Rance Reese wanted to be near his home in Sautee Nacoochee, Ga., and Huddle House provided him an opportunity to thrive in his small town
Rance Reese, 55, a Huddle House franchisee since 2004, owns restaurants in Clarkesville and Cleveland, Ga., on the cusp of the Smoky Mountains in northeastern Georgia. Reese brought a wealth of restaurant experience to Huddle House, having spent 13 years at the corporate offices of Shoney’s®, where he traveled the country supporting franchisees. After he left that job to spend more time with his family in Sautee Nacoochee, Ga., a former Shoney’s® colleague reached out and asked him to visit at Huddle House’s corporate office in Atlanta. At the time, Reese thought it was just a social visit. “I stopped by in nasty jeans and a torn T-shirt,” he chuckles. He wound up interviewing for a franchise. We recently spoke with him about his Huddle House experience.
Do you own one unit or several? Why?
I have two restaurants, and to me, it’s easier to run two. Two gives you a little flexibility where you can borrow staff or groceries from another restaurant. It also gives me a little bit more opportunity to go out and work the community. With one restaurant, I would spend more time managing the restaurant than getting out in the community like I do now. I’m on the Chamber of Commerce board and the Better Hometown board. We pick different businesses once a week where we take sausage and biscuits to them, or a cake or a pie. We just show up and try to make their day. I was at an office the other day and one of the ladies said, “Oh, you didn’t bring any waffles today.” The next day I took waffles, coffee and creamer for everybody. You would have thought I came in and handed everybody a $100 bill. I believe in building the business by getting out in the community. I’m near the national forests, so tourists are going to come, but if you take care of your locals, you’ll have year-round business.
We sponsor the high school football team, band and cheerleaders. We donate our foam logo cups, and coffee and creamer so they can have that at football games — and I get to see bunches of logo cups out there in the stands. It’s nice to see that happening in the community, where you’re getting your name out there.
Is restaurant experience important?
I want to say no, but I want to say yes. I think it depends on the individual. If you don’t have it, you have to have the dedication to learn the business and learn how to take care of the food properly, how to prepare the food properly. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re probably looking at the wrong business. If you rely on your employees to run the business and aren’t involved, it won’t work as well because it will lack that owner mentality. I have too much invested just to turn my restaurants over to somebody. They won’t care near as much about the customer as I do. I’m not saying anything bad about my employees, but they get paid every week. My income depends on the way we greet every customer, smile, answer the phone properly and take care of people. You also can’t be afraid to talk to people. If you don’t talk to your guests, you’re not going to make it. People want to see the owner and they want to know that you appreciate them coming in. You have to be there.
What do you like about Huddle House?
For me it has been very rewarding on the profit side and when customers come in and tell you how great their meal was, and it’s also rewarding to see your employees grow.
Every day is a totally different day. I’m constantly on the move, which I like. It’s rewarding in so many aspects. When you come in and the first thing that happens is an employee comes up and hugs you; or you see a customer at the grocery store talking about the great experience they had last night when you weren’t there, and the employees took care of them — then you go back and tell your employees that you saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith and they said they had a great time, and you get to see your employees beam ear to ear.
What sets Huddle House apart?
People come down from corporate to work with you in your restaurant, which is so helpful. They can give you insight into your business and helpful hints, and it’s the smallest little things that can be very helpful to you. I see folks from corporate about once a month. We recently had the corporate chef come down. There are a couple of things we do in particular at our restaurants that customers love: We always serve warm syrup with waffles and pancakes. On weekends and holidays when there can be a wait, we’ll set up a table with free coffee. We want customers to feel comfortable as soon as they come in. We also have a hostess to greet customers as soon as they come in.
Huddle House also has its own food distribution center, and they only supply Huddle House franchises. When a restaurant has to deal with an outside supplier, sometimes they won’t care as much about quality or always delivering a consistent product. They’ll run out of things. That doesn’t happen with Huddle House.
How large is the opportunity to grow with Huddle House?
I think it’s enormous. The biggest thing is finding the right franchisees for the system. When someone puts on a shirt with the Huddle House logo on it, they carry not only their brand in their town around — they carry other restaurants’ brands around. We get people from all across country who come in here. If we represent Huddle House well, people may stop at another Huddle House when they’re back home. But if I do a customer a disservice, they aren’t going to stop at another Huddle House. So we impact each other.
Who is your biggest competition?
A lot of people would say Waffle House® or Denny’s®, but I think our biggest competition is ourselves. What I mean is, you shouldn’t worry too much about how the next guy over is doing. If you take care of what you’ve got right here, your business will grow. It’s not about trying to destroy the competition. I invite competition in. When you have more restaurants and more choices in one part of town, people will head toward where all the restaurants are. If you enjoy a spot without any competition, and you’re all alone, guess what — customers probably aren’t flocking to that part of town.
What does your typical day look like?
One of the things I do, and I do it seven days a week, is every morning I’m going to check in with both restaurants. Is everything working? Do you have everything you need? And if I did take the day off, I’ll call back at shift change and talk to the shift leaders about sales and whether they need any product. They know I’m going to be calling. Even when I’m on vacation, they know I’m going to be calling. For the managers, team leaders and employees, it shows that I have pride in the business. I want my employees to make money, and that means taking care of customers. If we are short of silverware, plates or cups or products — if you run out of stuff it shows that you don’t care enough about your customers, so we try to make sure we’re well stocked. That’s my off day.
On days when I’m in the restaurant, I wake up and call the manager to ask about sales, even though I have the information called up on my computer. I ask if anything was out of the norm, and we’ll talk about our goals for the day. We’re constantly trying to beat last year’s sales. If you have a goal, chances are a lot better that you’ll hit it. We know what labor percentage of sales we want to shoot for for the day. At this point, the managers know what I’m going to be asking and they already have the answers before I ask, which sets them up to be profitable. That’s a typical day. My managers are working the dining room, doing 15-minute walk-throughs where we check bathrooms, do spot sweeps and speak to customers. Both restaurants are high-volume restaurants. They didn’t used to be, but by taking care of customers, our business grew. I tell people, you spend time in the dining room, because you don’t make money in the office. After a day shift, I’ll head over to the other restaurant and look at night shift and may spend some time with them. Then I’ll go home and spend some time with my wife. Even after leaving, I’ll call and check in.
If I’m on vacation, it’s still my life — it’s my business. There have been very, very few times in 10 years where I haven’t called a restaurant. It’s so important to be engaged. If you’re not engaged, it won’t thrive. That’s not just true of Huddle House — that’s anything you do. If you just want to be a mediocre business, you can do that anywhere, but if you want to really be profitable, it’s getting out and doing the right thing every day.
Who would enjoy owning a Huddle House franchise?
I think a sanguine-type personality that gets out there, has fun, laughs and has a great time, those would do well. But also someone neat and organized who keeps things in order. Somebody who will have energy to put into the business and a can-do attitude. I’m not afraid to go in and clean the restrooms. If I need to get in there and scrub the toilet, I’ll do that. The employees know I’m not too good to do any job in here.
What are some of the personal benefits of franchise ownership?
I enjoy having the freedom to make my own schedule. If I want to take a vacation, I can go basically when I want to. I continue to check on my business on the phone and online, and they can get ahold of me, but I have the freedom to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I also like controlling my own destiny instead of having someone else tell me what do do.
What are the secrets that make your restaurant thrive?
We’ll overstaff. I’ll spend extra to have an extra server on the floor and will pay for an extra cook to make sure food comes out quickly. People come in to eat, not to stay all day. I also feel passionate about the employees. There are many employees who need guidance. There are moms and dads who aren’t being moms and dads anymore, and when I can take an employee and help them become an excellent cook or an excellent server, that feels really good. I’ve hired people who had no experience at all, but they had a good attitude, and it’s great to see them grow. I have two servers right now who had never been servers before, but they are positive people, and each of them is making more than $600 a week in tips and providing for their families now. That’s the kind of stuff that excites me.
Would you recommend a Huddle House franchise to someone else?
Absolutely. I’ve never felt more positive about Huddle House than I do since Michael Abt has come on as CEO. He is energetic, he understands operations and he also understands finance. Operations is where a franchise’s profit is built, and he’s putting a team together of folks who are excited about Huddle House. He’s brought in a lot of new blood and is picking the right team to grow this brand. I’m so excited about it. It’s just moving in the right direction.