He traded in a button-up shirt and tie for an apron, and hungry barbeque lovers in Nebraska couldn’t be happier.
Mike Popelier was a branch manager for a copier retailer in Omaha when he was downsized two years ago. But instead of updating his resume on job sites, he waved goodbye to the workaday world and turned his grilling hobby into a business—Desperate Husbands BBQ.
The name comes from Popelier’s barbequeing team, which was given the easy-to-remember moniker by his wife, Lisa. As part of his team or as an individual, Popelier had competed in barbequeing events around Omaha for five years, winning several awards for his delectable sauces and rubs. And his talent around the grill has rubbed off on his sons, both of whom won their divisions at the Nebraska State BBQ contest at nearby Bellevue’s riverside Hayworth Park.
“This is a culmination of everything I’ve been doing with barbeque for the past 20 years,” Popelier said. “I’ve been smoking (meats) for a long time.”
Popelier’s combination of spices, seasonings and herbs adding just the right flavor and texture to his grilling meats took him more than 10 years to perfect.
“It’s just me in my kitchen, trying different things,” he said. “I love to cook.”
Hy-Vee previously had sponsored his team during barbeque competitions, and had urged Popelier to go into business “for more than a year now.”
He took his product on the road, setting up a small table inside the stores, grilling up the grocery’s meats to help market his recipes.
“I’ve got a rub for ribeye steaks, fish, pork,” Popelier said. “I’ll hand out my ribeye steak recipe for customers, and their first reaction when they taste it is, ‘this is fantastic!’”
Popelier researched the cost of growing the business beyond demonstrating his products at local grocery stores, and met with Centris Federal Credit union to pursue financing. He was approved Nov. 9, 2010, through the lender for an SBA Express loan, the proceeds of which went to Palmer House Foods of Omaha, which followed his closely-held recipe to manufacture his rubs, and Original Juan in Kansas City, which does his sauces, shipping 156 cases of product back to him for distribution on shelves.
Already, Popelier offers his products at 20 different Hy-Vee locations, and nine SuperSaver stores in the Omaha and Lincoln area. He’s reached across the Midwest to place his rubs and sauces in markets in Rock Island and East Moline, Ill., and had plans to add his marinade recipe to his line.
“Through my product demonstrations, the growth has been unbelievable,” he said. “Revenue forecast is $60,000 by the end of the first year.”
And, in case you don’t want to hang out at a grocery store to get a sample off some freshly rubbed and grilled steak, he has hopes in the future to open a restaurant.
Enes, Mira and Sandro Sljivo of EMSA Inc., pose in their sparkling clean kitchen.
One taste of their hearty, garlicky beef kebob sausages and you understand how this family-owned business bringing authentic European flavors to Nebraska is enjoying great success in the marketplace.
Lincoln-based EMSA, Inc., crafts unique recipes for inside a couple of spotless, bright kitchens in a nondescript office park, offering its delectable meat delights for distribution to a local grocery store specializing in European products and to nine wholesalers across the country, from Clearwater, Fla., to St. Louis, and to places in 38 states. Last year, they began exporting to Canada delectable beef kabobs and ready-to-eat products such as beef goulash and bean soup with smoked beef.
From war-torn Bosnia to business in the Cornhusker state
The story of this thriving business begins back in 1998, when Enes, along with his wife, Mira, and their two children, fled their home in Banja Luka in war-torn Bosnia, with only two small suitcases in his hand and a dream in his head of a prosperous life. The war ripped the former Yugoslavia apart and forced many thousands of refugee families to leave the country throughout the 1990s.
Eventually, the family settled in Lincoln, and Enes got a job at a local factory. But after years of sweat and hard work, he left the shop floors behind and with his wife and son working alongside, opened a small grocery store at 27th and Superior, where the family could sell the gourmet meats and foods they enjoyed in Bosnia to their American neighbors.
"We started making the recipes in our basement," remembered Enes, who speaks with a twinkle in his eye and an easy smile. They found customers in the Bosnian community in Lincoln, which numbers around 2,000 people, and soon found demand in a larger diaspora in Des Moines. By 2002, they'd moved production from their basement to a USDA-approved kitchen in back of the grocery store, and by 2003 they began producing sausages for another nationwide label in addition to wholeselling under their own brand.
The Sljivos were grateful for the help offered by the Lincoln Action Program, a local non-profit focused on self-empowerment, which gave them business advice on marketing, record keeping, USDA regulations and building and safety requirements as the business began to grow.
Going the extra mile to spread the word about their tasty meats
When it came to a loan for the equipment and machinery to meet the growing demand for their food products, Cory Smathers, the program's entrepreneur development administrator, referred them to Rick Wallace, the director of Community Development Resources (CDR), a micro-lender serving the area, who gave them a $5,000 micro-loan, using the machines as collateral.
"Nobody would give us a business loan until we had two years in the business," Mira said. "Rick was with us from the beginning. He saw how we grew, he was confident we’d be okay." They would be better than that.
Two years later, EMSA outgrew the back of the grocery store and moved to its present home on Fletcher Avenue in the northwest part of the city, not far from the family's home. And according to Enes, the business has averaged annual growth of 10-15 percent since. These days, hungry customers can find their products in two Hy-Vee grocery stores in Lincoln, but the small company lacks a sales person to market their frozen dinners, microwave products and smokehouse meats on more store shelves.
"Our product is really good," he said with pride, "but our problem is advertising. Our advertising is word-of-mouth."
They go the extra mile to spread the word--literally. They'll drive down to St. Louis, where there is an estimated 70,000 Bosnian expatriates living, to grill their beef kabobs during a festival in an area park where 200 to 300 of their former neighbors from Banja Luka gather to share stories and plenty of food.
The company also uses their web site, with content in both English and Serbo-Croatian accompanied by mouth-watering pictures, to market their products. They’ve gotten calls from a distributor in Jacksonville for a community of more than 20,000, and a getting call from a woman in Alaska who wants to stock the meats for a Bosnian group of 60 people—except to ship that far away would be expensive!
"Watching everything come from when it started I was there and I saw what it was like when we were making sausage from a Kitchen Aid now to big machines that produce a couple thousand pounds every day," said their son Sandro during a segment on Lincoln's KOLN-TV. He's worked for the family business since he was a teenager.
"It's amazing how it all just grows and grows and keep growing," he added.
EMSA returned to CDR for another micro-loan last fall for $35,000 to defray the cost of translating their packaging into French for sale in Canada, for overnight printing of full-color print catalogs and for web site bandwidth. The rest of the proceeds were used for machines to add goulash to their product line and for refrigerators.
Not everything is perfect, though.
"You can feel the economy slow down the business," Mira said. "Ethnic stores in other parts of the country have closed." And while EMSA's expenses have increased, the profits haven’t as they keep prices low.
According to Enes, the company plans to expand into the burgeoning demand in Halal certified products to break into Islamic ethnic food stores, and already has paid membership dues to a group which certifies kitchens and products. Someday soon they want to expand the meat production into a new facility, which would allow a leap ahead in turnaround time.
They've come a long way since they left Banja Luka behind.
"It's really hard to believe, it's really rare to get his kind of feeling knowing that we didn't have a lot," Sandro said. We were running away from the war so coming to a country like this and become something, it's just amazing to me."
Justin Hernandez (left), owner of New Generation Construction, talks with Region VII Advocate Becky Greenwald outside St. Michael's Catholic School in southeast Lincoln.
He couldn't see himself working in an office at his father's Ford dealership, so Justin Hernandez started his own construction company.
And he'll tell you he had a knack for timing, he admits with a laugh, starting his business in early 2009, in the teeth of the worst construction crash in several generations.
Yet today, New Generation Construction is an up-and-comer in the Lincoln area with a name that describes their approach to their clients.
Hernandez was tossing around names for his firm with a friend of his, who thought about the way the company was integrating new technology and new ways of thinking into a new generation of construction ownership. "And I’ve been a believer that it’s not one person who is responsible for our success, it's something that incorporates everyone on our team, so we had to have 'group' in there somewhere."
Bursting portfolio of spectacular projects
New Generation Construction began with four full-time employees; today, reflecting its astounding growth, there are 14 full-time and two part-time workers in the firm.
As their web site claims, New Generation Construction is recognized for its strength in traditional construction methods and for its creative approach to state-of-the-art technology and delivery systems spanning the construction industry spectrum, from small renovations to million dollar projects. They boast an attractive portfolio of projects ranging from general contractor work on the Alloy Strength Complex for the University of Nebraska Cornhusker athletic teams, one of many projects for the college over the past two years, to the interior finish for a gleaming, new dental practice. The firm has done renovation and upgrade work on an MRI suite for St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island; and, working with Shanahan Mechanical & Electrical, they are in the process of constructing a 2.8 million gallon thermal energy storage facility for the University of Nebraska .
Then there's St. Michael's Catholic School on the southeast side of Lincoln. This 55,000-square-foot edifice now rises from south of Yankee Hill boasting nine comfortable classrooms, a library, computer lab, parish and faculty offices, full commercial kitchen and bright, airy 10,000-square-foot gym.
New Generation Construction completed the work on the parochial school in just 9-1/2 months, and "way" under budget, said Jerry Sukup of Heartland Community Bank in nearby Bennet. "Nobody thought he could finish it by the time school opened."
Turning to the SBA for a line of credit to fuel further growth
Sukup himself is a parishoner of St. Michael's Church, and it was during a tour of the construction work led by the parish priest that he ran into Hernandez.
"Lincoln is a small place, you kind of run back into people you've worked with before," he said. The two had worked together when Sukup was at a previous lender, and he couldn't help but impressed with the work New Generation Construction had done.
Hernandez mentioned to Sukup he could use a larger line of credit to continue to tackle the larger construction jobs around the state, and with Sukup's help, moved his business financing to Heartland. After a discussion of what structure of deal would help the business and work best for the lender, and the growth and potential of the firm, Sukup decided to turn to the SBA to guarantee the loan, and to Suzanne Stearman, a lender relations specialist at the Nebraska District Office, for help.
Heartland had done only two SBA loans recently, a landscaping firm in Nebraska City in March 2010, and a custom window manufacturer in Lincoln in August 2011. New Generation Construction would be the third.
"Suzanne is always great for us," Sukup said. "Sure, she pointed out the forms were available on the SBA web site, but she went beyond that by offering to send us what we needed. The first time I submitted the information through ETran (the SBA's electronic loan processing software) on this deal, I got a few errors, so I called her, and she walked me through it."
As a result of Sukup's work and Stearman's help, New Generation Construction was approved Jan. 17 for a $300,000 revolving line of credit using the SBA Express program.
And this deal may not be the last SBA application for Heartland.
"There are several SBA deals for people I have worked with in the past that we’re looking at, maybe six or seven that would fit perfectly into a line of credit or an Express loan," Sukup said. "We’re on that slow and steady growth here, and we’re always looking for more deals."
Especially if they have a chance to help a young, energetic small business owner.
Didn't let economic slump discourage him from starting his own company
Hernandez's father owns a car dealership in Beatrice, some 40 miles from Lincoln in the southeast part of the state, which he purchased back in 1997.
"He wanted me to come work there but I couldn’t stand being in the office," Hernandez said.
So he started "a concrete and landscape business right out of high school," an effort he continued through college toward a degree in construction management and business management, repairing and pouring concrete for driveways on the weekends, working between classes on grading work for residential and commercial lots.
"There was a lot of work to go around and I found a niche," he said.
He picked up a job with Landscapes Unlimited constructing football fields and soccer pitches all over the country, and sold off a large portion of his landscaping business while working for that firm. After working for three years, he tired of the travel and living away from home, so he returned to work for a Lincoln-area construction firm
By the end of 2008, he determined he had enough experience working for another firm and decided to go out on his own, right as the industry slumped.
"Every banker told me I should just go work for somebody," Hernandez said. "I said to myself, 'well, if it doesn't work out, at least I know.'"
But Hernandez leveraged the reputation he'd built with several clients while working for the Lincoln construction company, and worked his way up from very small jobs in 2009 to multi-million dollar projects by 2012.
Hernandez also works hard to be a responsible corporate citizen. "He’s been involved with very unique, green projects reusing and renewing material for projects," Sukup said.
While the line of credit will help, Hernandez said key to continued growth remains the relationships he forges between his company and his clients.
"That's been our biggest asset," he said. "We do more with less with our projects, and we look for more efficient ways to do the same tasks as our competitors on time and under budget. Our growth has been more than what we had anticipated, but now that we have a few things in line we’re ready for the next step."