Parisian Eyes and Big Macs

Kari Swenson’s art studio is bright, even on a gray, rainy day. Collages, portraits, Vans and Converse shoes on canvases, words, messages, a skateboard, and color layer the walls of a space turned beautiful from a practice of passion. Spray paint, brushes and supplies are stacked in a converted kitchen pantry. Flat drawers reveal stacks of faces and papers, like friends playing peek-a-boo. 

Kari’s portraits are fun and funky, revealing depth through wallpapered words with accents of Washington and politics. Collages and large sprayed pieces hold layers of pink florals and tree branches that speak words loud and clear. Kari’s women are chic, with a Parisian flair and eyes and outfits that anyone would covet. In general, her art is interesting, personal--and it reveals a vibrant soul. 

Kari’s foray into art began several years ago, with a need for an open-ended outlet with no agenda and a class at Glen Echo. She created a large collaged canvas and was voted into a juried exhibit which boosted Kari’s confidence enough to continue this newfound passion. She now practices art daily, trading sofa time for studio time, and connecting with friends and family she loves by drawing their faces. It is surprising to hear that art sprang from her such a short time ago. 

Also surprising is the fact that Kari and her husband, Kenny Foster, own a portfolio of eight McDonald’s restaurants in the DC area, including one on River Road in Bethesda only a few blocks from their home. And, this is not a passive investment. Kari works in, and visits, McDonald’s most days, and she loves it. 

Growing up on the West Coast as the daughter of a college math teacher and a probation officer, Kari’s cool vibe has shaped her. She has strong California ties, but loves DC and calls it home after ten years of settling. Her husband, Kenny Foster, who is native to the Washington area, had some exposure to the McDonald's business when his mother took a job in PR after his high school and eventually was the owner/operator of a McDonalds on East-West Highway, across from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. 

While Kari and Kenny journeyed east from the coast, they added various business ventures to their experience. Kari’s love of fashion took her abroad as a buyer for high-end clothing and landed her a stint marketing for Tea Collection, a children’s clothing line. She founded a clothing store for “tomgirls” and the couple also opened a restaurant before children and stability pulled them to a more calculated lifestyle. The couple’s openness to risk and opportunity led them back to Bethesda, where they started McDonald’s training to own and operate their own franchises.

Photo: MCCC

McDonald’s was a logical and exciting opportunity for them. The stability of the company, its international footprint, and the ability to be part of something big prompted Kari to return to school for a business degree. “I always wanted to run a business. That was my goal. McDonalds is a good business,” she says. She has never looked back. Starting by “pulling buns” and working every job behind the counter, she now runs eight McDonald’s with finesse and passion. 

Montgomery County awarded Kari and Kenny the Green Business Innovators of the Year in 2019. Their River Road McDonald’s was the first and is still the only “green” McDonald’s in the nation, and they have creatively found ways to move the needle just a bit to do what they can for the issues about which they are passionate. Kari’s heart for recycling, energy cost savings, food safety, and employee retention stream out of her at the same speed and purity as her artwork. 

Kari’s love of people trickles through both her role as an artist and as a business owner. She pulls a picture she drew of a west coast friend with glasses a goatee for me to look at, giddy as she describes the details of his face and clothes. She’ll mail it to him soon. She next reveals an employee portrait--the face of someone who has worked at the River Road McDonald’s, and in Kari's words "she is beloved". She describes the community of workers there and how they are like a family to each other. Employees are so important to her. 

As we discuss the food industry, it’s trends and complications, Kari is excited about the future of McDonald’s and the shifts that will happen over the next few years. She beams with pride as the explains,“one thing that I love about McDonalds is that everyone is welcome. We have homeless, super wealthy, and famous people. The statistics show the breakdown of people who eat there is equal across all incomes. I love our neighborhood. It has so many successful and fascinating people who live here, and I love McDonald’s.”

Kari is fascinating, loyal and hard-working. She is a study on juxtaposition - east/west, business/art - that weaves beautifully and ironically together. She is inclusive and open-minded in a world where most choose sides. She is inspiring, confident and a leader in our community. Parisian eyes and Big Macs can be at the same table in her world and perhaps inspire us into this middle ground as well.