Utica woman runs several stores after becoming pregnant as a teen

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 29, 2018

UTICA (AP) — At 16 years old, Utica native Diane Liddell was pregnant.

“My mother was disappointed (at first), of course. And then my father was supportive and said, you know, ‘Whatever you need.’”

But Diane still had to take care of her child.

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“Me being as young as I was, the baby’s father was not supportive at all.”

Diane had a part-time job at a steakhouse; a summer job at a youth program; but she had her eye on the Church’s Chicken that had just opened up on Medgar Evers Boulevard in Jackson.

“Everybody was getting hired. I kept tackling the manager day after day after day. And then two years after I had the baby, he finally gave me an opportunity.”

Forty years later, Diane is still with Church’s — as the market leader for five stores in Mississippi and three in Louisiana.

“I’m kinda like self-driven,” she said.

Diane started as a cashier, learned basically every position and made her way to shift leader, assistant manager and general manager. That kind of advancement doesn’t just happen.

But, she said, “it’s kinda hard to say that Church’s is a challenge when you come from a family like I did.”

Diane was one of 10 brothers and four sisters. Her mother was a homemaker.

The older children and their father, Norman — who at 93 is still doing foundation work with one of his sons in Utica — picked cotton. From time to time, Diane would pick, too.

“And when you pick cotton in a cotton field, Church’s Chicken is like a breeze because you’re working in the air (conditioning).”

Even work-related disappointments didn’t keep her down.

While working for Church’s in Natchez, Diane started putting money toward buying a location of her own, as part of a program for exceptional managers.

She needed $25,000 and raised around $19,000 — then the company was sold and the program ended.

“That didn’t discourage me, because I’m all about the people (I serve),” she said. Plus, she had a nice chunk of change. She kept some in savings and used the rest to move back to Jackson, where she worked her way up at another Church’s location.

Two and a half years ago, she reached the position of market leader. And if you’re wondering what a market leader does (besides lead a group of restaurants), it’s the same thing any Church’s employee should do, she said:

“It’s all about taking care of people at the end of the day.”

Diane’s son Patrick, the child she had as a teen, died in 2011. She has a son and a daughter, Adrian and Jasmine Mitchell, who live in Jackson, and five grandkids.

“I’m still a single parent. I guess (the men in my life) said, ‘You gotta either choose Church’s or me,’” she said with a laugh.

Over the years, she brought home a lot of Church’s food home at night. When asked if her kids ever got sick of it, she laughed and said, “I think so.”

Her favorite thing to eat from work? “A spicy chicken leg and a pepper. It’s got to have a pepper with it.”

In Diane’s early days at Church’s, “you had to take the electric saw and actually cut 200 chickens a day,” she said. But otherwise, the biggest challenge she faces is “getting (my employees) to realize who they can become within themselves.”

Diane has one of the highest success rates in Church’s for getting colleagues through the company’s Stride for Success program, which pays for employees to earn their high school diploma.

Participants complete their studies online at their own pace — but if they’re under Diane, she holds them accountable.

“I would have them sending me texts and screenshots (of their work). (I’d say,) ‘Where you at?’”

One of her employees earned her diploma in just six months.

“I have promoted two RGMs (restaurant general managers) and two ARGMs (assistant managers) who have completed the program,” Diane said. “We’re getting ready to have a big graduation celebration.”

Encouraging her colleagues toward success is rewarding — “especially when (the employees’) kids come in and run up and hug me,” she said.

Diane also does everything she can to make customers happy. Her advice? “Always let them know that we work for them.”

Oh, and another piece of advice: “Don’t serve anyone anything that you would not serve to your grandkids.”

When she’s not working, Diane spends time with her own grandbabies, attends Springhill Christian Center under MJ and Stella Williams and is active in fundraising for churches and nonprofit efforts.

Her favorite part of her job is probably her favorite part of life, too: “Helping people.”