Small Business Week: Four Lessons From a Serial Restaurateur
It’s National Small Business Week, and Maddog’s Creamery & Donuts in Eastern Tennessee is enjoying a feat many businesses strive for: Opening a new location.
After two years of operation in Pigeon Forge, the brand just opened a second restaurant in Gatlinburg, a tourist town in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The old location made its name on ice cream and funnel cake. Owners Kelly Johnson, husband Jonathan Wimmer and father Bruce, serial restaurateurs and part of the Johnson Family of Restaurants group, decided the new locale would also offer house-made yeast and cake donuts. They opened the store in April 2016, just a few days before National Small Business Week in May.
“We enjoy learning new concepts,” says Kelly Johnson, whose restaurant group, founded by her father, has nine other eateries in the area. “We knew nothing about donuts other than we wanted to get into the business. After all, who doesn’t like donuts, especially while on vacation?”
Maddog’s Creamery is part of a long list of concepts for the family, including Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que, Alamo Steakhouse, Mama’s Farmhouse and Big Daddy’s Pizzeria.
All are popular destinations, especially Mama’s Farmhouse, which won the People’s Choice for Best Biscuit at the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville in 2015. The restaurant’s menu is based on Johnson’s great-great grandmother’s recipes.
Now is a good time for restaurants like Maddog’s Creamery to be expanding.
According to the Small Business Administration, the five-year survival rate for small businesses is the highest it’s been since 1994 — at 51 percent.
But it takes smarts, and determination, to be among that 51 percent … and to have built 10 successful restaurants.
Here are four lessons that Johnson has gleaned along the way:
Lesson 1: Know whose opinion really matters
You may be a foodie. But if your customer base appreciates simple concepts over more exotic ones, you need to listen. In one of her restaurants, for example, she offered a bone-in pork chop with a green apple chutney. The entree, while delicious, Johnson says, was removed after it was largely ignored.
“It’s not important what I think,” she says. “It’s important what the customer wants.”
Lesson 2: Treat your employees well
Small business entrepreneurs like Johnson do a little bit of everything out of necessity. But that doesn’t mean they can do everything. As employees are your front lines to your customers, treating them well will go a long way, she says.
“It’s important to remember that without your employees, you’re nothing,” Johnson says. “I can’t cook, bus the tables, seat you and serve you by myself.”
Lesson 3: Watch your money … and don’t be cheap
Straddling that line between being pennywise and future-minded is crucial, Johnson says. This is one of the biggest lessons she’s learned from her father, Bruce, who opened his first restaurant 25 years ago this year. She and husband Jonathan moved from New York City in 2001 to join forces with him, who then ran a four-restaurant business.
“A big lesson from my father is, ‘If you count the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves,'” she says. “Be aware of what you’re spending. Sometimes you have to invest money, but at the same time, you don’t have to be foolish about it.”
Lesson 4: Leverage every avenue for marketing
Johnson doesn’t have a marketing staff. But what she does have is free advertising with five brands. In addition to social media, she advertises her other restaurants via comic cards at diners’ tables.
“I’d be crazy not to cross pollinate,” Johnson says. “While customers are sitting at a table, they can see the Johnson family has a new concept for a new donut shop. And if they enjoyed themselves at one restaurant, they should probably enjoy themselves at another, too.”
Maddog’s Creamery & Donuts uses NCR Silver. To learn more about how this tablet POS system helps small businesses like this ice cream and donut shop grow, take a look here.
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