On January 23, 2019, a group of interested folks turned out to Cowork Gloucester VA to hear speakers for the Getting Started in Business and Facing Obstacles event, which featured Gloucester Main Street business owners Gary Ward of Olivia's in the Village and Crystal Burton of Sweet Tooth Cafe & Bakery. Gary and Crystal spoke on starting a new business and what it takes for others to find business success as well.
Introductions and how they began their business:
Gary: We’ve been in business for 15 years now. Olivia’s opened in 2003 and Scoots opened in 2015. My background was in education. I planned to teach and coach and even be a PE teacher in high school. I had a cousin who owned a restaurant in Richmond, and they needed a manager. I worked there for six years. I learned a lot about fine dining, and it was a successful business. I fell in love with it.
There used to be a restaurant at Gloucester Point called ‘Shuckers.’ One day a friend called to tell me that the owner wanted to sell it. I bought it and well, so far so good.
Crystal: I went to college and graduated from Christopher Newport University. I was a Probation and Parole officer for about 12 years. I did a lot of baking at home. Around my eighth year, I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t have the room. It was overtaking my house. I found a little spot in the Morgan Building on Main Street where Jessica’s Sweet Shop used to be. Six months later another café joined me, and we were open for business all of the time.
In 2014 came the Launch Gloucester campaign. I applied for it and went through the intense process that it was. It was amazing. I was the grand prize winner. It allowed me the funds available to go right on Main Street. We moved locations and went full scale.
Courtney: For anyone not familiar with Launch Gloucester, can you explain what that is?
Crystal: At the time, the Governor demanded an award for 3 locations. Gloucester was picked. There were eight intense weeks of classes. It was like Shark Tank in front of judges presenting our plan. It was for any New Business, Existing Business, or second location. I qualified as a new business/second location. There were 43 applicants: They accepted 16, 10 graduated, and 6 opened businesses on Main Street. Margie Johnson was the consultant and walked us through the process for three years.
Question 1, Courtney: In your first year of business did you face any negative feedback. If so, how did you handle it?
Crystal: We started in 2015. I had a whole year’s worth of negative feedback. When I opened the business, I had no clue what I was doing. I wouldn’t even go on my Facebook page because I didn’t want to see what people were saying. We had complaints about everything; staff that was rude to the customers; they destroyed your product, or they didn’t care about your business; everything from A-Z. The first year is probably the year that ALL business will give you negative feedback because you’re learning what they want and what they expect from you. -How to do things the right way. I’ve learned from a lot of feedback. We still get negative feedback occasionally. But not like we used to.
Gary: It was a little bit different for me, coming from an existing restaurant. I had learned some of the things pitfalls and what not to do. When you’re dealing with the public and have a product that’s made to order on demand, you’re going to get negative feedback. For me, we just had to knock it down as it came. We were also lucky when we bought Shuckers. We left it under their name for the first three months to learn what was going on and just soaked it up. Then we transitioned it over to Olivia’s and changed the menu. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to do what Crystal did from scratch.
Olivia’s it’s not like food that you would cook at home regularly. In contrast, the food at Scoot’s is like stuff that you would make at home in your back yard. So I tend to get a lot of feedback there. It’s comical sometimes. I accept and understand it. Because it depends on what you grew up on and what region of the country you lived in. Everyone has their little way of doing it. They feel good about the way that they make their recipes. I thank them for their input.
Question 2, Kevin: In any Business, we look at advertising. What have you found to be the most successful in Gloucester; social media, website, mailers, etc.?
Crystal: First, word of mouth is always the best. Facebook is second. I have tried several types and have never gotten the feedback from other attempts as I do Facebook and word of mouth.
Gary: I agree with that. I learned that if you make good food. Treat people right. That’s your advertisement. It worked for my cousin for some years. I will say, now that you have more businesses open up, you do see the importance of being open and saying ‘Here’s who we are. Here’s what we offer.’ That said, without a doubt, being in a restaurant, knowing the people is networking. The one thing that I have found that works better than that is social media. Sometimes it’s because our peers support us, but we can put a picture on Facebook and say Fettuccini tossed with shrimp and scallops in a lobster cream sauce, and I accent it with cognac or something. I will have 1-5 people come in that night or the next day because they saw that picture. There will also be comments of others saying that they are coming in, even if they can’t do it right then.
Question 3, Courtney: We all know that a good support system both personally and professionally is important. What do your current support systems look like and how have they evolved.
Gary: Our support system is family; Karen, my wife, the cousin that I worked with, employees, even my sales rep. The first rep had previously been in the restaurant business. He was someone that I bounced ideas off of. Beyond that the community. I was lucky. I grew up here. My parents grew up here. So I had a bit of a head start opening up, where people were willing to help us out in whatever way that we needed.
Crystal: I would say my support system would be family- my husband, Jason, of course. He was there from the beginning — my children who work inside and out to help out. I also have a lot of friends that have been behind me 100%. We’re also fortunate because we’re on Main Street. I feel like we’re spoiled a little bit because we have all of the wonderful things that Main Street does and so we get to be a part of that.
I have to put out there that between Jenny Crittenden and Margie Johnson [with the Main Street Association] being there when I first started, they were my biggest cheerleaders. Whenever I had issues, I went to them and some of the people in the Launch Gloucester campaign. We were able to piggyback off of and support each other. We still do it to this day.
Gary: That’s a good point. It wasn’t so much when we started, but since we’ve been on Main Street, the Main Street Association has been incredible. It’s to the point that often I feel a little bit bad because restaurants tend to get the greatest benefit out of what they’re doing. They bring the people in, and when they get there, they are going to eat. I tell everybody that it’s unique. Most towns and cities can’t do it because the tax base can’t support it. So, to have a group that has this money that has been funneled to them to support Main Street with gift-grants and other opportunities is special.
Question 4, Kevin: Company culture is a big buzz phrase right now. Talk about your company culture and what that means for you in your organizations. How you got there and what you learned to help you establish that?
Gary: Employees are the biggest challenge. You have to be aware of the market that you’re in. When you’re dependent on people daily, you have to learn your employees and what they’re capable of. There is a give and take. There is not a day that goes by between restaurants that I don’t get a text or phone call because someone is late or there is an issue. There is a lot of counseling. The culture is that we try to support the staff members. I try not to be too negative about it. I try to see the good in everyone. We all make mistakes for sure. We try to talk through and diffuse any issues that arise.
As for culture, it’s a little bit of a family atmosphere. When we first opened, it was Karen that had a great philosophy. She told all of the staff members that we want them to feel like this is your house. Treat them like a guest when they come in. It’s the feel we’ve taken from the beginning, and you tend to treat people a little bit differently when you look at it that way.
Crystal: I’d say the same. Our staff isn’t as big as yours. We all have our days, and sometimes you have to give more grace. You have to handle it because you’re the owner and things still have to be taken care of. As far as turnover, pretty much all of my staff has been there for a while, but in this type of business, you will always have turnover.
Gary: That’s a great point. I’ll add to that. I think it’s important for anyone that is going into business. Consistency is really what is so important in business. One of the things that have allowed us to be consistent is employee retention. You will see that we have pretty much the same staff. We have one server that has been there for 15 years. Two for 13 years. One cook for 10 years. So they all know how we like to do it. They know the customers and what they drink before they even sit down. That’s why I try to be understanding with a lot of issues, because I would rather work through a few smaller problems and headaches with a little extra work on my part.
For example, we really understaff on the floor sometimes. It’s a philosophy that we’ve taken up front. I would rather that they make more money than flooding the floor with extra servers. Then they don’t make anything. There’s a lot of turnover, and they don’t stay. By my being available to fill those gaps, to get drink refills, clean tables, and answer the phones, keeps that extra person off the floor. So the ones that are working stay.
Question 5, Courtney: Would you say that’s your biggest challenge, staffing?
Both replied: Yes.
Crystal: What would be your next challenge if it wasn’t that or what would be number two for businesses that don’t have employees?
Gary: The Consistency part. If you have a product, to be able to consistently put it out in front of the customer and have it be the same gets you the reputation that you want and the sales you need. It may not be that way for other businesses. If you don’t have a product, you’ll have to figure out how to go after those people. Grab them and tell them why your product is better than others and why they need it. For me, people have to eat. There’s an inherent advantage in that.
Question 6, Courtney: What one greatest piece of advice would you say to a new business owner that was about to take that leap?
Crystal: If you can’t be in it 100% don’t do it.
Courtney: Because you went into it with a full-time job and I know that was a challenge?
Crystal: And I almost lost it. I came very, very close to going under. I had a tremendous staff, but there were challenges, and I was trying to manage it by phone while working a full-time job.
Gary: I would say everything plus do a lot of research. I am a numbers person. So really think about what it takes for you to pay the bills. List all of your expenses and what you expect to have. Be realistic. If you’re doing a business that is also available somewhere else, look and see how they’re doing. Follow some of the things that they have done. But definitely, do a lot of research. Don’t be too enamored with the idea that you’re just going to open a business.
Crystal: And to add to that. A true Entrepreneur is always out looking for new ways to better their business. I know for me, I am always searching for new ideas. -Things to make and ways to be more successful. No matter what you do or where you go.
Courtney: Now is the time for Q&A from the audience.
Audience Member 1: On the other side of that, was there a cool surprise that you didn’t expect?
Gary: I am always surprised by the support that we do get. It’s pretty humbling. I went into it expecting that I’d stay in business. But to be in the food business for 15 years is at times, surprising. Sometimes you wonder how long it will last. That has been a good surprise for sure along with all of the support.
Crystal: A surprise for me would be that when I look back to three years ago. I never thought that I’d be where I am now. -How much the business has grown. There are so many wonderful things that have happened because of the business.
Gary: Some surprises don’t work out so good also, like Olivia’s in Urbanna. That was a two-year surprise. A gentleman that owned the building in Urbanna approached me and said I have space. I’d love for Olivia’s to come to Urbanna. It was only $800 per month, which was for a pretty big building. For me, that was like nothing. How could I not do this? So, we opened it up. It was the third Olivia’s. That was in 2008. Then things started to tighten up with the recession. They had just approved a big development called Rosegill. I thought I was going in before that started. I thought it would be great to be the little family restaurant right outside of that development. But it never happened, and things went downhill quickly.
The first year, I knew that I should’ve left. We hired a full-time Chef. He had two kids and other staffing. So, you’re kind of reluctant to pull the plug on it because you know you’re going to have to get rid of ten to fifteen people. You’re hopeful things will get better. The second year it was just as bad. You’re just throwing money into it. I knew that I had to do this or it would take everything down.
Maybe trying to expand too much too quickly is a good lesson with a lot to learn from that.
Audience Member 2: In regards to your turnover in employees, what is your go-to for hiring? Do you have an HR department that finds employees? Do you do job postings on Facebook?
Crystal: We have a ‘Home Base App’ where all of my employees do their time clocks and scheduling. In that app, if I am looking for a dishwasher or a waitress, I can put that into the app. It fills everything out for me, and we can tweak it with the hours, etc. It then sends it out to all of the places that do job searches. Every time someone is interested, they will send you a Facebook Message. Then the messenger will reply that we’ll be back with you shortly. If they want to schedule an interview, it will also schedule it for you. It’s great.
Gary: That’s great! I’ve never heard of that. The only thing I’ve used is Craigslist and Facebook. On Craigslist, I’ve gotten broad range of really good people to some people that are on the west coast that want to come to make $12 hour as a line cook. It’s kind of odd. Luckily we don’t have a lot of turnover. So we don’t have to chase that down as much. Word of mouth helps and in our industry other restaurants will talk. They’ll find out from someone how much someone is making and go from there.
Courtney: That’s great. Is anyone else using any apps for hiring?
Audience Member: Not for hiring but for invoices and bookkeeping, I use an app called Harvest. It’s all in one spot. If you work on ‘time,’ you can put your hourly rate in, and it will build invoices based on that. It’s very inexpensive. It’s only around $12 per month.
[End of questions]
Audience Member: For those who don’t know me I am, Jennifer Haggerty, the Executive Director of the Gloucester Main Street Association. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Gary all of our lives. We even went to school together. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Crystal very well, over this past year as I’ve been in my role, along with the other businesses on the street. I can say this about Crystal and Gary, and they won’t say it for themselves, they are just genuine. So, whatever a person wants to do, whatever business you’re going to go in, be genuine. Be real. Be passionate about what you want to do. Anyone that knows either of them for five seconds knows that they are passionate about what they want to do and the community that they are in. That is one of the best pieces of advice for anyone working in business, for someone, or wanting to start one for themselves. Be passionate about what you do and be a part of your community.
I can tell you personally, that I have reached out to both of them not even at the thirteenth hour, more like the thirteenth minute, begging both of them to help me out with a situation where I needed food for an event. I’m sweating to death. They both, without batting an eye, made it work. So be sincere and genuine, and that will bleed through. People will see it. They will support you.
Gary: I wasn’t expecting that.
Crystal: Yes, this was one of those surprises.
Cowork Gloucester VA was founded in May of 2017 when Courtney and Kevin leased office space in the Teagle Insurance Business Park. This space is open to any business startup, owner, or entrepreneur that needs a quiet place to work, or the use of office amenities and resources, including networking. This event is the first of several other ‘networking opportunities and workshops’ scheduled for 2019. Be sure to check back. You won’t want to miss the lineup.
The next business workshop is: Launch Your Dream on February 22.
To take a tour or learn more about Cowork visit their website at http://www.Coworkgloucesterva.com
Courtney is the owner of Proximo Marketing Strategies a full-service digital marketing agency that offers a host of services ranging from creative and design to copywriting and SEO.
Kevin is the owner of KR Graphix, which offers a wide range of web, graphics, and print design services to local small businesses.
As for Chesapeake Bank, we have a strong team of advisors dedicated to Business owners. If you own a business or are considering starting one, please talk to our Business Development team about products and services that will help you run your business more efficiently.”