Thomas Hollis, 37, the owner of a Burger King restaurant in Southeast Washington, was shot and killed in an exchange of gunfire with an armed robber one bitterly cold night six years ago. The suspect was also killed and Hollis' 15-year-old son was shot in the left leg and hospitalized for several weeks.
The shootings left Hollis' wife, Anna, with five young sons to support and a shattered dream.
Today, Anna Hollis, now 40, has mended that dream. Not only did she take over the Burger King franchise at 306 Southern Ave. SE, where her husband died, but she also owns a second Burger King on a heavily traveled stretch of Benning Road NE, and now wants a third restaurant.
Hollis is among only four black women who own one of the 115 fast food franchises located in the city. Another 22 franchises are owned by male minority members, said Kwasi Holman, director of the city's Office of Business and Economic Development.
Hollis decided to "make a go" of the restaurant during a hospital visit with her wounded son, Thomas Jr.
She and her husband had bought the franchise for the Southern Avenue outlet eight months before his death.
"I'd already been working part time for my husband, but when he died I was just left there holding the bags," she said. "At the time, I never dreamed I'd enjoy the fast-food business."
Hollis, a determined and energetic woman, has become a respected figure in the fast-food business that she "knew absolutely nothing about," but learned during long hours spent cleaning stoves and analyzing balance sheets.
Recently, Hollis has spoken out on behalf of black female entrepreneurs like herself. At a seminar sponsored by City Council member John Ray, Hollis recounted how most of the minority-owned franchises are located on the fringes of the city, instead of in more lucrative areas closer to downtown.
"There are so many minority areas that are untouched in downtown D.C., like around the universities, but the corporation hasn't offered another restaurant to me."
Burger King public relations director John Weir said the company encouraged its outlet owners to find their own sites. "We don't force anyone to take a site anywhere," Weir said.
Hollis works five days a week at the Southern Avenue restaurant, arriving by 8:30 a.m. She spends the next 10 hours working alongside her 22 employes, wrapping about 400 Whoppers, pouring 14 gallons of milkshakes, and slicing more than 200 pounds of potatoes to be made into crispy french fries.
She often works the same night shift that her husband was working on the night he was killed. In the event of an armed robbery, she said she feared not so much for herself: "Personally, my fear is for the safety of those around me."
The Southern Avenue franchise grosses an average of $55,000 a month and Hollis' profits range from $2,000 to $5,000 a month, she said.
But that did not matter when she went to the bank in 1980 to get a loan to open her second franchise. The bank required her to have a cosigner for the $260,000 loan.
The Benning Road branch began showing a profit for the first time last year, she said, because of stiff competition from a number of other fast-food shops that have sprung up around it. She predicted it will take another two years to pay off the remaining debt of $100,000.
"I've learned that it's not always better to have the greater number of stores," Hollis said. "I'm supporting that store from the Southeast profits."
"When I selected the site four years ago," she said, "there was only a Gino's and a Shrimp Boat on that road. Now, there are five chicken places within a few blocks."
Hollis and her late husband, who were married in 1969, had no formal business training. A native of Los Angeles, she had a high school diploma and was a supervisor at a cosmetics factory for 12 years.
Her husband worked at the same plant and they met there. They decided to go into business after they heard that fast-food outlets were a booming industry on the East Coast.
They moved to the District in 1977, following a short stint as owners of a skating rink in Detroit, Thomas Hollis' home town.
Although the couple planned to enter the business "as a team," all the ownership documents appeared with only Thomas Hollis' name.
"Burger King said they didn't see any problems when I told them I wanted the business" after the shooting, Anna Hollis said with a trace of bitterness in her low voice.
"But I ran that store for almost a year under my husband's name before they finally transferred the papers to me," she continued. "I had finally told them to either put the store in my name or take it away."
The ultimatum resulted in two weeks of training at Burger King's Miami headquarters, where Hollis learned accounting, machine repair and management.
Her home in Fort Washington has slowly emptied as her four sons have grown up. Only the youngest, Gerald, 15, still lives with her. Eugene, 23, works in southern California, while Danny, 22, has chosen to go into the family business and is currently training to be one of Hollis' six managers. Marcus, 19, is a student at the University of Maryland. These are her children from a previous marriage.
Thomas Hollis Jr., 22, was his father's son from a previous marriage. The younger Hollis, who was wounded in the holdup, has "recovered fine, but psychologically will always be scarred," his stepmother said. He has moved to his father's hometown of Detroit.
"My husband and I were going to buy several Burger Kings, and we said we'd retire at age 40," Anna Hollis said. "But I enjoy what I'm doing, and I'm nowhere near retiring. It's very gratifying to be a role model for black women. That's what makes me stick with it."