What’s behind Utah’s unique business climate that makes small businesses eager to support one another?

Franchises of support

What’s behind Utah’s unique business climate that makes small businesses eager to support one another?

This year, WalletHub named Utah the number one state in which to start a business. Perhaps that’s why small businesses account for 99 percent of all private enterprises in the state, according to Lincoln Business Group.

Those who know Utahns are fully aware that something unique—call it the pioneer spirit—lies behind these statistics and Utah’s unique business climate. Mike and Debbi Estrada, owners of Rooster’s Gourmet Popcorn, agree.

Small businesses supporting smaller businesses

The Estradas bought Rooster’s six years ago and have used “sweat equity” to make it somewhat of a household name in the state, they say. While still holding down full-time jobs, the couple, along with the help of their 12 employees and occasionally their grown children, run the business. They create recipes for unique popcorn flavors, produce the popcorn and tour the state in a truck to sell the popcorn, setting up tents and booths at all sorts of events. They also have a commercial kitchen and flagship store in South Jordan and a shop in the Murray Fashion Place mall.

Their work has paid off. The company has tripled its revenue within those six years, the Estradas say. “Between our hard work and always striving to be excellent at what we do, we’ve been able to just keep going,” Mike says.

It was Mike who first proposed buying Rooster’s. After their daughter served it at her wedding reception, he got hooked. He always wanted to have his own business, and the Estradas hope this will play a part in their retirement funding.

Rooster’s had 50 flavors when the Estradas bought it, and it now has 150. New flavors include cinnamon gummy bears, bourbon caramel, spicy caramel, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, Coke, key lime pie, licorice and—best sellers—buffalo wing ranch and dill pickle.

As they find success, the Estradas feel it is important to give back to their community. They often donate to schools and other fundraising events by selling their popcorn and giving a percentage of the profits to that cause. They also promote the products of several other small businesses at their South Jordan location.

When you visit the store, a giant, cartoonish rooster greets you. There are 70 flavors to sample for free, mixed soda drinks and various homemade candies the Estradas have carefully selected from around Utah. Jenny’s Freeze-Dried Delights, Kimmie’s Kandies and Farmhouse Fudge are some of them. 

“These are small-business owners. I mean, we’re small, but they’re smaller,” Debbi says. “We try to give them a platform to grow their business, as well.” The Estradas have also partnered with the Utah-based alternative low-sodium seasoning company, Feast Mode.

Debbi says they dream of growing the company into a franchise business with multiple corporate locations. They would love to get on the radar of the Savory Fund, an investment firm that helps companies with promise to scale.

"These are small-business owners. I mean, we’re small, but they’re smaller. We try to give them a platform to grow their business, as well."

The Estradas believe, as does the Savory Fund, that franchise stores should retain the wisdom of local owners. “We’d like to give [our future franchises] that opportunity to kind of make it their own and to highlight the other small businesses in their state that they’d like to support,” Debbi says.

A community of care

Far from popcorn, but not far from an equally ambitious and community-service frame of mind, is the veteran-owned JDog Junk Removal & Hauling in Salt Lake City.

JDog is a nationally recognized brand that offers franchise opportunities exclusively to veterans. It’s known for its military work ethic and prides itself in handling each job with respect, integrity and trust, the company says. It has a policy to keep as much junk out of the landfill as possible, typically donating or recycling from 60 to 80 percent of what is picked up.

Cody Bishop, a veteran of the Air Force, launched his Salt Lake JDog franchise in early 2023, and business is lifting off, he says. He and his one employee provide service from Davis County to Utah County, anything from picking up single items all the way to emptying houses. They also demolish sheds, decks and fences.

Bishop stays ahead of big-name haulers by keeping prices transparent and affordable. His business is divided equally between commercial and residential customers, but he hopes to build more relationships with commercial organizations. Ultimately, he sees his franchise with six to eight trucks and 20 employees.

All of this, plus the assistance given to each franchise to help it succeed, drew Bishop to the JDog opportunity over other choices he could pursue. Prior to launching his JDog franchise, he helped build several other companies. He ran a plumbing supply company, Hajoca, in Salt Lake City, boosting sales to $20 million from $18 million over a 2-and-a-half-year period.

“It was great growing a new location or expansion for someone else, but it wasn’t mine, and I didn’t have that same sense of gratification,” Bishop says. “I made great money doing it. But I’ve always wanted to own my own business. I went to school for business and always had that aspiration and that entrepreneurial spirit. And I just felt like it was my time.”

Bishop is strongly committed to the veteran aspect of the JDog business. JDog aims to help lower veteran unemployment to 1 percent nationwide, in addition to helping veterans acclimate back to civilian life. These goals resonate deeply with Bishop, who spent six years in the Air Force as a military police officer responsible for nuclear security and a team leader for nuclear convoys at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

“When I transitioned from the military into the civilian workforce, I struggled,” Bishop says. “It was a big acclamation for me, and I think that’s pretty common. The transition is really tough, and the military tries [to help], but it’s a big change.”

Bishop says most veterans don’t realize how different they will feel when they leave the military. “You spent the last six years doing something in a very different way than most of society,” he says, “But you don’t realize it when you’re in the moment.”

Bishop wants to hire veterans and provide the kind of work environment where they are understood and the work culture is familiar. “I want to really make an impact in my community,” he says.

Diana is a seasoned freelance journalist with extensive experience covering business. She has been published in a number of publications with regional and national reach, including The Washington Post, Germantown Gazette, Digital Insurance, Fiscal Note, Meritalk, the Congressional Quarterly, Healthcare Finance, Employee Benefit News and more. Though she now lives in Washington, DC, she lived in Utah once upon a time, where she enjoyed backpacking the High Uintas.