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Success is Just the Right Topping for Dairy Queen Franchisees
Army Veterans “Living the Dream” with SBA Help
There’s hot fudge, strawberries, chocolate sprinkles, rainbow sprinkles, cherries and whipped cream, but the only topping that suits Sonja and Damon Draught these days is success. Three years ago the couple became Dairy Queen franchisees in Watertown, NY.
The U.S. Army took the Ohio natives all over the world, including Germany for 12 years, before bringing them to Fort Drum in Northern New York. After retiring as a Master Sergeant in 2012, Damon spent a year taking care of their three boys while Sonja continued working as a U.S. Army civilian employee on post. The time and freedom of retirement allowed the couple to dream of what their next chapter could be….
"It always stayed in the back of our minds to open a Dairy Queen since we grew up with the franchise in Ohio and there weren't any around Fort Drum. We were interested in opening a quick-service restaurant, but not until after Damon retired,” says Sonja.
The Draughts turned to Robin Stephenson, a business advisor at the Watertown Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. Damon first met Robin when he attended the Army’s ACAP training as part of his separation process. Robin helped Damon and Sonja analyze the feasibility of opening a Dairy Queen in the Watertown area and write a business plan. In order to open a Dairy Queen franchise store, Damon attended a three-phase training program where he learned how to make every menu item as an employee and then how to run a restaurant as the manager.
After his training, Damon and Sonja's investment company DNJ Management, LLC opened its first Dairy Queen in Watertown, NY in December 2013. Located in the Salmon Run Mall, the 742-square-foot Treat Store is a smaller-size franchise store the couple could open without any previous food service experience. Damon spent 15-hour days getting the Treat Store up and running, hiring and training new employees, and managing customer service.
“I was confident in the training I had received, but I was nervous that no one would come to the store on the first day. When we opened, the very first customer ordered a hot dog. I couldn’t believe it! Not ice cream, just a hot dog,” recalls Damon.
Opening and running the first store with franchise support gave Damon and Sonja the confidence to continue to look for other business opportunities. Once the Draughts had proven their ability to run the Treat Store successfully, they applied to open a full-size Grill & Chill after just six months’ time. Damon’s master’s degree in finance and Sonja’s master’s degree in business convinced Dairy Queen to accelerate the required two-year timeline to open a second store. Damon and Sonja retooled their business plan for the possibility of another location and they looked to the U.S. Small Business Administration for the right financial product.
“I learned about the SBA 504 program and I knew it would be great loan for us because it was fixed-rate financing over 20 years,” says Damon. “We also applied for a working capital SBA 7(a) loan from NYBDC that helped us manage our cash flow more smoothly.”
With financing help from a 504 loan through Community Bank and ESCDC, their second location opened in November 2015 on Route 11 in nearby Evans Mills, NY. The brand-new restaurant is nearly triple the first store’s size at 2,700-square-feet, created 51 new jobs, and features a full menu with burgers, chicken strips, and the franchise’s legendary line of ice cream cakes. The Draughts have turned the second location just outside the entrance gate to Fort Drum into one of Dairy Queen’s top performing sales locations nationwide. The Grill & Chill now runs as smoothly as the original Treat Store, giving Damon and Sonja the time to supervise both locations and choose when and where to step in.
“The general manager has things under great control at the new store, and sometimes I feel like it is running so well it doesn’t need me. I still love working the fryer, because it’s the easiest job to learn but the hardest to do well. I even like delivering the food to customers who are dining in the restaurant,” says Damon.
Damon learned how to operate in a stressful environment with physically-challenging conditions during his deployments to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011. Applying the leadership skills Damon gained throughout his military career has enabled him to motivate his team of employees. Damon personally calls to follow up on each customer complaint, setting the example for his staff to take pride in what they do. When Damon isn’t at one of the Dairy Queen stores or with Sonja and their boys, he often makes time to speak with transitioning soldiers at Fort Drum about their entrepreneurial experience.
“Now I go back to the same ACAP class as a business owner to share what we’ve learned. I advise them to do the research to see if their business is feasible and find the programs out there that can help you succeed,” says Damon. “I also tell them it’s not like having a job where you can quit if you don’t like it. I haven’t gone on vacation since we opened the first store, and I don’t need to. I’m living the dream!”