I will never forget one phone call at the peak of mounting fears about the economy during the pandemic. It was my hero, who had no time or desire to worry.
“I just wanted to call and check on you, hear how you’re doing, and find out what you are making the kids for lunch.” My grandmother’s relentless energy has always been contagious. Immediately I’m standing. Her voice is booming through my phone, commanding a smile in return.
Thank goodness I had the smoker going for a Sunday afternoon chicken, to not disappoint my favorite cook of all time. Just like every visit – we both laughed, I got goosebumps, and teared up with such joy she brings me. Three for three, every single time. She has not slowed down in her 90s.
My grandparents are my business heroes. They started the smallest of restaurants inside a phone company’s office building in San Antonio, Texas in 1952. He passed away after retiring, she is still a force of nature.
We talked on the phone about the incredible challenges restaurants and small businesses are facing now. I asked her about when the phone company went on strike a couple times and they couldn’t serve a meal for more than two weeks. “Well, thank goodness we were used to having no money!” she humbly giggled.
No Loans, No Problem
They started with an idea for a simple lunch counter, to serve some of her favorite recipes. He believed in her skills so much, with a big belly to prove it, that he went to every bank in town for the smallest of loans to get their business open.
I have seen his collection of rejection letters from the banks, which became fuel to overcome. He described the closest he got to a loan approval. That last banker finally had to explain, “I cannot lend money to you because no jury would take a blind man’s business away from you, when you default on this loan.”
Getting To The Other Side
He had already climbed over discomfort many times. His mother dropped him and his brother off at a state-run institution for blind kids when they were little, unable to care for them. They suffered unspeakably brutal conditions for years, locked away. When he got older and could not take it anymore, he organized an escape. The local newspaper’s headline read “Blind Students Go Over the Wall.”
He stumbled around for years, bouncing from the shortest of short-lived jobs. He explained how they all ended. “In those days it was easy for me to get a job, the hard part was keeping it. On the first day they would think something is wrong. On the second day they thought I was crazy. The third day they called me a drunk. On the fourth they would discover that my only problem was that I was blind…and then fire me on the fifth.”
So, with no resume and no business background of any kind, it made perfect sense he could not get a bank loan.
He played in a band in the evenings, after teaching himself to play the drums. “The Distinguished Gentlemen” played any gig they could get for any amount.
He banged out enough extra savings to get started with $55. That was enough to buy:
1) 8-foot table 2) 48-cup percolator 3) hot plate cooker 4) picnic cooler.
They wanted to prepare delicious food but didn’t have any kitchen on site. So, they made sandwiches, homemade soup, and cooked chili in their subsidized apartment. They quickly drove it all to the building to serve their scratch lunches.
Just the two of them did it all. After cooking and delivering, they ran the counter. Then they washed the dishes. They had $39 in day one sales. They were business owners.
The Only Counting Was On Each Other
He ran the register (an old cigar box) when she was busy with food. He learned to tell the difference between coins by their different sounds when they hit the counter, and knew every bill was no more than $1. “If they ever corrected me, then it had to be a $5,” he explained of his accounting department.
They earned enough happy customers to eventually want a full cafeteria, to seat and serve them better. No help and no money were nothing new. So, he did the buildout himself…all of it. First, he invented a braille pegboard in order to design the layout. He built every counter and cabinet. He installed all the plumbing and fixtures.
Both were born dirt-poor to sharecroppers, neither finished high school. This ultimate power couple ended up running six full-service office cafeterias, a vending machine operation, and a catering service.
Serving Employees First
One of my first summer jobs as a kid was busing tables at their cafeteria. I had no idea at the time that all employees of small businesses were not as happy as these folks. It was a big family. Many spent their entire careers there. I couldn’t have known back then it was because they loved the owners. I only found out how much, when some of them told me at her birthday party.
Through forced shutdowns and other deeper recessions, they kept employees happy for decades. Even during the good times, they had a very limited customer list. Serving small budget meals, trapped inside office buildings, even the owners can only make so much.
So, building a team that loved working and loved each other was the real magic. Some employees lasted three decades in the simplest of roles.
When you hear her room-shaking laughter or see her face-breaking smile I understand it now better than ever, but it still amazes me.
The day before her birthday party, some of her old employees wanted to have lunch with her also. She did not know how many to expect, but when you’ve been retired for more than 25 years, any small circle of the old crew is a big deal.
She was stunned when 180 people showed up, coming from far and wide to celebrate with her. Not one of these people got rich working there. Some just wiped tables and mopped floors but wanted so badly to see her again after all that time. I was in awe.
They were all loved and cared for so deeply, and consistently, that they showed up decades later to say thanks again. There are no business books written about fierce loyalty on minimum wage, maybe because it's a love story instead.
Getting To The Other Side…Again
Before we hung up the phone Sunday, we talked about where we wanted to eat for our date, when restaurants are open again. She said, “Ryan…I didn’t know when that strike was gonna end when I was cooking, but just knew they’d be hungry.”
I will never be anything close to as lovable as she was as a business owner. But, that is what a hero is for – somebody to make you want to be better. Somebody who makes overcoming anything bad only a matter of when, not if.
More than anything, she reminded me about something that lasted longer than serving meals to customers. Changing the entire course of the lives of employees’ families is the most awesome power a small business owner has.
After I wiped away another tear, thinking about the courage I get from a little old lady, I called a team meeting first thing Monday morning. I explained how we are going to get to the other side, and why it’s going to be better. We do not need to predict when. We will choose to not participate in any recession or depression. There is no cycle to our serving. We build and manage plans that work and enjoy helping people understand why.
In hindsight, we picked a tough time to add a temporary staff member at the beginning of this month to help as we grow. We called her into the conference Monday. This young lady is one of the toughest people I’ve met, a veteran of the Marines. She was ready for anything. I told her to put on my calendar a lunch date with my hero in one month. And, thanks to that voice still ringing in my ear, I told her we are hiring her on full time with full benefits starting today.
The Lunch Counter Is Open
My heroes’ lives and business started from gifts of discomfort that I gain strength from often. Their ability to scale was subtly changing more and more lives for good. Thank you for reading this far if you did. Writing their story down helped me, and my prayer is that it can help in any small way, somebody else overcoming something.
If you know somebody like this unbackable couple who never asked for credit again, only ever wishing to serve, then I’d like to do something else to honor my business heroes.
Almost certainly it’s somebody not reading this blog, but who you may know about. If you know about somebody with any food service idea, that might need just one little nudge of goodness, let me know. Just a couple pieces of equipment in the right hands can overcome a lot, and multiply for good.
You can e-mail me directly without mentioning it to them (I don’t want to disappoint anybody). Who does my favorite startup lunch counter most remind you of in your world, right now? No rules, and any little idea that might be worth a try:
firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter @ryankruegerROI
When I call my hero back next week about setting up our lunch on the other side, I will share with her the ideas. I will see which one makes her smile the biggest. I already know I will have no luck breaking a few ties. So, a wink and smile to those first four little pieces of equipment used to build it all – I will send four checks for $550 each (about $55 in 1952 dollars) immediately, along with her blessings (worth a lot more).