April 16, 2024

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The View On Cooking

How Milwaukee’s Burger Queen Built Her Fast Food Empire

Somewhere inside Valerie Daniels-Carter’s Bayside home exist a pair of photographs. The two were taken on the same day in 1983 at the intersection of Fond Du Lac Avenue and Capitol Drive. In the first, a 20-something Daniels-Carter stretches her arms out in front of a partially built concrete foundation and smiles toward the camera. Her curly hair is tucked into a white baseball cap and her blue denim pencil skirt offers a pop of color against an otherwise muted landscape. In the second, Daniels-Carter sits atop a mustard yellow bulldozer, her hand on the steering clutch as she peers down at the lens. Though her face is cast in shadow, she exudes delight from the driver’s seat. Taken at the end of a workday, the photos depict an empty construction site where Daniels-Carter would soon open her first Burger King. “I remember sitting on that piece of dirt and thinking that in less than six months it would be transformed,” says Daniels-Carter. “And my friend [behind the camera] said, ‘Valerie, I can’t see what you see.’ And I said, ‘You may not see it now, but just keep watching.’”

The memory of the day makes Daniels-Carter laugh. She has a resonant, infectious laugh, one that is knowing and encompasses both joy and contentment. That plot of dirt marks an origin story for V & J Foods Inc., the company Daniels-Carter founded with her brother, John Daniels Jr. What started as a single Burger King in Milwaukee would eventually grow to a franchise empire that includes over 100 restaurants across five states and reports close to $250 million in revenue annually.

Over the years, whenever Daniels-Carter, who serves as V & J Foods’ President and CEO, was asked whether she would consider moving the company’s headquarters to another state, she’d think about those images. Outgrowing Milwaukee was never the point. The goal, says Daniels-Carter, has always been to build a Milwaukee-based company that exemplifies what’s possible for Black Wisconsin entrepreneurs. “I’ve made a conscious decision to stay in Milwaukee and make a declaration that African Americans can be successful here,” she says. “If somebody doesn’t stay in Milwaukee to change it, how will it change? It starts with someone staying home, so that’s what I’ve done.”

Daniels-Carter at the construction site of her first Burger King franchise in 1983; Photo courtesy of C-Destiny Productions LLC

Daniels-Carter, now in her 60s, has an alto voice and a warmth that radiates even over Zoom. She’s a natural storyteller and likes to tease out the sights and sounds in each memory she shares. But Daniels-Carter is also careful with her words and begins many of her stories with the same refrain, “I can tell you this,” as though some details will forever remain private. This formality perhaps comes from years inside corporate boardrooms where Daniels-Carter, often the only Black woman at the table, had to defend her place among mostly white, male colleagues. But she says that fact never deterred her. She knew her worth, and her parents taught her to dream big.

With six brothers and a sister, living in a house at 44th and Hampton also filled with extended family, Daniels-Carter knew the importance of the hustle. “I knew we needed resources,” she says. “Everybody had to carry their weight.”

Daniels-Carter drummed up her first gig at 6, when she went door-to-door and offered to walk her neighbors’ younger children to school. “For $1.25 per week, I would walk a kid to and from school every day,” she recalls. “I told them there are dogs on the path and lots of other things their kids might be afraid of and I could make sure they got back and forth safely. Thankfully, no one ever tested the waters to see if I really could fight because I couldn’t.”

A budding entrepreneur, Daniels-Carter also teamed up with two of her brothers to offer neighbors seasonal services such as snow shoveling and leaf-raking. She was always the salesperson while her brothers did the labor. “The cut was each brother got a dollar, I got two, and one went into savings” says Daniels-Carter. “If anyone needed money [from the savings], we would agree to a loan. But my brothers always spent their money and wanted to dip into the savings. I told them they had to learn about preserving what they had.”

The Townsel and Daniels families, including Valerie in light-colored top at right; Photo courtesy of C-Destiny Productions LLC

By high school, Daniels-Carter graduated to better-paying gigs. She worked in the county parks department in the summer and as a secretary for the U.S. Army recruiting office during the school year, a job Daniels-Carter says taught her the value of an authoritative attitude. She also worked throughout college at Lincoln University in Missouri, a historically black institution where she was recruited to play basketball. When Daniels-Carter returned to Milwaukee in 1978, she was drafted to the Milwaukee Does, a short-lived professional women’s basketball team. She turned down the offer and instead took a job as banker at First Wisconsin National Bank. “There were so many uncertainties in women’s basketball, and I needed more clarity. I also needed to support my widowed mother,” says Daniels-Carter, whose father, John, died when she was a senior in high school.

After working as a banker for a few years, Daniels-Carter set her sights on starting her own business. Her father owned his own heating and cooling service, and he instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in his daughter. So when Daniels-Carter heard that the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s nonprofit Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition in Chicago had signed an agreement with Burger King outlining the company’s promise to increase its number of Black Burger King franchisees, she saw her chance.

By the time Daniels-Carter considered becoming a Burger King franchisee in the early ’80s, several fast food chains had spent the better part of a decade expanding their mostly suburban restaurants into American cities. Companies like McDonald’s and Burger King sought out Black franchisees to help them build trust in Black communities and grow their urban footprints. And for Black franchise owners, their restaurants were “anchors in their communities in many ways,” says Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown University and the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. “They were places Black people could patronize. They were places that provided jobs to residents. They could also support local Black organizations and philanthropies.” And, says Chatelain, Black-owned franchises also offered a space where Black patrons felt welcome and where they could eat without fear.

But first, Daniels-Carter had to raise nearly $1 million to buy the Burger King franchise rights and build the restaurant. (Her brother John agreed to be her partner and joined the investment pool. He remains a partner in V & J.) “I was saving every nickel and dime to come up with the money,” recalls Daniels-Carter. “I sold everything I owned – I sold my car. Unless it was attached to me, it was for sale.”

No one better understood how badly Daniels-Carter wanted to open the restaurant than her husband, Jeff. The two had grown up just blocks from one another but did not meet until Daniels-Carter returned from college. “He was so supportive. For years I wondered why he worked this second job,” recalls Daniels-Carter. “Then on my wedding night, his gift to me was a savings account where he’d deposited every check he’d earned from his second job. And he said to me, go start your business.” Daniels-Carter smiles as she recalls the memory. “Of course, we had a wonderful wedding night after that.”

Daniels-Carter and her husband, Jeff, in 1996; Photo courtesy of C-Destiny Productions LLC

Between her savings and a sizable loan, Daniels-Carter had the capital she needed by 1982. She broke ground on her first restaurant that same year. “Those first few years were very challenging,” she says, “but I was committed to my vision.”

Her commitment paid off. Six months after Daniels-Carter opened the Burger King in Columbus Park, she was approached about opening a second location. Over the next several years, V & J Foods added seven more Burger Kings across Wisconsin. After that, Daniels-Carter expanded the company to several locations in Michigan. In 1997, Pizza Hut asked if she was interested in running a suite of restaurants in upstate New York. By 1998, she counted 32 Burger Kings and 67 Pizza Huts among V & J’s portfolio, which made Daniels-Carter the head of the largest minority-owned franchise company in the country.

But the work was not without challenges. “At the time, there were very few Blacks in franchising, and even fewer Black women,” says Daniels-Carter. “And you know, it just was not a comfortable environment. I would go into owners’ meetings and people would think I was there to serve food. You had to have tough skin and understand who you were despite what others may have thought.”

Valerie Daniels Carter (Photo by Nick Drain)

As Daniels-Carter’s business grew, so did her clout within corporate Burger King. She recalls one meeting where owners were voting on Burger King’s marketing strategies for an upcoming campaign. When she noticed that the ads only featured white actors, she spoke up and asked about including Black actors. “When I did that, their response was, ‘Well, we hadn’t thought of that,’” says Daniels-Carter, who also pushed for Black toy figurines in children’s meals and menu modi cations that would better reflect the tastes of Black American consumers. “That’s why it’s important that we’re in the room and at the table,” she says. “For me, it was not just about running my restaurants – it was about being able to challenge the system to do the right thing and sometimes having to stand up to a defiant system that was not eager to think outside the box.”

Sometimes that required going further than a board room discussion. In 1988, a Burger King representative dropped in to check up on one of Daniels-Carter’s restaurants. When the representative led their report, they knocked the location for giving an incorrect greeting. Rather than saying, “Hi, welcome to Burger King. How may I help you,” the woman working the drive-thru had instead said, “Hey, how you doin’? What you want today?” When Daniels-Carter got wind of the report, she took a stand. “I had to challenge them on that,” she recalls. “I said, that greeting is not how we talk in our community. Our customers appreciate the way we welcome them because they know it’s real.” To prove her point, Daniels-Carter hired an independent company to survey her customer satisfaction; her ratings were higher than the average Burger King location.

“In a world that was not necessarily geared or designed for her, Valerie always proved her excellence,” says Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, Daniels-Carter’s younger brother and founder of Holy Redeemer Church on the North Side, which Daniels-Carter attends.

“She has tenacity and a strength that is deeply embedded in her.”

While Daniels-Carter’s grit was on full display at work, a sudden personal tragedy threatened to erode it. The news came in the winter of 1999 when she was sitting in a Summerfest board meeting – Daniels-Carter served on the festival’s board for nearly a decade. She was told that there was a police officer on the phone for her. They told her there’d been an accident and that an officer would drive her to the scene. But before the officer arrived, two of Daniels-Carter’s brothers showed up. They drove her to Hentzen Coatings, where Jeff worked. Daniels-Carter noticed that his empty truck, which sat out front, was running. “I thought that was really weird,” she says. Her brothers told her that Jeff had started his car to warm it up but returned inside and offered to help a colleague clear snow from the roof. While on the roof, Jeff fell through a skylight and died from the fall. “It just shattered my life. But I said to myself, I have two choices. I can sit here and wallow in sorrow or I can get up and do something positive to make sure I move forward.”

Daniels-Carter did just that. In the years following her husband’s death, while raising a 5-year-old son, she continued to grow V & J, including partnering with NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal in 2007 to run 14 Auntie Anne’s Pretzels locations, as well as five Häagen Dazs, four Coffee Beanery stores and several Captain D’s seafood restaurants. She also created Nino’s Southern Sides, a soul food restaurant named for her late brother in Shorewood. V & J declined to answer questions about the size and locations of its current operations, but at its height, V & J owned close to 160 restaurants, according to published reports.

“For young African Americans in Milwaukee,” says Deborah Allen, a former McDonald’s franchisee and longtime friend to Daniels-Carter, “Valerie exemplifies what’s possible.”

Fast food, however, is not a business sector without criticism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are more likely to eat fast food than any other racial group in America. That’s one reason why fast food is also seen as the culprit for the high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease within the Black community. Daniels-Carter doesn’t see it that way. “Everyone wants to be healthy; no one wants to be sick,” she says. “The brands I deal with are very committed to offering the highest-quality product to the consumer. The fast food industry gets a bad name for not carrying healthy foods when they really do.”

Daniels-Carter with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Michael Jordan at the opening of the Daniels-Mardak Boys and Girls Club in 2004; Photo courtesy of C-Destiny Productions LLC

And there’s the issue of pay. Working 40 hours a week at minimum wage – the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 for the past decade – nets an employee $15,080 for the year, a salary just above the poverty line for a household of one. But Daniels-Carter says she pays her employees above-average wages – she declined to offer specifics – and says her goal is always to help employees build wealth. (Several employees within V & J corporate ranks began their careers at one of Daniels-Carter’s restaurants.)

But no single Burger King, or even 50 of them, can solve sweeping, systemic issues rooted in American poverty. “The criticisms are fair, but it’s important to keep in mind that fast food is a portal to bigger issues like economic and racial inequalities,” Chatelain says. “Business owners alone cannot address the problems.”

On a particularly cold day in late December, I sit down to interview Daniels-Carter over Zoom. She wears her wedding ring around her neck in a large gold pendant that holds a picture of her son and his father, a talisman to keep her late husband close. Today, Daniels-Carter must prepare for her next episode of “The Power to Win,” a podcast and YouTube series she started during the pandemic. The series, says Daniels-Carter, is a way to pass down her wisdom to the next generation, a new chapter in her legacy.

In the introductory video for the series, a descending melodic line leads into a voiceover recording that tells the viewer to expect powerful words on both the business and spiritual worlds. Topics include “Taking on an attitude to win” and “Understanding the vision.” Daniels-Carter, who addresses the camera from behind a large desk, begins each video with a prayer before launching into her sermon-like lectures. Daniels-Carter was raised in the church and remains a woman of devout faith – something she cites as a central element in her success.

In her videos, Daniels-Carter swings from quiet recitations to loud, forceful directives encouraging her viewers to push forward with confidence. And with the new year fast approaching, she intends to look back at the numerous challenges of 2020. She herself lost a brother and uncle to COVID-19 earlier this spring.

Before she records her video, Daniels-Carter will first visit the construction site of IPAMA, or the Institute for the Preservation of African American Music and Arts. The new museum, located on the Holy Redeemer campus at 32nd and Hampton, will live in an 18,000-square-foot former manufacturing facility and celebrate Milwaukee’s Black artists and creatives. The museum is only the latest of Daniels-Carter’s investments in Milwaukee. Other contributions include building the Mother Kathryn Daniels Center, a community center on the church’s campus, and quietly donating a sizable sum to Milwaukee Public Schools to help schools shift to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When Daniels-Carter visits the IPAMA building site in just a few hours, she’ll do so as the general contractor – she now has her own construction management firm. She has already prepared a set of questions she intends to ask. They include reviewing architectural details and revisiting a steel quote, which she believes she can lower. “At this point, I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Daniels-Carter. “I’ve built over 100 restaurants. When I walk onto the construction site now, I shock them.” She leans back in her chair and laughs. “I really do.”

She’s not the green 20-something on the bulldozer anymore.