Careful Planning Plus Quality Ingredients Equal Success

Charlie Downs sitting in his office.

Charlie Downs knows a bit about running businesses. After all, he has started or taken over 39 restaurants since 1982 (after owning a restaurant supply company). He is co-owner of the successful fast-casual Sugarfire Smokehouse chain, and recently won SBA’s 2024 Missouri Small Business Person of the Year award. Founded in 2012, Sugarfire has grown to 14 locations, including franchises, and currently employs 170 people at the company-owned locations.  

However, nothing in his experience prepared him for the pandemic and its effect on the hospitality industry. “The cost of gloves went from $40 to $170 per case,” he relates. “We would have lost four restaurants without PPP (Pay Protection Program) loans.” Sugarfire also got money from the SBA’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund and took out an EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) which they paid back as soon as they realized they really didn’t need it. Besides paying staff, they used the money to put air purifiers on their HVAC systems to keep customers and staff safer and bought lots of PPE.

Downs is meticulous about reviewing expenses for his restaurants and is constantly updating his business plans. He has one-month, one-year, and five-year plans. Reviewing his expenses is automated for him now, so it only takes him about 15 minutes a day to check the expenses for all his restaurants and how they’re trending. “I’m able to make better and faster decisions,” he says of planning and expense tracking. Rising expenses have made that even more critical. Restaurant margins have gone from 12 to 15 percent a few years ago to barely five percent. When any expense is out of line he investigates and moves to fix it or make adjustments to compensate. Labor costs, including health insurance, have become a greater part of the equation, especially recently. He and his managers work to keep turnover as low as possible which helps with labor costs. He visits all the restaurants at least weekly and talks to customers, workers, and management.

These restaurant visits allow Charlie and his managers stay up to date on what customers want. They serve farm-to-table fare as much as possible using locally farmed beef and upgraded sides at Sugarfire Smokehouse. His other restaurants have a different focus. Over the years he owned restaurants with different concepts and he learned from each of them. He credits some advice he learned from the SBA when he opened Cyrano’s back in 2002 (twenty years after his first restaurant venture). When his wife applied for a 7(a) loan for Cyrano’s, SBA and his lender stressed the need for a really good business plan. Clearly, he learned the lesson and continues to put it into practice.

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.