Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Dale Luckey, Owner of Blendz Smoothie Shop, located in North Bay, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
We are a dairy-free drink shop specializing in smoothies, bubble tea, milkshakes, plant-based lunch, and grocery items. Our customers are generally folks with food intolerances/preferences and cannot usually get these types of items elsewhere.
Tell us about yourself
I have always wanted to own a shop, and ever since I was 12, I knew that a restaurant was my dream. I imagined serving freshly made pie, salads, and soup alongside a cute little market. I went to culinary school for 3 years and found myself working in bakeries, and the thought of owning a restaurant became more and more daunting as I saw what was involved. After moving, I found work cooking and serving at a creperie. I enjoyed the work and the coworkers but was happy with my boss and the management of the restaurant.
I met a physiotherapist/yoga instructor through a women's networking group, and she mentioned that she was opening a yoga studio and looking for a smoothie bar to run out of there. Instantly a fire was lit, and I knew this was my path. Just to be conservative, I did trial runs of my smoothies. Before officially deciding to open up shop, I started developing recipes and getting my friends and family to test them out. After perfecting the recipes, I would take them to local yoga classes and try to sell smoothies after class. Through this experience, I could easily make a reasonable assumption of what percentage of yoga attendees would be potential clientele for me. I ran the numbers, and If I sold $300 a day, I could afford my rent, food cost, and monthly personal bills. I decided this risk was reasonable, quit my job, took out a $10K loan on my house, and started getting ready to open up my smoothie shop.
What motivates me to keep going after 5 years is a lot of different factors. If you had asked me this 2 years ago, I would have told you my motivation was customer-driven; I couldn't stop operating because my customers needed the services. There was nowhere else catering to a dairy-free/gluten-free/plant-based clientele, and these customers had nowhere else to go. Today what motivates me is sniffing out ideas that are exciting and fun. I absolutely love making dairy-free tik-to videos that are lighthearted and fun. I love coming up with new ideas for the restaurant, which can come in the form of seasonal items or special events; for example, we had a 2-day event to celebrate Taylor Swifts Midnight's album launch and named 5 drinks, and 2 cake pops after tracks on her new album. I follow my heart and intuition in business; I am always open to new opportunities, but I only go forward with them if they feel right, and if I'm excited about them, I am always willing to be my customers will be too.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
My biggest accomplishment would be successfully downsizing my business and moving it to a new town. I know not many people would think of downsizing and starting over as an accomplishment, but I think it is so brave to admit you grew too big too fast, and now I see there is nothing wrong with having a smaller, more successful business. When I started my business in the back of the yoga, I was growing too big to make smoothies and food out of a tiny staff room-turned kitchen. I was working 12-16 hour days meal prepping for customers and spending hours on my days off delivering food to them. After only 11 months, I decided it was time to look for a new location. I ended up renting a newly renovated space in downtown Pembroke, ON, and my expenses grew astronomically. My staffing tripled, and I now had to pay for unexpected things like garbage removal, gas, and linen service. I was barely hanging on, and then disaster after disaster happened and brought business to a near-halt. The first spring, major flooding destroyed many homes in our area. People were shocked, homeless, or trying to figure out how to spend their time helping with the floods. No one was interested in shopping downtown for smoothies. The fall after that first year, we had construction close the street right in front of my business for about 3 months. Traffic was rerouted away from downtown, and my business lost all visibility. I had my daughter that winter and tried to take time off without having any eligibility for EI as a small business owner, and I was drowning financially. Several months after my daughter was born, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and business stopped dead in its tracks. I had to lay off my staff and return to work, all while finding new ways to get my product to my customers who were staying home to stop the spread. We got various amounts of government grants throughout the pandemic which truly kept us afloat. Business would bustle and boom between covid 'waves,' and we were just trying to keep up as a staff of 3.
A year into the pandemic, my husband and I reevaluated our priorities. I was paying huge rent on a restaurant that couldn't seat any customers inside for the past 12 months. Due to on-and-off travel restrictions, we weren't seeing our family, and our small house was valued at an all-time high. The decision to move back to our hometown seemed like a pretty easy choice; the hardest part was leaving my loyal customers behind. When I started looking for spaces to rent in North Bay, ON, I was specifically looking for something smaller and more affordable. Smaller space=smaller risk. I had a bit of COVID grit money left, enough to rent a small office space downtown, but not on Main Street. I hired a plumber and electrician to outfit the office space into a kitchen. I sold most of my dining supplies and a ton of equipment I wouldn't need anymore. I made my food menu 1/10th what it used to be to avoid stress in the kitchen and make the job easier to train for. I interviewed, hired 3 staff for the summer, and opened my doors. The business will always ebb and flow in any industry; you will have good and bad months. I am so happy to have an affordable business during those slower times and not be so stressed financially anymore. Having lived small, then large, then small again, I can tell you that small is much better for me.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
For me, the hardest struggle of starting a business was customer disappointment. This could be negative customer reviews, complaints about location, ingredients, or hours. It's the part of the business that is a huge driving force and a large cause of anxiety. I lie awake at night and hope that I haven't offended anyone or that someone with a bad experience will give us another shot.
The second hardest thing is staff regulation. This means learning to become a kind, fair and strong leader and learning how to keep your staff's stress levels low and happiness high.
I am a big believer in 'if you treat your staff well, they will treat your customers well.' I do not micro-manage my staff; I allow them the room to be taught, then try for themselves. I am always open to questions and do not belittle, yell at, or (generally) refuse time off requests. These people are more than my staff; they are my peers and coworkers; we all run this business together. I recognize that I would not have the business I do today without them.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- You will boom, and then you will fall. Don't make decisions about your business during a one-month (or one-season) boom.
- Be consistent. There is nothing wrong with short hours, a small offering, or a unique product. But be consistent in these things; people need businesses to be reliable to start to form a habit of supporting them. Do everything you can to show up for them and yourself.
- Don't fall into the debt cycle. Don't max your credit cards, and don't accept loans that take a percentage of your daily sales; you will regret them. I promise.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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