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Utah Business

How I founded more than 100 restaurants

In 2007, I had been married for nine years and was a stay-at-home mom to my then seven- and two-year-old sons. I was happy and content running a household, taking care of my children, and being a supportive corporate wife. But as happy as I was, I knew that I had more to give, even though at the time I had no idea what giving more looked like. 

My journey in food started 14 years ago when we moved to an area that was starved for good food options. We wanted somewhere good to eat so my husband and I asked ourselves, “If we could choose, what would we want in our own neighborhood?” And we were inspired to open our first restaurant, Kneaders, a European-style bakery and cafe in Lehi, Utah in 2008.

I still remember opening day like it was yesterday. It was a smashing success, even in the midst of a recession. At the time, I didn’t know much about being a restaurant operator, but I was committed and willing to do anything it took to run a successful business. Imagine me with my apron, hat, and hairnet on while making pastries early in the morning, getting the store ready to open by 7 AM, expediting and cashiering during the rushes, taking out the trash, bussing tables, mopping floors throughout the day, dishwashing, shaking hands, kissing babies, and working alongside 60 or so employees.  

After a few months of never-ending days―and what felt like a million customers―I discovered that I absolutely loved serving and feeding people and that I wanted to keep doing it forever.  However, the new demands on my time made it a bit challenging to juggle being a mom. I was at the crossroads between motherhood and career and back then, I had no idea how bold the decision to pursue a career actually was. 

One vivid memory I have from my first days in the store was the sheer volume of information and decisions that came at me in a short amount of time. I remember asking myself, “Is this what ADHD feels like?” because I would have a thought, I’d start acting on that thought, then someone would ask me something, and poof, that original thought was as good as gone. 

To combat the craziness, I started carrying around a mini notebook and pen in my apron to write everything down. Then at the end of my day, I’d look at my notes and do any of the things I didn’t get to. Those mini notebooks from Walgreens were a lifesaver during the beginning days, especially as I began entertaining the thought of growth and expansion. 

Expansion is an intimidating thought when you’re working in the restaurant and there’s zero time to focus on it. Expansion in my industry requires that you step away to work on the business, which is just not in the cards for an operator.  

Shauna Smith of The Savory Fund shares her story of entrepreneurship in our February edition of The Founder's Series.

How I started Four Foods Group

After a short amount of time in the newly opened Kneaders store, I recruited my husband Andrew to come work with me. He was busy with his tech business, but the timing was ideal for him to step away and join me due to the recession.  

As Andrew became familiar with the bakery, he and I dreamt up an idea to build multiple bakeries all under our ownership and direction. The end-goal was to have four brands―we didn’t know exactly what they would be at the time but we envisioned four diverse brands in terms of flavors, styles, customers, etc. Four Foods Group was born.  

There were a number of years at Four Foods Group that were smooth sailing and smashing successes. But looking back, I realize that I didn’t grow or learn much during that time. In fact, it was during the hardest times when I learned the most as a businesswoman.  

For example, there was a point in time when we had 35-ish stores in 4-5 states that were all running well, the culture was great, operators were solid leaders, and all seemed to be going well. When we rounded store number 42, the team and I started to feel the wheels getting wobbly. 

Suddenly, we encountered an entirely new set of issues, and they all had to do with growth. Growth is great but with it comes challenges. I learned that every time you triple your business, you basically have to reinstitute new processes and systems.  These were days of solution-finding and holding things together with toothpicks and tape (figuratively, of course) and rolling out updated processes, systems, and procedures.

So much of what came easy to us before had suddenly become a challenge. Staffing, good managers, customers, food quality, efficiency―it was all over the place. Plus we were still growing and as much as we wanted to hit the pause button, we couldn’t. The growth train was moving and it was moving fast.  

Not everything about growth is rosy. We had some ugly moments, too. Like closing a block of stores. That was an ugly time. Like many brands, we had a few underperforming locations―five to be exact. We did our best to buoy up sales, invested marketing dollars, brought in new management, and pulled all of the levers that should otherwise work. At a certain point, we had to face the music and be honest with ourselves: It wasn’t going to get better and it was time to shut the doors for good.

It’s no easy task to shut down a store, you have to negotiate with landlords, relocate team members in other locations, and go through the red tape of tying off the financial losses. And as difficult as all that was, at the end of the day, I felt relief. Actually, the only regret I’ve had since that day is that I didn’t make the decision to close sooner.

Balancing motherhood with business ownership

The failed restaurants were misses on our part. There are always locations that don’t perform well and they were nothing to be ashamed of. Period. But it took us a bit to get to that place of acceptance in our brains because there’s this perception that successful businesses are all successes, without problems or issues. I thought that too, once upon a time, until I learned firsthand that the reality is often not perfect, and in most cases, more days are difficult than not. As business owners everywhere know, for the most part, we spend more days with our heads down, working hard, putting out fires, and solving problems. 

All of my challenges in the industry taught me that success is not a result of success.  Success is the result of failure, frustration, sacrifice, heartbreak, and hard work. Rarely is there one winning strategy or solution to starting, running, and growing a business. My point in bringing all of this up is to reassure other business owners that when hard times hit, because they will, it’s normal. It’s normal for businesses to go through tough times. What ultimately matters is how you react and rebound, and as Maya Angelou once said, how you make others feel.

Being a mother prepared me for managing how people would feel. I still don’t know how I have managed to juggle 14 years of being a mother while being an operator, founder, and now CEO. Honestly, I’ve used every tool I could imagine to manage it all. It hasn’t been an easy task, but it’s been doable, despite the strong doses of “Mom guilt” I sometimes felt along the way. 

I found that welcoming my family into my professional life and my professional life into my family has been the key. My children knew and continue to know about the happenings in our restaurants and as a result, they’ve learned first-hand how to identify issues, manage problems, lead with love, and the keys to professionalism.  

Not only that, but because of the things we’ve taught them about our careers, they’ve learned to be independent―something I’m not certain they would have learned had I been around full time to do everything for them. I remember a couple times when I vividly thought “is this a mom fail or a mom win?” One such time was when my then nine-year-old, Tobin, approached me one evening and said “Mom, I need you to write a check for $75 to American Fork City. I’ve signed myself up for flag football and filled out my paperwork. All you need to do is sign my form and write a check.”  

Another time, my then 13-year-old, Christian, said to me when I was driving home from work late one night, “Just come home, I’ve got dinner taken care of. I’ve Door Dashed us some delicious pizza and it will be delivered in the next few minutes.” I never taught Christian how to use Door Dash, or Tobin how to sign himself up for flag football. They did it themselves. They’ve also both worked from a young age in our brands.  

The leaders in our business have taught my boys how to work, how to have a boss, how to show up on time and keep a schedule, how to dig deep, and even a thing or two about leadership. For Tobin’s 14th birthday he asked for a job at Swig. What kid asks for a job for his birthday? Mine, apparently.

Our next phase

Now Four Foods is in our history. We sold our Kneaders locations and we sold our Little Caesars locations―over 130 stores in all. This was all part of the original plan to buy, create value, and harvest brands. At the time of these harvests, we recognized the need to pivot our strategy. 

One element of our strategy that was always challenging was capital. To fund our growth, over the years we had partnered with banks and taken on private investments. It had always been a challenge but it was becoming even more challenging with every growing year. That’s when we decided the solution to our capital challenges would be to fund the growth ourselves.  

We partnered with our dear friend and colleague, Greg Warnock, and Mercato Partners to establish the Savory Fund in order to grow our existing portfolio brands―MoBettah’s, Swig, R&R Barbecue, The Crack Shack, and Via 313. 

Looking back at all of our growth, I just wish there had been someone around like us to provide knowledge when I was getting started in the industry. Of course, necessity is the mother of invention and this need is exactly why Savory exists today. 

Throughout it all, I still think like an operator and I feel that has served me well. I’m grateful to have work that challenges my thinking daily. Despite the new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve accepted the challenge of navigating all the different directives and orders while still providing world-class service and delicious food in a safe environment, and of course, we couldn’t do this without our team. 

Everything about the experience has changed this year, but it’s still our goal to make it feel like just another normal day in the neighborhood.  

Shauna Smith of The Savory Fund shares her story of entrepreneurship in our February edition of The Founder's Series.

Shauna Smith is the cofounder of Four Foods Group and the CEO of The Savory Fund.