If you’re looking for a great new eatery, Voodoo Taco has just the thing for the daring diner in you
Try one bite of the alligator sausage taco and you’ll be hooked, and convinced that this quirky place off North 90th is a great addition to the gastronomic cornucopia of the Big O. Voodoo Taco, the idea of restaurateur Eric Newton, offers fresh, far-out ingredients in its soft tacos, served up in an eye-catching casual dining environment, all which came to life in part thanks to help from the SBA.
“We do a lot of spices,” explained Newton, a self-described “foodie” who worked with his kitchen chef to come up with an eclectic menu: Asadero cheese from Europe on a steak faijita, Cajun-battered shrimp, a Korean short rib selection with spicy Jicama slaw, and for the kids, a deep-fried banana and peanut butter taco. For the brave (or foolhardy), try the one with habaneros, Ghost chilies and the Trinidad scorpion pepper. Ouch. Stick around for the double-chocolate, salted caramel, chipotle-bacon brownie desert taco. On tap at the bar are local and regional brews, and there also are freshly-squeezed craft cocktails.
Voodoo Taco makes everything fresh, using locally-sourced vegetables, and provides vegan and gluten-free delights, too. But don’t expect to find an ordinary ground beef taco here, they say, proudly.
“I’m trying to avoid being pigeon-holed,” Newton explained. “We’re not trying to be a copy of anything else. We want people to try the new stuff. And the great thing is they can get it here for the same cost of a taco at a chain.”
To try out the concept, before they opened in the middle of August, Newton and his business partner, Steven Cartwright, flung the doors open to their family, friends, and other merchants in the neighborhood to test their unique fare—and to check out the remodeled décor.
“It all started with the name,” Cartwright said of their off-beat approach. “There’s nothing traditional here.”
“I want people to come here and talk about my tacos,” Newton insisted. “Not what the place looks like.” It’s hard not to.
Newton tracked down a guy who tagged the outside of a downtown barber shop with bright, swirling lettering, a guy who used to do his sketchy personalized art on the sides of railroad cars. He had the guy decorate the top of one wall with the restaurant name in graffiti scrawl punctuated with the place’s logo: a voodoo doll head with jaunty top hat. They tore up the old brown-stained tile to discover to their delight polished concrete underneath, which Newton promptly suggested they paint deep purple to go with the gothic chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.
“We didn’t have an interior designer, no blueprint on how to make this place,” Newton said.
They grabbed scraps from the corrugated roof of an old barn to serve as table dividers, and panels behind the bar and order station came from tossed out shipping pallets (and let’s just say the signs on the restroom doors are a must-see).
Newton brought his experience in his 20s to opening the restaurant; at 21, he was waiting tables at a place, and boldly buttonholed the owner to offer some ideas on how to run it. Impressed, the owner quickly made him the general manager. And opening a new place is just another challenge to this Navy veteran who spent Desert Storm refueling planes aboard an aircraft carrier.
It was as a consultant that one day Newton ran into Cartwright.
“I was pitching my plan all over town,” Newton said, “but they’d all have their preconceived notions of what a restaurant should be. Steve said let’s run with it. He’s got the financial background, and I’ve got the idea for the look, the feel and the menu, so you could say we each found our niche.”
Like every new business, there were challenges to overcome: a lack of proven success in the market, and a location in a strip mall that already had a restaurant or two go under with fierce competition from nearby chains. In the end, they’d convinced a local bank to help back their project.
“We had principals that had an excellent business plan, good experience and were sound financially,” explained Ron Baumert, vice president/business banking at Centennial Bank. “However, since there was no real estate involved in the transaction, the deal lacked sufficient tangible assets to provide collateral coverage for the amount of financing that was requested.”
Thanks to the approval July 24, 2013, of an SBA Small Loan Advantage guarantee, the bank got the level of comfort it needed to do the deal, and Voodoo Taco got the financing it needed for needed leasehold improvements and working capital.
According to Newton’s market research, during the recession growth for full-service restaurants slowed to six percent, while fast casual dining—where you order at a counter, then take a seat for your meal to be delivered--grew at a rate of twice that. He also believed the nearby retailers and heavy traffic along the four-lane street would bring in consistent foot traffic.
Newton has eagerly embraced social media marketing for Voodoo Taco, creating a presence on Facebook, and the online review sites Yelp and Urban Spoon, as well as engaged the often-harshly honest community on Reddit for its support.
“That all plays perfectly with what we’re trying to do with the personality of the place,” Cartwright added.
For years, Ultra Graphics provided top-notch service to its customers in the Columbus area and beyond. But when the owner needed to spend more time with his family, he reluctantly decided to look for a buyer for his company.
That’s when Tony Windingstad stepped in.
Windingstad had been working with a business broker for a couple of years trying to find a small business to purchase both a building and the land it was on to reach his goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur. The printing and graphic design company seemed a perfect fit--and the seller was willing to work with Windingstad during the transition to show him the nuances of the business, introduce him to key customers and help him preserve the legacy of a longtime Columbus fixture.
To finance the purchase, Windingstad and his lender, Wells Fargo, used a SBA 7(a) loan approved July 2012.
And business has been good. “Since then,” Windingstad said, “we’ve been up 10 to 15 percent each month compared to the same month this time last year.”
Not bad work for a guy who spent most of his professional life in the wine and spirits distributorship business.
Originally from Minneapolis, Windingstad started out in his career with a wine distributorship as a merchandiser two days after graduation from college, working up the ranks eventually to serve as a sales manager for 11 years for one of the company’s five divisions.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own company and after years of experience and working for other people,” he explained, “the time was right when I learned about Ultra Graphics.”
Taking over a printing business wasn’t completely foreign to Windingstad; the last two companies for which he’d worked were large enough to have their own smaller printing shops. And with his experience with sales and managing employees, by taking over Ultra Graphics Windingstad hoped he could kickstart new growth beyond the business from company’s loyal customers.
“I wanted to seek new business in new areas,” he said. “We picked up 30 new regular customers in six months, which is pretty good.”
Ultra Graphics offers a wide, professional variety of printing, collating and bindery. From offset to digital printing, from large orders to just a few copies, the firm even offers wide format printing and laminating for banners and larger images, such as posters. The company also provides a direct mailing service to help its clients target messages to specific customers.
Ultra Graphics is more than just ink and rollers. The staff of highly-trained designers crafts artistic and creative promotional products, including work on a client’s new logo and branding.
And continuing to build new business is a priority to Windingstad.
“I do a lot of networking,” he explained. “One of the areas we’re looking at is focusing on franchises, where we can do printing for multiple locations. We want to print all the printing from companies we work with, a one-stop shop for convenience, quality and price.”
The company also snagged a contract to print real estate guides, and in a state with plenty of gun enthusiasts, Ultra Graphics has begun supplying archery and hunting practice targets to local sporting goods stores and for sale online.
Access to capital in his case, Windingstad said, wasn’t daunting, but that’s because he already lined up an accountant and an attorney he trusted to help complete the necessary paperwork for the application.
“I don’t know how you would do it otherwise,” he said.
Being a business owner wasn’t quite an eye-opener for Windingstad, who drew upon his previous management experience as he assumed ownership of the company. But there would be a few things he would tell an aspiring entrepreneur. The first: don’t expect to be in the black right away.
“The first 45 to 60 days, you’re basically paying out everything and nothing is coming back in, but by the third month, everything starts to come back to you,” he said.
And make certain you talk to the employees first.
“When I took over the business, I knew I had to learn, and then afterward apply my control systems and procedures. The number one thing was to get the trust of the employees, and get a good idea of what each employee is doing. So I interviewed all the employees, asked them what they liked, disliked, and what they would like to change. So I took three months to make the changes I had in mind to positively affect the company.
“If you have a knowledgeable staff,” he added, “things will take care of themselves.”
He says it's kind of funny how his feed lot resembles a hotel, but instead of handing out fresh towels for his guests, he provides "clean water tanks and fresh feed."
Tom Feller's family has been in the cattle feeding business for a hundred years in this part of northeast Nebraska, a remarkable legacy in a tough industry. Most of the beef consumed in the United States comes from feedlots like Feller & Co. of Wisner, where cattle arrive from ranchers after living for six months on pasture and grass to be fed for another six months or so on a diet of corn and other grains. Pretty simple business model, right?
"We have two things we can’t control, weather and markets," said Feller, who has owned the operation since 1985. "Weather can cause cattle not to gain weight and hurt our performance with our customers, or if markets go crazy over things like a drought which raises our feed prices, our ranchers will back away from sending their cattle to us. And you can't take time off--cows are hungry every day. It's not an easy business, and people often come and go."
In 30 years Feller said he's learned to prepare in advance for unpredictable weather and tricky markets by building a solid network of area ranchers that, if all of them demanded room for their cattle, would overflow his lot some 30 percent.
That would be a lot of cattle: since taking over the operation, Feller has built the company's capacity from 1,000 head to 20,000, complete with an on sight grain elevator to store supplies of corn, and has an employee in his cousin’s commodity trading brokerage firm to handle his in-house accounts and hedging strategies. The firm also has added a cattle trucking company to handle logistics for byproduct feed supplies.
And thanks to proceeds from an SBA guaranteed loan, the company's cash flow looks solid well into the future.
Currently, Feller's son, Jordan, who earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, is the fifth generation of the family to work in the cattle feeding business; his younger brother, Drew has a degree in animal science from UNL, and plans to return to Wisner to help run the business.
"I’m 58 years old, and I have two boys who want to come back to run the business, so to make room for them, you have to get bigger," said Feller, who started learning the ropes from his dad and uncle some 15 years before he started out on his own. "Basically, I wanted to get more money long term, especially with interest rates low." By setting up a loan structure to finance the operation for the next 15 years, he ensured his sons and longtime employees could step into running the company without having to run to the bank.
"I was getting nervous, thinking, you know, I got to get this up if something happens to me at 65 or 70 years old, so we’re not scrambling," Feller said. "I’ve been bootstrapping it since 1985 building this thing from the ground up."
Building a legacy for the next generation and his employees was one reason to turn to the SBA, "but putting stability into the operation was another," Feller said. "High feed prices have hit us–-with the drought, corn got high, hay got high, so it was a good time to get that debt restructured."
Thanks to a change in eligibility rules from the provisions of the Jobs Act, Feller applied through First Community Bank in Beemer for the highest SBA 7(a) guaranteed loan amount in the state's history at the time. While Feller often had to visit Omaha-area banks for financing, the SBA guarantee was "a heck of a deal" for the small, rural lender, which could consolidate "the land deals over here, equipment loans over there, into one big package."
Feller added that the loan was so large due to current high prices of agricultural land; the proceeds not only extended the existing debt on the lot, but even allowed him to purchase the lot next door, bringing up the operation to 480 acres in feedlot pens. Add another $3 million for equipment, and "it's a big loan, no doubt about that." The deal was approved March 2012.
"The cash flow has definitely increased, and we've put more cash into our current assets," Feller explained. "I have to finance the feed bills and the operations every week and month, so it definitely helped all that."
Feller also offers a breezy, easy-to-read newsletter, The Beef, to keep clients aware of changes to the cattle industry, and his sage interpretation of market factors crucial to making solid decisions in the agriculture industry often is a must-read. It's not just a business with cattle ranchers. "We are not just each other's customer," Feller has written. "We are each other's partner with the same end, bringing safe, healthy, high-quality beef to America's dinner table."
What also helps is the passion Feller has for his profession. "I’ve watched a lot of people start a business, and as soon as they buy or start one, they think they can quit working," he said with a chuckle. "All of a sudden they’re playing golf and soon enough the business fails. If you’re bootstrapping it, you gotta go at it like it’s your last day, you gotta put passion into it. I'm in a business where we’re open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, Christmas morning, Thanksgiving, daughter’s birthday, that place is open and we’re there. Whether you’re running a quick shop, or a movie theater, if you’re not there putting in the time it’s going to be tough to make it work."
After all, there are hungry and thirsty guests waiting.