When challenges blew their way, this restaurant’s business plan kept them on course.
Editor’s note: This month, we’re sharing the stories of small businesses that have successfully navigated the startup process, and taking a look at what challenges they faced during year one and beyond.
We wanted to know: What growing pains do business owners face once they have opened their doors? What are their struggles and successes? Check back in next week—we’ll be telling the unique story of another small business.
It all started so well.
Mark Head and Abbie Shadrick’s business plan came to life in January 2015 with the opening of Tradewinds Café & Catering Co. Built with a “Mediterranean backbone,” Tradewinds gave Head a chance to experiment with a diverse geography of cuisine while giving customers a fulfilling experience.
Tradewinds was the first restaurant to startup through the Sprout! business incubator program in Springfield, Oregon. Through the Sprout! program, Tradewinds had two years to use a shared space in a prime downtown location, build operations, understand the financial ups and downs of the restaurant and catering business, and gain a following. These business development, startup coaching, and incubation programs are meant to provide entrepreneurs with resources, skills, and facilities to get new businesses off the ground and on the path to long-term economic stability.
“When we started, we said we wanted to sell food. We didn’t know what that food would be, though,” says Head. “That menu evolves every time we do something. Our plan was pretty loose, but now we’re refining it more and more. Our plan has helped us focus on vision so we have a clearer picture of the operation we want.”
While Tradewinds has had a rough patch, their business plan has helped them stay focused and motivated. It’s also helped them manage the notoriously difficult costs and profit margins of the food business. “We know what our portioning should be. In our plan, we had to do our cost analysis. What are we serving? What are the ingredients? What are those costs, and are we making money at our price point?” says Head. “How much business do we need in order to pay the rent, the electricity, the employees? How much capital am I going to have to generate to keep things above water? The planning has been huge there.”
The first couple months of operation were tough. It was winter and foot traffic was low. Other folks in the incubator space sometimes left the doors open for deliveries, driving down the temperature inside the building. Customers said they’d be back in spring, when they wouldn’t be able to see their breath while they ate. Some days, Tradewinds didn’t make a single sale.
Yet with food service experience in restaurant kitchens as well as operating a food cart for events since 2010, Head and Shadrick persevered. They used the time that winter to experiment and refine their menu. Catering gigs and a wholesale operation making and distributing hummus to local grocers kept the bills paid.
By March, spring was warming things up. Tradewinds began attracting steady customers who liked the Mediterranean-inspired menu. Lunch and dinner crowds were coming in to enjoy creamy gorgonzola and walnut wontons, gyro or falafel pitas, flatbread pizzas, or the signature “Medi Bowl,” a combination of rice pilaf, tahini sauce, Greek salad, and a choice of gyro, chicken souvlaki, or falafel.
Being in the Sprout! program provided some safety net. Instead of the higher overhead of renting and operating a regular commercial space, Head and Shadrick had lower costs in the incubator space, helping them ride out hard times while making smart decisions at a more measured pace. “The baby step aspect was a good thing that we did. Very low-level investment, but it gave us a chance to work together and see how that would work,” says Head. “We got to see the potential.”
While dedicated to customer satisfaction and making food people want, Head’s even nature also has a creative, experimental side. He wanted to provide not only favorites and standards, but also fresh ideas and dishes that might challenge a customer. “We could serve people and get feedback—is what we’re doing something people are interested in?” explains Head. “They were, and that reassured us that we were on the right track. It gave us a check and balance. We could try something, see what was effective, and that gave us the opportunity to develop it further.”
Soon Tradewinds had four employees. “We had prep shifts, staff employees, schedules,” says Head. “We were cranking out a lot of food. So it’s crazy to have had to put the brakes on.”
Wind knocked out of their sails
Sprout! was designed to give businesses a limited time to build up and then move on. In October 2016, Tradewinds had completed their time in the program—but they had a slight problem.
Despite looking at many properties, they hadn’t been able to find a suitable permanent space. Available locations would require extensive renovation and investment. Together, Head and Shadrick examined their business plan and their priorities. They could potentially get the capital, but repayment and overhead would require bigger financials than what they had built into their business plan. “We had to ask ourselves if we could pack the house,” says Head, “but that was a big gamble that we didn’t feel ready for.”
Reluctantly, Head and Shadrick chose to pass up those available spaces. “It’s still in the back of our minds: should we have done it?” says Head. Sticking to their plan was hard. Not taking the gamble on a big investment was even harder, “but we made the right decision for where we were.”
Yet without a space, Tradewinds came to a standstill.
Shared kitchen cooks up new hope
The end of 2016 gave Head and Shadrick time to reflect on where they wanted Tradewinds to go next. They knew, however, they wanted to maintain their vision of starting small—just the two of them—and evolve and scale as they learned what worked and what didn’t. They also had encouragement: customers were disappointed about Tradewinds leaving Sprout!, but they expressed their love of the food and wanted to be in the loop once Tradewinds had a new space.
In the beginning of 2017, Tradewinds saw an ad saying that Alpine Catering in nearby downtown Eugene was looking for someone to use their space outside of their daytime hours. Tradewinds would only be able to use the kitchen and dining space during the evening—so no lunch hours—but it would get them back in the game.
Head and Shadrick jumped on the opportunity. By February they were making and selling food again. In March, Tradewinds celebrated their grand reopening:
So far, they are off to a good new start. Even with trying circumstances, Tradewinds has kept its focus on quality—and on treating customers right. “The customers are the people who give you a reflection in the mirror,” says Head. “We get to see the reaction customers have, and they reacted when we left Sprout, and when we got our own place.”
When people are at Tradewinds, Head and Shadrick have also been making sure to chat and say how good it is to see them. “That’s keeping them coming back, and it’s bringing new customers through the door.”
Working for today while building for tomorrow
As Tradewinds rebuilds, Head and Shadrick aren’t just focusing on the day-to-day operations—they’re looking ahead and considering permanent locations. They want to move into a dedicated restaurant where they can offer lunch, dinner, and drinks, along with to-go options and off-site catering. They want to have the space to accommodate the larger staff required to help in the kitchen and to staff catering events. During hours when the kitchen is closed, they also plan to make it available to startup operations, to pay forward the help they’ve received.
Head and Shadrick also remember to play to each other’s strengths—which is all the more important, since for now it’s just the two of them. They’ve had their tense moments, but they also worked through conflicts by remembering that they were working on Tradewinds together. “We have our strengths and weaknesses,” says Head, “and we help each other, pick each other up where the other is short.”
They are also focusing their cooking on where they want the restaurant to be in the future. Inspired by the cuisines of cultures along Asia’s original Silk Road, they have a wealth of culinary traditions to work with—along with the innovative and creative approach that are the heart of Tradewinds.
“They’re trusting our creativity and are excited about it,” says Head. “A lot of people won’t even look at the menu, they just ask for what the special is.” Once when Head told a customer that the special was a meatball parmesan sandwich, “she said that subs weren’t her thing, but she would try it because she trusted me. She later told me it was the best sandwich she’d had. The next day she came in for another.”
That trust is forming the bedrock that Tradewinds wants to build its future on—but not at a breakneck speed. “We’re trying to snowball it at a good pace,” says Head, sticking to their business plan. “[It’s] a true growing pain.”
A solid plan and a steady course
Their business plan has helped Head and Shadrick stay true to their top priorities and keep their focus. It also gives them peace of mind about the decisions that they have made so far. “There might have been some opportunities we should have taken that we didn’t, but I can’t think of a specific,” says Head. “Maybe there was a restaurant opportunity, a space, that we should have gone with. A space had come available, and that was a crossroads for us. Should we have done that? Maybe we could have, but would I change it? I don’t think so.”
Now that Tradewinds has a space again, Head and Shadrick are using their business plan, their affection for their customers, and their strong working relationship to build themselves back up. “At Sprout! we were growing weekly. We had employees, were just getting stable. Having to leave, we now have to rebuild clientele, and start pulling in more staff again,” says Head. It’s been hard, but he can see their course. “We want to have a fully functioning restaurant.”
Advice for a new restaurateur
As he reflects on his experiences so far, Head has some advice for others that are planning or in the startup stages of a new restaurant or other food business:
- Hone in on your passion. Do you have to do this regardless of anything else? If you’re solely driven by making money, this probably isn’t the right place to be. Do you really want to do it?
- Learn to train and manage people. Customers expect quality and consistency, as if the original owner was still putting out every dish. “You can’t just hire people and then go on vacation,” says Head. “Customers are expecting a particular product a particular way, and if things are different, your business will suffer.” A constantly absent owner can also be bad for morale: “Employees can start getting salty when the owner suddenly isn’t around anymore.”
- Decide if you have the time and dedication. When you get into this business, you might have to be working 60, 70 hours a week—and that might be a good week. Head says while at Sprout!, he and Shadrick were each working about 70–80 hours a week on average.
- Learn to delegate. Otherwise, you stay too caught up in immediate operations and stop having time to focus on bigger-picture business growth. That, warns Head, is the path to burnout.
- Learn all parts of your business. No job is more important than the next. “Everyone does everything. Front of house, back of house. You wash dishes, you sweep floors, you bus tubs. No one is more important, and that includes the owners and operators,” says Head. “We are doing exactly what they’re doing too. Nothing is beneath anyone. Somebody has a good idea? Bring it up. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea.” When staff sees owners in the thick of regular operations, it builds morale and encourages motivation, quality, and loyalty.