How I Built It

What’s involved in creating and expanding an innovative concept?
For these 5 local restaurateurs, the long nights and endless to-do lists have been worth it to see their dreams come to fruition. But it hasn’t always been easy.

By Camille Platt

Photography by Rich Smith

 

“We’re going to focus on the heart of what we’re doing, making people happy, and the results are going to follow.”

 

Mojo Burrito

Eve Williams’ father is her hero. She grew up with nine siblings, and his specialty in the kitchen was vegetarian chili. They called him Papa Bear.

“He was a great cook. Everything was from scratch with healthy, fresh ingredients. I grew up on natural peanut butter, homemade wheat bread, raw milk, no sodas or junk food, and not many sweets,” she remembers. After a varied career in food and hospitality that included opening two coffee shops in New York and cocktail waitressing while wearing a holster with tequila and ginger ale in Buckhead, Georgia, she moved to Chattanooga and noticed a gap in the food scene. No one was making burritos. “No chef required. I honestly thought to myself, ‘How hard can it be? Beans. Rice. Cheese.’ Little did I know what was in store for me,” she recalls. She honored her father with her take on his vegetarian chili as she set the menu.

Now with Mojo Burrito locations in St. Elmo, Red Bank, Ooltewah, and East Brainerd (now a catering location), Williams says for the first 12 years, every move or build-out was to continue to cook for the original location in St. Elmo. The store was so busy she had to open a supplemental kitchen in 2004. She still considers St. Elmo and Red Bank to be her strongest locations, admitting expansion has taught her that her business thrives less in a strip center and more in an independent building.

Opening new locations does mean understanding the legal requirements of employing nearly 100 people, Williams adds. “Anyone’s key to success in any business, not just the restaurant business, is to take care of your employees,” she says. At Mojo Burrito, tips are shared across the board, and every employee receives paid vacation, life insurance, health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, and IRAs with company match. “We are very accommodating with schedules and lifestyles. We have a lot of interesting people with interesting hobbies,” she says. “They know they can always come to me. We’re like a family; we help each other out. You have to take care of those who take care of you.”

MojoBurrito.com

Historically, Eve Williams has leased real estate for Mojo Burrito, which often meant paying for improvements on buildings owned by someone else. This year, she is renovating a building she purchased in downtown Red Bank for the relocation of her existing Red Bank location.

Lupi’s Pizza Pies

The original menu at Lupi’s started with a borrowed KitchenAid mixer. Dorris Shober says the calculations to change the recipe from one dough ball to 32 was perfect the very first time.

It was a triumph mirrored by the immediate success of Chattanooga’s first Lupi’s on Broad Street in 1996. However, struggles came with location number two just three years later. A bigger store was sure to be twice as profitable, Shober had thought. In reality, it would be a lesson in perseverance. For a time, business was slow. Hixson simply wasn’t familiar with her product. “We did a lot of advertising, gave away free pizzas just to get people to come in the door, and truthfully just hung on by our fingernails because we knew we had a great product and we had good service,” she recalls. “I never considered closing the doors.”

Now with four popular Chattanooga locations (Hixson included!) and one in Cleveland, Shober is proof that being patient is key to expansion and success.

As sole owner of each location, she recognizes the importance of building and growing an impressive staff. “Every single person that works at Lupi’s started off in the kitchen, on pizza, or on the floor serving. All my managers started off at the very bottom rung. It has been wonderful to watch them grow and flourish,” Shober says. “The employees’ experience is as important to me as the customer’s experience.”

In 2005, Shober married John Shober, who owns Flying Turtle Farm. The farm now helps supply Lupi’s with tomatoes, basil, green peppers, cucumber, flowers, eggs, pork, and beef. She invites her employees to help plant and harvest vegetables and herbs at the farm regularly.

Through trial, error, and determination, Shober has learned that while enough capital to persevere through tough times is key to growing a restaurant to multiple locations, having excellent systems is also imperative. “There’s no guesswork when it comes to ordering or what to prep. That’s how we’ve been able to grow – by having amazing systems. That’s essential,” she says. “You have to have that to be able to grow beyond one or two locations.”

Lupi.com

“To be successful in the long run, you’ve got to treat people with respect,” says Lupi’s founder, Dorris Shober.

Clumpies Ice Cream Co.

Picking up someone else’s entrepreneurial vision and carrying it into the future requires both vision and respect for the brand. See Rock City, Inc. bought local ice cream concept Clumpies in 2013, and Doug Chapin, director of the brand, has helped expand it from the original location on Frazier Avenue to include stores in St. Elmo (2015) and Southside (2018).

He also renovated the production kitchen and hired a pastry chef to bring all processing in-house. “We are now making almost all of our toppings and inclusions in-house; we’re also making all of our ice cream mix now and pasteurizing it in-house,” he says. “That was scary and an investment, but we were able to do it with confidence because we knew we had the team to pull it off.”

Choosing new locations for the Clumpies expansion came one opportunity at a time, turning to the See Rock City Innovations team when it was time for construction. See Rock City already owned an ice cream shop at the Incline Railway in St. Elmo, so it was a low-cost entry to change the business to reflect the brand. Chapin knew a third permanent location would have to meet specific markers. “We know we will be successful if we can create a space that’s full of activity but also serves as a community gathering spot. Combine that with visitor traffic, and you’ve got the right ingredients,” he explains. His renovation of the former English Rose Tea Room, within walking distance of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, achieved just that.

Carrying an already successful brand into the future is perhaps freeing when compared to launching a concept from scratch, Chapin says. “The already-established brand allows you to be creative and work on problems as opposed to taking on everything all at once,” he explains. Through the process, he scooped up two pieces of advice: Expect the unexpected (freezers can fail and ice cream melts), and stay committed for the right reasons. “Our whole business is based around that mission of ‘memories worth repeating.’ When we bought Clumpies, we said we’re going to be open every single day at the same time and close at the same time. We’re going to focus on the heart of what we’re doing, making people happy, and the results are going to follow,” he shares.

Clumpies.com

“Our goal wasn’t to buy Clumpies and turn it into Birdhouse Ice Cream. We bought Clumpies because we loved it and wanted it to be the best Clumpies it could be,” says Doug Chapin, who has served as the brand’s director since See Rock City, Inc. purchased it in 2013.

Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken

Lonely for the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta, in 2009, Seth and Crissy Champion decided Chattanooga needed a restaurant bent on homemade hot tamales, fried chicken, and crawfish. Since then, Champy’s has expanded to eight locations in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, two owned by the Champions and six operated through licensing agreements.

Champion says locations two through eight weren’t risky at all when compared to the first. He and Crissy had created the menu alone on an 8.5 x 11’’ sheet of white paper, capitalizing on a 40-year-old family recipe: his great-grandmother’s fried chicken. They gave customers a 40-ounce drink to make Crissy’s job easier as she handled the waitressing alone. “I launched the original Champy’s with about $30,000 total. And when I opened the doors of the restaurant, I had $1,700 left. We had to make something happen.” Five hundred free two-piece meal cards later, they started to see traffic, and business accelerated after features in Southern Living and Garden & Gun.

Champion chooses new cities for his restaurants based on the interest of potential licensees and a goal to speckle the drive Chattanoogans may make through Alabama toward the beach. Cities with a history in soul music (think Muscle Shoals, Alabama) are even better. When it comes to agreeing to a new licensed location, however, Champion plays hard to get. “I always try to deter them for the most part. I make it very difficult. The people who are persistent are worth investing your time in.”

Finding real estate for Champy’s often happens when a chain restaurant closes its doors to local preference for a “mom and pop” model. The investment for renovations depends on city codes – what is required for a grease trap, for example, or exterior facade. “Chattanooga was very easy to work with, being able to express artistry on the exterior of the building. Some places want stucco,” he says, noting he uses Chattanooga artist Terry Cannon to illustrate designs for approval. “That takes some massaging, if you will, with city council, explaining the history behind our concept. Sometimes we have to give a little bit; sometimes cities are very progressive. Sometimes we just have to leave that location alone. Ultimately, this is a Delta blues fried chicken joint,” he says.

ChampysChicken.com

At 12 years old, Seth Champion worked behind the counter at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Indianola, Mississippi, with his parents, standing on a stool serving soft drinks to customers. They’d deliver chicken to B.B. King at the local Comfort Inn when he was in town to perform.

DosBros Fresh Mexican Grill

Research of successful brands is what drives Kush Shah and Milan Patel. The business partners didn’t launch DosBros Fresh Mexican Grill in Chattanooga until they’d done considerable homework on similar restaurant concepts they saw thrive and expand.

If they could offer burritos with fresh ingredients for $10 with a drink, they realized, they’d see success. “We didn’t really need to reinvent the wheel,” cofounder Kush Shah says. “We just had to come up with something that consumers were already comfortable with.”

The first DosBros location opened in Cleveland in 2015. “Opening our first location was intense. We leveraged everything we had and then some,” says cofounder Milan Patel. “The city of Cleveland really supported us from day one. Without them there would be no DosBros.”

Today, the “bros” own six locations (with operating partners on-site) and have franchised two locations in the Nashville area. “The process has definitely gotten smoother over time,” says Patel. “It’s like anything else in life – the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

With a long history in the food and beverage industry, Shah says looking for real estate to open a new DosBros means looking for good neighbors. “We look for brands like Chick-fil-A and Starbucks. We look for Jimmy John’s, Panda Express, and Panera Bread. We share the same demographic,” he says. “If they are there, I know it is a prime market for us.”

The pair was also intentional in developing the DosBros branding. “Red is a color that excites the brain,” Shah explains. Just look to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s for proof. The font for the logo was chosen with visibility as a top priority.

The decision to franchise DosBros came once Shah and Patel had opened four locations on their own. “Kush and I knew exactly what we wanted and how we could make it happen,” Patel explains, hinting the company will be adding 10 franchises in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama this year. Shah adds, “In order to sustain your quality, in order to sustain your service, you need to find a local partner who has a stake, who understands what we need as a company. Franchising for us is definitely the future.”

DosBros.com

“From our first location to our second, it took almost one and a half years,” says DosBros cofounder Kush Shah. “I had people lined out the door from the first month that we opened to franchise us out, but we took our time.” CS

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