She’s managing young at Old Chicago

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Story and photos by Tori Grdina

When Jael Miller was offered a job as a hostess at Old Chicago, she was only 16 and already working two other jobs. She didn’t even apply, and she really wasn’t even interested.

But she interviewed anyway. And it ended up changing her life.

At 21, Jael Miller has worked her way up from hostess to service manager of the downtown Old Chicago in Lincoln. She’s the youngest manager in the entire company, which consists of about 100 restaurants.

“I’m sort of reluctant to tell people my age because I’m afraid that people will see me in a different light because of how old I am,” Miller said. “But my age has always been a struggle for me anyway because I’ve never really felt my age.”

Miller grew up quickly, detassling corn and working at Burger King at only 14 years old to pay for tuition at College View Academy, a private Seventh-Day Adventist school in Lincoln, which she chose to attend.

“I was raised in a very hard-working family,” Miller said. “My parents could have paid for new cars, or movies, but they made us work. If we needed something, we had it, but if we wanted something we had to work. And I don’t see it in a negative light, but in a very fortunate light.”

By the time she was 16, she was working a third job at DaVinci’s. It was actually there that she was offered a job at Old Chicago.

“The manager (of Old Chicago) at the time came into DaVinci’s while I was working,” Miller said. “I started talking to him and he asked if I needed a job. I said, no, since obviously, I had one, but he really wanted me to interview anyway.”

She took the job as a hostess for better pay, but nearly quit a few weeks later after being yelled at by a supervisor in the middle of a horrible shift. She decided to stick with it, and things went from bad to great.

“Some places are so fast-paced and impersonal, and I think the atmosphere at Old Chicago is different,” Miller said. “It’s more of a family thing than just going to work. It just becomes part of your life.”

And it became a huge part of Miller’s life – so huge that when her family decided to move to Michigan her senior year of high school, she stayed behind. She moved in with a friend until graduation, and then began living on her own while she continued to work and take classes at Southeast Community College. Miller also began rethinking her plans to become an elementary school teacher. She disliked school and began thinking she might actually enjoy being a manager at Old Chicago more.

“People there would call me ‘a lifer,’” Miller said. “I used to say, ‘No, I’m not!’ But the more involved I got the more interested in it I became.”

Miller began taking on more responsibilities at the restaurant. She moved up to a supervisor position, began doing the store’s inventory, and even sometimes skipped class to pick up shifts. Rather than “a lifer” people began calling her “Little Julie” – the name of the regional manager at the time.

I had a talk with my dad, and he said he didn’t understand the point of going through four years of school just to become a restaurant manager,” Miller said. “There was no reason I couldn’t be just as successful doing what I was already doing, especially since entry-level managers make more than school teachers.”

Miller’s father was a successful businessman who, like Miller, opted for a career with the company he already worked for rather than a degree. He’s now the president of Matrix Avionics, an aviation equipment company. Miller said her mom, who stayed at home when Miller was younger, received her college degree as a physician’s assistant when Miller graduated from high school.

“Sometimes I think I should have gotten a degree. I think education is very, very valuable,” Miller said. “And I may go back to school someday … but this is something I really wanted.”

Although Miller’s regional manager was initially concerned about hiring someone the same age as his children, her manager convinced him that Miller was right for the job. After all, she had already taken on most of the job’s responsibilities.

“It was good to see Jael start to get paid for everything she’d been doing,” said Danyelle Broady, who has worked with Miller at Old Chicago for three years. “Professionally, you’d never know she was only 21. She doesn’t let people push her around because of her age. She likes everything to get done and get done properly.”

Miller said that while her position commands a certain sense of respect, she likes to be the type of manager that shows how much she cares for her employees.

“I really enjoy what I do. I really love my job, and I want to be a part of making that for someone else,” Miller said. “I know it’s not a career for most people, but while they’re there I want them to have that experience that I had.”

According to Broady, Miller has been exactly that type of manager.

“She’s very easy to talk to on a personal level, and she makes an effort to show that she really cares about every single one of her employees,” Broady said. “And being younger, sometimes she understands what we’re going through in our lives better than some of the older managers.”

Miller only occasionally wonders if she made the right choice in deciding to step into “a big-kid” job at such a young age, while her other friends who are mostly college seniors are enjoying more leisure time and much different work hours.

“Sometimes I worry that I’ll look back and wish I had been more of a kid,” Miller said. “But that’s never really been my personality.”

Miller said she’d like to continue to work for Old Chicago for a long time, or possibly move to another company or a small business down the road just to get a different experience. She hopes that no matter where she works, she’ll do something that allows her to form connections with people, and something she truly enjoys.

“One guy said to me last week, ‘I don’t think anyone likes working at Old Chicago as much as you. It’s kind of nerdy, Jael,’” Miller said. “Maybe, but it’s been almost six years and I still love going to work every day.”

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