After spending 25 and 15 years, respectively, in every aspect of the restaurant industry, Bobby Pancake and Steve Wheat have quickly become one of Delaware’s entrepreneurial success stories.
Pancake and his business partner Steve Wheat are the owners of five Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar franchises in Bear, Middletown, Dover, Newark and Wilmington. They recently opened their sixth restaurant in Bel Air, Md.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Pancake, managing member of High 5 LLC, the operating arm of the restaurant group, in explaining his eventual jump into small business ownership.
The business partners met while working for Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc., when Pancake was the senior director of company operations and Wheat was the local store marketing manager. They spent many business trips discussing their dream of starting their own restaurant and developing their business plan. At the time, the franchise was in the process of transitioning from a local wing joint targeting college campuses to today’s national model of a suburban, family-oriented sports bar and grill.
Their timing was perfect. In the past 12 years, Buffalo Wild Wings has grown from less than 50 restaurants to more than 625 locations today. Pancake and Wheat own the development rights for the entire state of Delaware and three counties in Maryland.
Since opening in 2003, the Delaware restaurants have more than doubled in sales and expanded to 350 employees. Not bad, considering Pancake and Wheat introduced the Buffalo Wild Wings brand with the first restaurant on the East Coast.
When it came time to finance their endeavor, Pancake and Wheat turned to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for assistance. PNC Bank financed the working capital, equipment and construction of the first three restaurants in Bear, Middletown and Dover with SBA 7(a) guaranteed loans.
“We couldn’t have done it without the SBA,” said Pancake. “It helped us secure the start up financing.”
For Pancake it all started with a part-time job as a cook and chicken cutter at a local KFC franchise in his native West Virginia. He ultimately spent 10 years with KFC working his way up to regional manager. A five-year stint as senior director of company operations for Roasters Corporation, the franchisor for Kenny Rogers Roasters, followed before the critical move to Buffalo Wild Wings in 1997. Before becoming his own boss, Pancake served as the senior director of company operations and reported directly to the company’s chief executive officer.
Wheat also had an early start in the restaurant business by working at a Burger King in St. Paul, Minn., when he was only 14 years old. After several jobs and completing his bachelor’s degree in marketing at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, he returned to the food industry working for Aramark in Campus Dining where he worked his way up to marketing manager for several universities in Minnesota. He was recruited from the University of Minnesota in 1999, when he became the local store marketing manager for company owned units at Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc. This is where Wheat and Pancake started work together in their respective roles.
Pancake and Wheat credit their willingness to relocate and to learn every aspect of the business for their success. Extensive knowledge of the restaurant industry also gave them instant credibility in securing the start up financing.
“When you have a brand like Buffalo Wild Wings behind you it is much less risky to open a new restaurant,” said Pancake.
“There was not much of a learning curve to go through when we both had extensive knowledge of the concept,” said Wheat.
Buffalo Wild Wings’ atmosphere attracts families, young professionals and sports enthusiasts alike. In fact, many college alumni groups, including West Virginia University, Penn State and Virginia Tech, claim Buffalo Wild Wings as their fan headquarters during the college football season.
Pancake and Wheat also have made a major investment in the local communities served by their restaurants. Not only do they sponsor community programs such as little league baseball teams, but they often host fundraisers that benefit local charities.
Success has not been without its adversities. Within six weeks of opening the first restaurant, Pancake and Wheat’s other business partners died unexpectedly. It was huge personal set back for the entrepreneurs.
The recent economic downturn has been a challenge as well. Although more families are turning to economical alternatives like Buffalo Wild Wings, every purchase coming in the back door is more expensive today. Pancake has learned to run a tighter operation and work smarter to keep the prices low.
Pancake and Wheat have quickly learned the most important values of small business ownership: everyone else is paid first and the owners are paid last. They wouldn’t trade their career path for anything. They have been exposed to things as owners that they never would have experienced on the corporate side.
For Bobby Pancake and Steve Wheat, years of perseverance and hard work have paid off. More importantly, they are still having fun just winging it.
It all started with two women entrepreneurs and a 12’ x 10’ foot office. When Barbara Hines and Nancy Froome started SSD in 1983, they were widely recognized as pioneers in the male-dominated software industry. Today, with a third partner, Nick Romano, they are known for their staying power in an industry that has experienced dramatic changes over the past 26 years.
Founded as Software Services of Delaware, Inc., the company now does business as SSD Technology Partners, a name that encompasses the spirit of how the three principals conduct business. Constantly adapting to the changing market demands of the technology sector, SSD held its ground over the years and grew into a $5 million technology firm with 27 employees.
The company provides technology expertise to small and medium-sized businesses, non-profits and universities. SSD’s services include consulting, programming, business continuity solutions, network architecture, management, and maintenance.
The company’s long-term success is deeply rooted in its 26-year relationship with its bank, Wilmington Trust. In the first few years of operation, the partners reached out to Wilmington Trust for financing. Although the bank felt SSD had the products and services to meet the needs of a niche market, it knew it needed a sound business plan for strategic growth. At their banker’s advice, the partners worked with SCORE-Counselors to America’s Small Business, for guidance in managing the business and marketing their products. Through its early years, SSD relied heavily on the sound financial advice from SCORE and other mentors.
As SSD grew, its partnership with Wilmington Trust grew. In 1994, the bank financed a $140,000 SBA 7(a) guaranteed loan to help SSD expand into new markets and offer new services to tech-savvy businesses.
Although programming was SSD’s initial focus, Hines and Froome started offering helpdesk and hardware support to their clients. They hired Romano as a programmer right out of college. His expertise proved invaluable and in 1985, at the age of 21, he became vice president of research and development, completing the management team.
Success came early when the team developed an accounting package for a Delaware non-profit that was later adopted by more than 350 non-profits nationwide. Sales of this niche program contributed to increased profits and the need for additional employees. The company expanded and relocated several times over the years, and today occupies a 5500 square foot office with 27 employees.
SSD overcame many challenges over the years. The dot.com industry collapse in the 1990s forced many of its clients to close or downsize. The business responded by restructuring its operations. The Y2K challenge forced it to discontinue a product that was a major source of revenue. The partners then turned to network integration which led to increased hardware sales.
In 1999, 75 percent of the SSD’s revenue was from hardware sales; today it represents only 10 percent. Consumers no longer need complete systems like they did in 1999. This industry change hit SSD hard, forcing it to once again transform its services.
SSD’s innovative software solutions contributed to its staying power. Its Messenger 911 program improves the emergency response time for volunteer fire companies throughout Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York City. SSD’s Axiom software program was initially developed to help Villanova University improve its student record keeping. It is now used by colleges and universities nationwide.
Although these software programs were adopted across the country, SSD remained focused on its original mission, to provide small and medium-sized businesses with technology solutions. The increased need for technical support services and maintenance in the past decade led the company to once again restructure and expand its services into Managed Services contracts.
Giving Back to the Community
The three partners have made community service a major focus of the business. SSD’s employees actively participate in programs that benefit local charities, including the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, Delaware Hospice, Wilmington Women in Business, Blood Bank of Delaware, and the Boys & Girls Club.
After the theft of two tractor trailers full of donated food, SSD and several of its vendors donated the hardware, software and installation of a high-tech video surveillance system valued at $10,000 to the Food Bank of Delaware.
SSD’s ability to adapt to constant market changes is a testament to its staying power. But it is its commitment to the highest level of customer service, as evidenced by its client retention rate of 98 percent in the past decade, that drives its success.
From the modest beginnings of a small 10’ x 12’ office, Barbara Hines, Nancy Froome and Nick Romano have overcome many obstacles to build SSD Technology Partners into a 26-year success story with clients from New York City to Alexandria, Va.
Sheila Tucker worked as a pharmacist for more than 20 years in several chain pharmacies, hospitals, nursing homes and as a consultant, and while she liked her job, she wanted her own business.
“I always knew I wanted to have my own pharmacy,” Tucker said. “I just didn’t have a clue as to how I was going to do it.”
Tucker found help at the Small Business Development Center in Wilmington and funding through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to make her vision of owning a pharmacy reality.
In 2003, a store-front location at 1914 North Market Street in the Brandywine Village became available for rent and the building owner approached Tucker about opening a business. The owner even offered her six months free rent as an incentive to get Market Street Pharmacy up and running.
Tucker contacted the Greater Brandywine Village Revitalization staff, who happened to be looking for an entrepreneur to open the first independent pharmacy in the area and they helped her identify resources to help get the business operating.
A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and Temple University School of Pharmacy, Tucker approached John Simpson, a colleague with whom she had worked in a pharmacy previously, to be a co-owner.
“‘You want to jump in?’ I asked him,” Tucker said. “I was leery myself and then all the doubts came.”
Opening an independent pharmacy daunted Tucker. Only a handful of independent pharmacies operate in New Castle County and often they do not provide the full range of services and products of large chain pharmacies.
The fears subsided with guidance from counselors at the Small Business Development Center, an SBA resource partner, who helped Tucker analyze the area’s demographic data, build financial models for the new store, develop a loan package, and choose business service vendors. According to John Osoinach, director of the New Castle County SBDC office, “The SBDC was able to step in and provide just the right help at just the right time, and that was a key to making the project a success.”
Tucker and Simpson, both first-time business entrepreneurs, initially funded the business with personal money; the pharmacy’s floors needed to be cleaned and shelves installed. With their personal money running low, the owners still needed funding to buy the inventory to stock those new shelves.
Initially, three banks rejected Tucker and Simpson for loans, but the SBA’s loan guarantee programs allowed Tucker and Simpson to secure the required funding. The Market Street Pharmacy opened in September 2003 and in December two SBA-backed 7(a) loans were approved through Wilmington Trust totaling almost $200,000.
George Mills of Wilmington Trust worked with the pharmacy owners to acquire the loan. He knew owners had the practical experience to operate a pharmacy but had to consider the added responsibility of managing the business, ordering supplies, marketing and supervising employees when approving the loan.
“With the help of the SBDC working with the owners to put together a business plan and the SBA's guarantee of the loan Wilmington Trust was able to approve the loan overcoming all the perceived risks associated with lending to a start-up business,” Mills said.
The SBA’s 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program operates through private-sector banks that provide small business loans guaranteed by the SBA. Providing this guaranty, the SBA helps many small businesses like Market Street Pharmacy obtain financing to start, build and grow their operations.
The pharmacy’s growth is already evident. Sales in 2006 totaled $1.1 million, up from almost $900,000 in 2005. The Market Street Pharmacy operates six days a week and fills 100 prescriptions a day, but Tucker’s expects to fill 350 per day soon with expanded service to most insurance plans.
In April 2007, Tucker and Simpson opened a second location at 1624 Jessup Street in Wilmington. Word is spreading about the new pharmacy, which fills 10 to 12 prescriptions a day and continues to grow. The stores provide prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicine and convenience store items in the low-income and disadvantaged neighborhood and employ seven employees, four of whom are full time.
Both pharmacies provide an essential service and operate in underserved neighborhoods where most of the clients earn too much income to be covered by Medicaid, but not enough to afford health insurance. Market Street Pharmacy can more easily serve these communities as a member of the federal 340B Drug Pricing Program, which provides access to reduced price prescription.
A common vision and hard work helped Tucker and Simpson launch the business while managing their personal lives, spouses and children and the business.
“This is a lot of work, but we see eye-to-eye,” Tucker said. “We have the same vision. We have lots of plans.”
The co-owners plan to operate five stores, the third of which is already in the development stages.
Tucker suggests finding a niche within the industry, which for the pharmacy business means a privately-owned operation and allows her to use her discretion to give discounts and provide special arrangements for regular customers.
Tucker’s advice for anyone considering opening a business: “Go for it. It can be rewarding.”