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QSR Interview | By Lisa Fey

Indy Survival
Independent operators Matt Andrew of Maddio’s Pizza Joint, Thom Crosby of Sharon’s Burgers & Fries, and Rodney Mason of Chicago Street Pizza talk about what it takes to run a successful operation.
Lonely mom and pop restaurants struggle against restaurant chains.

What does it take to succeed as an independent operator? Recently, Lisa Fey, group director of foodservice marketing for Coca-Cola, sat down with three entrepreneurs who are doing just that. Her conversation with quick-service veterans Thom Crosby and Matt Andrew and newcomer Rodney Mason touched on such topics as minimum wage, mandatory healthcare, menu trends, and financing.

All of you have made the decision to be your own operators. How did you come about that decision?

ANDREW: We spotted an opportunity to further develop the pizza industry and sort of create what we call the “next generation pizza joint.”

CROSBY: From our standpoint, each time that we would look at something that we could franchise, we thought, “Well that’s a pretty good idea, but we can do it better.”

What suggestions do you have for finding resources outside your skill or experience set?

ANDREW: Suppliers are critical. We take our strategic partners very seriously, whether they’re our food distributor, our marketing agency, our accounting agencies, or legal agencies, and so on. Those guys are integral to our business because we look to them not as extensions but as part of the brand.

For instance, we use a company called Roma as our distributor. We don’t have in-house purchasing experts nor could we ever afford to do that. So we rely on the executives over at that company to help us with our buying power and constantly monitor our prices.

It’s really just an exercise in working with your partners, at least the way we view it. The more successful we are as an independent, the more successful our partners will be.

CROSBY: We do training for all sorts of corporations through our Pal’s concept. A lot of the companies that participate are small, independent, start-up restaurants. They’re trying to figure out, “What am I supposed to be doing with the marketing, menu development, training?” A lot of them come after they’ve already almost wrecked the train, drove it off the track and they’re trying to figure it out.

We try to make sure they’re real clear on their goals. You first have to know where you’re going so you can pick the right partners. We also encourage them to look at the culture and the actual makeup and focus of partners they’re considering. You want to make sure you link up with the people who are legally, ethically, and morally correct, who have the same vision and passion you do.

On the training side, there are free resources. We encourage people to benchmark the best. Go to your local college or university, tell them what you’re trying to do. Usually somebody out of the business department will come right out to help you. We’ve seen lots of small independent chains have a great success that way.

Studies say 20 percent of independent operators fail within the first 12 months. What tips would you give to someone to help him break through that one-year mark?

ANDREW: Make sure you’ve got additional cash reserves for the things that you can’t foresee and you can’t project. It might take longer to get that plane off the ground. Cash is certainly king whenever starting any adventure, certainly in the restaurant business.

MASON: While you’re building your store, get your sign on your building from Day 1. If it takes you six or eight weeks for your permits, that’s free advertising that’s up there. It’s awareness.

Make sure, whether you need it or not, to get a Web site, a really simple Web site that has a blog on it with TypePad so that you can be posting comments, so that you rise on Google. If you’re on page one or two in Google—through the review sites and anything else—people are going to know of you because that’s how they’re looking for restaurants now.

Think about your menu. Actually, think about who your competitors are, how you’re priced. Make sure that you get your menu out in the market before you open. You got to get awareness. You can’t just open your doors and expect people to walk up unless you have something really special that they’re looking for.

You brought up the Internet. What role do you gentlemen see the Internet playing both from a Web-presence standpoint as well as online ordering?

CROSBY: I’ll start with the online ordering. That’s something that we’re against because you’re talking about introducing an order stream and a demand stream that the kitchen’s normally not set up for, especially during your busy times. You need somebody who’s actively monitoring that, which can become labor intensive from our point of view.

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