When Julia Stewart was a 16-year-old waitress at the International House of Pancakes, she used to take orders. Now she dishes them out.
She is the new president and chief operating officer of IHOP. It has been quite a journey from refilling cups of coffee and flavored syrup jars to winning the 1999 Woman of the Year Award in the food service industry, but Stewart puts it in simple terms.
"I am living the American dream," Stewart said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "I think I always knew I wanted to run a company. I don't know if specifically at the time it was International House of Pancakes, but I always had a dream to run a restaurant company."
As the head of the 1,001-unit chain,the 46-year-old executive will be in elite company. Only 6.2 percent of the top 2,662 executive jobs in the country belong to women.
Stewart's dream started 30 years ago when she was a teenage IHOP customer, growing up in California. Fascinated by how the waitresses managed to take so many orders and keep them all straight, Stewart took a waitressing job at an IHOP in San Diego at age 16. Right away, she loved the instant feedback from customers that let her know whether she had done her job well or not. A love of the food business got into her blood and never left.
The McDonald's Masher
As a senior at San Diego State University, Stewart invented a gadget that helped jump-start her career. For her senior project in her advanced marketing class, she had to come up with a device associated with McDonald's that would cost less than $40.
Her idea: the "McDonald's masher," a tool that mashes out hamburger patties in the shape of the Golden Arches. It won the class prize, and because it was a slow news day, a local TV station picked up the story of her invention. A man who saw the TV spot offered Stewart a job running his in-house advertising, and her career was off and running.
Stewart still has the masher, buried somewhere among boxes in her basement. Despite her husband's protests, she has carried it with them on each of their 14 moves.
Donning Waitress Uniform, Again
Stewart launched a career in marketing for restaurants, and rose through the ranks in that field for 15 years, but never lost her dream of running a company. Since it was difficult to go from marketing to management, she decided to take a few steps down the corporate ladder so that she could learn how to run a company from top to bottom.
Stewart became a manager at a Taco Bell. She went from wearing business suits and working at a desk to wearing a polyester uniform and a big ring of keys as she worked nights and weekends at the fast-food restaurant.
Her former colleagues thought she was nuts.
Before long she had moved up the ranks, and eventually became the head of licensing and franchising for Taco Bell Corp., overseeing 5,600 Taco Bell restaurants. In 1998, she served as the president of the domestic division of Applebee's, a $2.6 billion corporation that is the largest casual dining chain in the United States.
When her latest job was announced, Stewart asked for 90 days to re-learn the business from the ground up.
She was always drawn to her original stint as a waitress and believes you have to go back and meet with the people in each job category to understand what they do, and what motivates them.
So as part of her tour of the chain's restaurants, she will be donning the restaurant uniform, and cooking and waitressing once again.
"I think for the rest of my life, I'll always visiting restaurants and probably, from time to time, be working in them," Stewart said. "Because you get from the ground up exactly what's going on. "
After all this time, her favorite pancake on the menu is still a traditional one: pigs in a blanket, which is four link sausages tucked into four buttermilk pancakes. Her son, who is 4, likes the chocolate chip pancakes. Stewart says he recently asked mom to pull some strings at work to get the recipe.
"Mom, I love you, but why can't you learn to make that at home?" he told her.