5 Lessons for the Aspiring Entrepreneur
By Ayinde Howell
In 1999, when I was barely in my 20s, I opened my first café in Seattle called Hillside Quickies Vegan Sandwich Shop. My thinking was that this was exactly what Seattle needed–a place to get hot fresh vegan sandwiches. The only problem was that I was the only one who thought that. Since I had worked in my parents’ business from the age of 13 (delivering cold sandwiches to stores in the surrounding area), I thought opening a café/restaurant would be a no brainer, right?
The first day I opened Hillside Quickies, I thought all the groundwork had been laid. A strong following in the area and brand loyalty would translate to “boucoup dollas!” (as my friend Lisa would say). However, the reality was that I sat behind a counter with my one-page menu and waited. And waited. And finally someone came in! They asked, “Oh, this is a new place now?” I said, “Yes! We are all vegan. Would you like to see…” At that point, they were already out the door. This happened about two more times, and then 12 hours later I closed and went home.
I cried a little and thought of a few things I could have done better. I thought I’d work on the atmosphere and perhaps have a cute college student greet people. But I was spent. I only had enough money to get in and get my return on investment ASAP. So I showed up every day and made small improvements to the look and service of the café. I was definitely learning as I went along, including what not to do. Like opening late and not be prepared for success: I was afraid to have a lot of prepared salads and side dishes in my cold case because I was afraid they would go bad and I would lose money. Here’s what else I learned.
Be fearless. It really does take money to make money and the thing we fear most is bankruptcy! Accept that as a possibility, and then forget it every day. Choose abundance.
Let the creativity flow. Once the fear is out of the way, the creativity can flow. I would play hip hop music very loudly in the morning to get in my groove and cook soup. It was during this period that I created the Crazy Jamaican Burger and the Flaming BBQ Burger. Learning flavor combinations and considering texture are things I learned by using my own palate. It’s as simple as asking, “What do I like?” A lot of people share my tastes and some don’t. You will never impress them all, but those who identify with you are gold.
You’re selling you! In the beginning, I partnered with my father to get the lease and business. To this day, I can count on one hand the number of times he has been in the establishment. I was the face and personality of the café. I was there everyday as the manager, cook, plumber and cashier. After a couple of years, the customer base grew and I was able to delegate one of my many hats. My oldest sister, Afi, moved back home and needed to make some extra cash so I hired her (bringing my employee total to 2). She became the pastry chef, effectively establishing a new department and position that paid for itself.
We reached the 2-year mark and everything was going well. Sandwiches were selling. Sweets were flying out the door. And then something happened–9/11. The whole country went into mourning. People stopped going out to eat. For a long time they turned to comfort food and away from new vegan ideas. Eventually we moved past that, and business began to pick up. But then a little cultural phenomenon called the Atkins diet happened. Yep, I was specializing in sandwiches, and the entire population saw bread as the devil, which brings me to my next lesson.
You’ll need stamina. I watched my till go down further and further day by day. My first thought was to ride it out. Bad idea. The tie in of healthy and vegan was not as publicized at the time. So we diversified wraps, created breadless sandwiches and more sides. We were doing research and development while open for business. I pushed my days to 16-18+ hours. After riding out multiple storms, a funny thing happened: every dish began to have it’s own following. The patrons began to bring their friend to try their favorite wrap or burger or cookie.
And now the most important lesson.
Apply what you’ve learned. At the time I had no idea I was acquiring all this knowledge of how to survive the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. I learned to manage the business better by using past patterns. I learned when slow season was, how much inventory I used and how many employees I could have and still make a profit.
At the time, what almost didn’t register was that I was being an artist and a free spirit. I decided after the 5th year to turn over my half of the cafe to my sister. I moved to NYC and after a few years of making indie films, CD’s, touring and acting school, the recession happened. I took shelter in a familiar place–the kitchen; this time at my yoga center, Jivamukti. They had a fledgling cafe with good-hearted folks, but lacked experience.
I refused the position of executive chef at Jivamukti several times but eventually saw that the community wanted and needed a source for good vegan food. So I accepted the position and its challenges. The new players were a Manhattan-sized budget, 14-person staff, and no firepower in the kitchen to the pot (pun intended). But with my earlier foundation, I was able to take a large headache out of the equation. As a famous poet once said, “Mo’ money mo’ problems”…and more fearlessness.
A lifelong vegan and health advocate, Ayinde Howell is committed to his craft and his community. As a green entrepreneur, he has served as executive chef, restaurateur and blogger. He tries to reach as many as he can with his message of greener, kinder living. His latest venture is http://www.ieatgrass.com/ — a vegan lifestyle site.