She followed an American soldier to the United States in 1963, knowing only how to say thank you, hello and goodbye in English.
Almost 30 years later, Erika McCurdy is 50 and the driving force behind the success of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant in Carolina Circle Mall.The restaurant this year reported $700,100 in sales, the highest in the restaurant's history. Had she achieved $67,000 more in sales, she would have won a new luxury automobile, a ``symbol of success' award given by Chick-Fil-A to operators who achieve 40 percent increase over previous record sales.
McCurdy became proprietor of the restaurant in 1984, leaving a job as manager of a Columbia, S.C. Chick-Fil-A. She worked her way up through the ranks, starting as a food prep employee in 1976 in South Carolina, then becoming a cashier, assistant manager and manager in succession.
During a recent interview McCurdy, her blond hair neatly coiffed, bubbles with energy. Her German accent is still thick after 30 years in the United States, although there is a slight hint of a North Carolina drawl.
``I don't ever want to lose my German heritage,' she said.
Being in business at all - much less for herself - is especially fulfilling for McCurdy who finished high school in West Germany at the age of 14. She had to drop out of business school after nine months at to work in a textile factory. McCurdy, who has two children, was raised in the southern West German city of Ulm as the ninth of 17 children. Her father was a soldier in World War II, which meant that the family had to travel from border to border during wartime.
McCurdy can tell chilling war stories.
During her childhood, as the family migrated from border to border, she remembers the family being transported by a wagon with four wooden wheels. The younger family members rode in the wagon, while older siblings pushed it. The longest trek, she remembers, was 79 miles to her grandmother's house. Her fingers and toes are crooked from frostbite suffered during cold winter migrations.
During six weeks of intensive bombing in Ulm, she remembers taking cover for six weeks along with 25 other families in a basement of the family home. German soldiers provided water and soup, their only food. There were no restrooms.
``What I remember the most were the colors of the sky. The sky was so blood red-looking from the bombs,' McCurdy said.
Today McCurdy says the problems that she has overcome, including a divorce five years ago that left her with no credit and few assets, weren't as bad as she thought at the time. ``I look back now and say there was nothing to it,' she said.
Joining Chick-Fil-A and acquiring her own franchise has been her saving grace, she said. The business challenges her. McCurdy says she puts in 12-hour days six days a week. She's oversees a staff of 27 employees who work two shifts.
``What I have accomplished in the past 14 years I am very proud of myself. I've enjoyed every minute of it,' she said.