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How Melissa Strait Went From Restaurant Team Member to Executive

By Raj Prashad

“Start here, go anywhere.” If you ask Melissa Strait what that phrase means to her, she would point to how Arby’s has provided an opportunity for countless restaurant team members to fulfill their career aspirations. And Melissa is one of them.

She started working at an Arby’s in her hometown of Muskegon, Michigan, in the summer of 1984 as a restaurant team member while pursuing a degree in psychology at Hope College. She didn’t know it at the time, but working at Arby’s became the starting point for her 35-year career in professional development and human resources.

Melissa met with a counselor after deciding not to pursue her doctorate in psychology who suggested she explore a career in management. So, she returned home to work alongside her first boss, Steve Tripp, as an Arby’s manager and eventually partner in the franchise. Over the next 10 years, Melissa immersed herself in understanding the day-to-day operations of the business while helping Steve open and operate three new Arby’s locations.

When RTM Restaurant Group acquired Melissa and Steve’s restaurants in 1994, they hired Melissa as an Area Supervisor. Inspired by her background in psychology, Melissa sought out opportunities in training and development. She moved to Atlanta for a role in training, was promoted to Vice President of Training and Development by 2000, and later assumed the role of Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Development for Arby’s.

“I found that my background in operations and psychology helped me better understand and develop our team.” Melissa Strait, Chief People Officer, Inspire Brands

In 2014, Melissa was promoted to Chief People Officer of Arby’s, where she worked to bring the Arby’s culture to life by establishing new programs for team members rooted in goal setting and career growth.

One of the most important programs Melissa and her team supported was Brand Champ, an interactive training program that helps team members understand how to deliver on Arby’s brand purpose and set goals, both personally and professionally. To date, more than 300,000 restaurant team members have experienced Brand Champ.

Melissa supported the evolution of the L.E.A.D. program, which teaches restaurant shift managers and assistant managers how to create a professional development plan. To help general managers learn skills and behaviors beyond their day-to-day job responsibilities, Melissa’s team launched InspireU. She also introduced Dean’s List, a program that recognizes two general managers in each district for great performance and rewards them with a vacation to Disney World.

All of this has led Arby’s to become nationally recognized as one of the top places to work. In 2017, Fortune named Arby’s one of the 100 best workplaces for millennials, women and diversity — the only restaurant brand featured on all three lists.

Today, Melissa focuses much of her time on fostering a winning culture and organization at Inspire Brands, the fifth-largest restaurant company in the United States.

“Regardless of whether our team members stay with us long-term, or if they decide on a different career path, we want to provide them with the knowledge and skills to succeed.” Melissa Strait, Chief People Officer, Inspire Brands

To have culture that flows throughout every level of the organization is significant. It means team members feel inspired, valued and recognize their purpose.

“I’m so proud of everything we’ve built around culture and career development,” Melissa said. “It’s not easy to develop culture. But, when team members all over the country understand what it is, make real efforts to live our culture and bring our brand purpose to life, it shows in the service they provide to our guests and makes all the difference in their career growth.”