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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.
With just a dream and no prior entrepreneurial experience, Michael Tracy’s first foray into business ownership occurred in 2004 when he bought an old, distressed bar in New York City’s fashion district. He transformed the run-down business into Katwalk NYC Bar
& Lounge– a sleek, chic and stylish lounge that has since become a local hotspot, hosts parties for major corporations, and provides a once-a-week venue for HBO’s Sex and the City fans.
Previously living a lucrative corporate life at one of New York’s leading global investment banks– Lehman Brothers, Tracy found that career path to be unrewarding. He also didn’t care to see the way hard-working people were so easily let go from their jobs. At a loss as to what to do for fulfillment and satisfaction, he finally decided to combine his business savvy with his entrepreneurial spirit. “I wanted to be my own master,” said Tracy.
Ready to invest $165,000 of his own money Tracy visited the U.S. Small Business Administration-funded, Pace University Small Business Development Center to take advantage of its free business counseling services. “I wanted a business that I could ramp up quickly and that had big profit margins, so I choose the bar business,” said Tracy. He worked with SBDC Counselor, Greg Callender, to get a better understanding of what it took to run a small business. They also put together a loan application package that set Tracy up with a $200,000 HSBC Bank loan backed by the SBA.
With the combined funds Tracy purchased the troubled bar, situated close to all the major transit hubs, and ga ve the 3000 square-foot space a massive face lift, all the while still working at Lehman. He did the build-out himself and created an interior designed to appeal to all the female fashion industry workers and to women in general. “Even the name of my business is targeted at women,” said Tracy. “I figured if the women came, the men would follow.”
Tracy included a kitchen in his build-out in order to offer New-American small plate food, and poured money into a swanky upstairs ‘Kat Lounge’ that has been used for corporate gatherings for the likes of Mitsubishi, NBC, UBS and United Way.
Tracy has also given back to the community by hosting and donating to numerous charitable events including City Harvest, the Libby Ross Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, the Unicef Fundraiser for Tsunami Victims and iMentor. And each Wednesday, the bar features Sex and the City Night where patrons can watch all their favorite episodes on the big flat screens with 10 percent of the night’s proceeds go ing to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Tracy’s decision to leave Lehman Brothers now seems prescient and he has an abundance of advice for other aspiring owners. A member of the New York State Restaurant Association and the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he advises others to join their respective industry’s trade association and local commerce for the support they offer. He also suggests, “Use Business Pro to build your business plan, have a public relations policy and be up front about everything. People know when you are snowing them.”
“If you need any support starting your businesses – whether it is guidance or you need financial assistance, visit your local SBA and SBDC office,” Tracy adds. Without their support, I would not have been able to achieve my entrepreneurial dream. They provided me the leverage I needed to implement my vision of the, as he puts it, purr-fect bar.”
Charles Seashore, SCORE Counselor, has been named the Minnesota Minority Small Business Champion of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Minority Business Champion is selected annually to honor individuals who have fulfilled a commitment to support minority entrepreneurship.
Chuck Seashore is currently a member of Minneapolis SCORE Chapter #2. Prior to joining SCORE, he spent 40 years with Honeywell, Inc. and Alliant Techsystems. He served in a number of research, engineering and program management positions within the corporation.
Since joining SCORE in 1999, Seashore has served as Vice Chair, Chapter Chair and organized the chapter’s 40th anniversary celebration as the oldest SCORE Chapter in the country. SCORE was started in Minneapolis by a group of corporate executives in 1964.
Seashore has led the “Going into Business Seminar” for the last six years and extended its presentation base to include five metro library locations and two African American and immigrant centers in the Minneapolis area. He remains active in counseling/mentoring of clients on a weekly basis with emphasis on minority small business entrepreneurs.
Seashore’s volunteer efforts have focused on minority client outreach and partnering to bring business expertise and knowledge to those in the minority communities. These efforts have included establishing minority counseling sites, client training and mentoring. In the early stages of the Minneapolis SCORE’s outreach program, Seashore met with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback and Don Samuels, city councilmember, to familiarize them with SCORE’s expertise in serving clients in the existing business community and for emerging entrepreneurs. These efforts have supported the city’s efforts to promote and expand jobs.
Two years ago, Seashore was instrumental in finalizing a Memo of Understanding with Kari Plowman, then Executive Director of the Native American Indian Chamber of Commerce. This effort resulted in business counseling being available one day per month in the Native American community. Similar efforts have resulted in business counseling being available one day per month at Urban Ventures in Minneapolis.
Seashore’s outreach efforts are not limited to counseling, holding seminars and meeting with city, library and minority organization leaders. He also participates in SCORE’s speakers bureau with is responsible for explaining SCORE’s capabilities and resource to various organizations.
For example, a couple times per year he speaks about small business opportunities at Roosevelt High School. He is a willing participant at trade shows and exhibits where he distributes literature and explains SCORE’s program of free business counseling and mentoring to potential clients. At these events he is very active in recruiting new SCORE members, particularly new minority and female SCORE volunteers.