community and giving back. Our connection with RMHC empowers us to be brand ambassadors, championing initiatives that support others and raising awareness for the organization in a philanthropic way.

What strategies or initiatives have you implemented to foster a positive work environment within your McDonald’s franchises?

MARI: We offer flexible work schedules, competitive pay and great benefits. Our employees all have access to Archways to Opportunity – a program that provides crew members tuition assistance and access to free education and career advising services, as well as the chance to learn English as a second language. We aim to celebrate our people as much as possible. Recognizing our team through milestones in performance, or tenure, is important and allows us to cultivate relationships with our crew from the start. They aren’t just employees – they’re our McFamily. It’s a true testament when we have former employees’ children coming to work in our restaurants. We also take the time to connect with all of our people on a personal level. We host Coffee Chats multiple times a year to hear their needs and what’s happening in their lives – it’s become a great way for us to identify opportunities where we can support their development and education and help them get to where they want to be.

NANCY: While we do team building activities, host holiday parties and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, I think the most impactful strategy I’ve implemented to foster a positive work environment with my company is offering Archways to Opportunity to my employees. I’ve witnessed several of them obtain their high school diplomas and earn college degrees. There’s no greater gift as an Owner Operator than watching my team grow, succeed and achieve their dreams.

SHARON: We want to make sure our people know that we are there for them and want to see them succeed. We provide training for our employees and encourage their growth both within McDonald’s and in their personal lives. We also try to promote fun! We have had many crew outings which included family members at various fun parks in the area such as the Seneca Park Zoo and Sea Breeze. We also host summer outings and holiday parties to allow our people to interact with each other outside of work and have fun.

In what ways do you balance business responsibilities with community involvement, particularly with the Ronald McDonald House?

MARI: Our work with RMHC goes hand in hand with our business and community involvement – there is not one outside of the other. From donation contributions made through the purchase of a Happy Meal or Shamrock Shake to customers “Rounding Up” their total to give back, our commitment to supporting RMHC is ingrained into our business and, therefore, we don’t view them as separate initiatives.

Could you share a memorable experience or story that reflects the impact of your involvement with the Ronald McDonald House?

MARI: I have so many memorable experiences, but some of my fondest memories are when I’ve been given the opportunity to share RMHC’s mission with those who are not familiar with the organization. For example, one of our local vendors was unfamiliar with RMHC. I gave them a tour of the House in Rochester. It was amazing to see them so engaged in learning about what the House does and the services they provide for families. Seeing others realize the importance of this organization is so impactful and being the one to introduce companies to RMHC is truly special.

What advice would you offer to aspiring female entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the fast-food industry or franchising in general?

MARI: First, I’d tell them that it can be done! I would also advise them to surround themselves with talented and driven people and ensure that your core team shares your ambitions, vision and values. Of course, success won’t happen overnight so be sure to give yourself some grace as you learn the industry and know that, while you will hit bumps along the way, if you have more gains than mistakes, you will make it.

How do you see the future of McDonald’s franchises evolving, especially concerning community engagement and charitable initiatives?

MARI: The biggest area where I can see us continuing to evolve is through technology. Any time you visit one of our restaurants, you have the opportunity to “Round-Up’ your order to donate to your local RMHC. Having the McDonald’s app makes it easier for customers, especially those who opt for McDelivery or contactless pickup, to participate. Technology is where our future lies and that can be said across so many industries. While we will continuously provide new ways to engage in community involvement and charitable initiatives, technology makes it easier and expands our reach while making customers feel good in a convenient way.

NANCY: McDonald’s keeps up with the ever-evolving world around us, specifically when it comes to how consumers operate and technological advances. While I don’t believe the way McDonald’s franchisees are involved in community work and charitable initiatives will necessarily change, I’m confident they’ll continue to grow and expand – always looking for new ways help the communities we love and serve every day.

What role do you believe businesses, like McDonald’s, should play in supporting local communities beyond their commercial operations? How do you view the correlation between corporate social responsibility and the success of a business, especially in the context of a well-known brand like McDonald’s?]

MARI: Our business is only as successful as our community allows us to be and that directly ties into the value and emphasis we put on corporate social responsibility and giving back. As small business owners, it’s our responsibility to support our local community in the same way they support us. We like to view our restaurants as hubs for the community to come together – at McDonald’s, we are more than just a place for a great meal, we’re somewhere families can come and know that they are cared for and supported.

Rochester Woman Magazine, Thursday, January 25, 2024, 2024.01.25, winter, female McDonald’s owners, upstate NY, Ronald McDonald House,
Photo by Brandon Vick Photography LLC,

What message or legacy do you hope to leave behind through your work both as McDonald’s franchise owners and advocates for the Ronald McDonald House?

MARI: As a business owner, I hope our crew members view their time with our organization as a supportive, positive opportunity to learn and grow. On a personal level, I aspire to grow the business for our children and continue our dedication to our people and organizations like RMHC to help raise awareness around the good that we can collectively create within our communities.

NANCY: I hope to continue to advocate for young children and their families and grow the services that are supported by the House for families with children struggling with mental health.

SHARON: I am incredibly proud that my son, Tim, and his wife, Mari, are taking over the business that my husband and I worked so hard to create. They are so involved and have such fresh ideas. They’ll carry on our legacy: It’s all about the people. You take care of them. They’ll take care of you.