Linda Vanderweel started her quick-serve career back in 1979 as a Del Taco shift leader in West Covina, California, working nearly every position in the restaurant, from prepping food in the restaurant’s working kitchen to serving as general manager. Then, after watching her hard work and passion for the brand for 10 years, the franchise owner offered Vanderweel partial ownership of two California locations.

Today, Vanderweel has been a franchisee for 27 years, owns five units in Southern California (with a sixth under construction), and employs more than 125 people. To recognize her stores’ outstanding performance and her dedication to the brand, Del Taco has presented Vanderweel with many awards, including the “Multi-Unit Franchise Operator of the Year” award in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015—awards in which she beat out 246 other franchises. She also took home the “Community Involvement Award” in 2012.

With women only accounting for a small portion of multiunit operators in the quick-serve industry, Vanderweel explains how women can advance the opportunities available to them in franchising.

1. Stay present

For me, it’s all about sticking to the basics and continuing to love what you do. I’ve been honored with “Operator of the Year” awards several times, and I have to say that my success wouldn’t be possible without a lot of hard work and a dedicated team of employees who are equally committed to upholding Del Taco’s high guest-service standards.

I think it’s important for me, as the owner, to maintain visibility. I am very much a part of the day-to-day business, because I am committed to Del Taco, our guests, and running a successful business. By showing up, working hard, and loving what I do, I aim to lead by example and demonstrate what I expect of my staff. Many of my employees have been with me for years, and I’m proud of that. I get to know my team members and what’s important to them, and support them in their careers as well as outside of work.

How I operate my units certainly works for me, and I believe the time I spend in my restaurants directly influences the success of my business. Some of our guests have been coming into our locations since I was an hourly team member. Getting face time with guests and employees increases accountability, ensures smooth operations, improves execution, and, most importantly, helps establish connections with the people who work and eat at my restaurants.

2. Take the lead

I take great pride in being a multiunit operator, and I am honored to be consistently counted among Del Taco’s top-performing franchisees. There are more women in the industry now than when I first started, so I hope more are realizing that they, too, can become leading operators. Regardless of gender, you just have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and dedicate yourself to a brand you love.

I still work in my restaurants alongside my employees 40 hours a week, and I hope that I not only serve as an example that hard work truly does pay off, but also show that I’m not above chopping tomatoes and onions for our fresh pico de gallo.

Women leaders in the restaurant business are a rare breed, but a special one. I think by standing on the shoulders of those who have paved the way and continuing to support one another, more women will earn leadership positions within the industry. It’s important that we are continuously empowering one another.

I think there is a tremendous opportunity for growth of women in this industry. Many of the top-performing businesses in the country employ a higher-than-average percentage of women in leadership positions, which shows that women are more than capable. I hope that more people can recognize how smart it is to have a strong presence of females contributing to and driving their portfolio. I think a hard work ethic and willingness to dive in are essential for anyone trying to succeed in this business.

3. Empower others

In an effort to foster an environment where employees are given opportunities to grow their careers and to celebrate their successes, I began implementing a bonus-matching program in 1990. Basically, my promise is to match any bonus issued to a store manager and distribute it among the rest of the store’s employees so that all team members’ efforts are rewarded for their contributions to running some of the best-performing stores in the system.

This program was implemented as part of an ongoing effort to maintain a happy and motivated team. Again, I see this as an opportunity to empower others, and the positive results were immediate, from both a business and personal standpoint. When my team members consistently provide the outstanding service that Del Taco guests expect and help us reach store goals, they deserve to see that hard work pay off and share in that success. Not only is there an added monetary incentive, but also they feel that their effort makes a difference. I’ve found that nurturing a positive work culture has a trickle-down effect where our overall guest satisfaction is a reflection of retained, happy employees.

Franchising, Story, Del Taco