Entrepreneurs: Owners Show Confidence In Making New Eatery Stand Out

Thursday, December 29, 2011

On paper, opening a new franchise sandwich shop right now in Billings seems crazy. There's no end in sight to the soft economy, no end to the number of sandwich shops in town, and the franchise is one few people in Montana have heard of.

All that didn't scare CJ Zielie one bit when he decided to anchor the state's first Spicy Pickle on the West End of Billings.

"It's our concept that is different," Zielie said. "There's nothing in Billings like this. The word of mouth has been great. It's just been crazy." The sandwiches come fast at Spicy Pickle, although it's not fast food. The average wait is just six minutes, he said, "so it's not like you either get your pre-made food in two seconds, or have to wait your whole lunch hour and then have to rush back to work." Everything is handmade right in front of the customer, everything is fresh and there are plenty of options if you're watching your waist, he said.

Zielie, a Billings native, runs the shop with his wife, Destiny, and partners Dan and Windy Bowman. The Spicy Pickle at 900 S. 24th Street West is open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant may be reached at 969-3012. Here's what else CJ Zielie had to say about opening a business in perilous times: Why start this business? Even though Billings has a good base of sandwich shops, we saw an opportunity for a true fast-casual restaurant concept. Throughout the current recession, the fast-casual segment has seen steady growth, while full-service has seen a decline in same-store sales and traffic counts. By offering a price point less than a sit-down restaurant, but with many of the same amenities, such as unique, high-quality, fresh ingredients, inviting atmosphere with food served on plates, the fast casual segment just made sense for both us and the people of Billings. Not wanting to compete with the "sub shops" of the world, Spicy Pickle was a great option.

Where did startup funding come from? From both of us as partners, as well as Yellowstone Bank. Kevin, Jim, and Ty, at Yellowstone Bank, have been extremely supportive and great to work with throughout the entire process. I highly recommend them for small-business funding.

How long have you been in business? Spicy Pickle opened on Nov. 8 and serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and does a lot of catering.

Your biggest challenge during the current recession? Picking the right franchise to bring to Billings that is relatively unknown in Montana. Although Spicy Pickle has approximately 65 other restaurants around the country, it still is a bit scary to take the leap, especially during a recession. Couple the recession with the time of year we are opening, right before the holidays and in the middle of winter, those are real challenges. Windy and I are both successful business owners in other trades, so venturing into uncharted waters during a recession and in the middle of winter makes it all the more exciting and challenging.

What was done to overcome those challenges? We have a lot of faith in the support of our community. And we know that if we deliver on our promise, we will prove to be successful even in a down economy. Let's face it, consumers are willing to spend, they are just more picky about where they spend it. That is why our commitment to the guest is the foundation for all our business decisions.

Given the little-to-no restaurant operations experience Windy and I have, the Spicy Pickle home office in Denver has been very instrumental in helping us learn the business and develop ourselves as restaurateurs. This began prior to our opening with training in Denver, as well as support at our opening and going into the future. As we continue to work closely with our franchise partner in Denver, we are confident that we will develop the skill sets needed for our success and future growth.

Spicy Pickle also does a really good job of marketing limited-time offers that are well placed for the seasonal swings in business. For example, in the fall we are running a "harvest combo" that plays to the Thanksgiving theme. And coming in January, we will be offering a hot brisket sandwich that is served on fresh-baked ciabatta with a jalapeņo and horseradish coleslaw dressing. Both of these offers are placed to drive business during the cold winter months when people may not necessarily be thinking about sandwiches as a meal option.

What is being done to expand the business? We are working with the home office in Denver to structure our development infrastructure and fine tune our current operations. Once we are comfortable on that front, we will begin the crucial piece of site selection and demographic analysis. The due diligence necessary for a successful restaurant location begins well in advance of actually signing a lease. We are hopeful that within a few years we will have three or four more locations throughout the state, with possibly another Billings location.

Your best business decisions? So far, finding the best franchise concept to bring to Billings. All the credit goes to both Windy and Dan, as they really did the due diligence up front.

Your worst business mistake? Can't say we made one yet, knock on wood. I'm sure we will have challenges and make mistakes, but how we learn from them will be how we benefit the most.

What advice do you have for someone running a business? Prepare to work hard and really devote your time and energy. Also your heart really has to be in the business. It's a long and tough process, but if you commit the time and effort up front, the upside is very rewarding, both financially and emotionally.

Number of workers? We currently have 19 team members, and are always looking for someone who is eager to learn and really take on the Spicy Pickle persona. We have a tremendous team here and are proud of them every day.

What's your five-year plan for the business? We hope to have an additional Spicy Pickle in the Billings area, as well as additional locations in Bozeman and Missoula.

A question you would ask other entrepreneurs? I would ask them, "What keeps you up at night? What do you think about in the shower?" I find that is when I have all the outside distractions of everyday life removed, and I can reflect on my business and what it means to me personally. I would also just take in anything they had to offer as far as business advice and help.

If you weren't doing what you are now, what would be your dream job? I personally have always loved sports and would have loved to have done something in the sports field.

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