Franchising | July 2015 | By Robert Thomas

Investigative Insights

Federal agent-turned-franchisee Audra de Vera says treating the business like an open-case file can lead to future success.
QSR franchisee uses tips from government work to turn restaurants around.
Chronic Tacos franchisee Audra de Vera used her investigative skills to root out financial mismanagement. Chronic Tacos

Before becoming a Chronic Tacos franchisee, Audra de Vera worked as a federal agent for the U.S. Department of Health and Urban Development (HUD). With a degree in international security and conflict resolution from San Diego State University, de Vera investigated financial fraud. She spent four years with the agency, but realized after the birth of her first child that being a federal agent would give her little time to devote to family.

Raised by two LAPD officers and married to another federal agent, de Vera decided to break from that track to raise her growing family. Her cousin—a fellow Chronic Taco franchisee—told her about a location for sale. De Vera purchased the unit in Corona, California, and now owns a second in Long Beach.

De Vera explains how franchisees can approach their business with investigative tactics, leading to a financially sound restaurant.

1. Obtain the evidence

When I took over the Corona Chronic Tacos location in 2014, I saw it as a good opportunity to be a business owner and eventually determine my own path. I wanted to be a mom, and it didn’t seem like being a federal agent would allow me to do that. The brand was solid; it was growing and opening more stores. At the time, that’s really all I needed to make the decision. The store itself was financially failing, and even with no quick-serve experience of my own, I knew this didn’t make sense. The unit was in a great location and should have been doing adequate business.

I started the business the same way I would start a federal case: look at the books, assess the numbers, follow the paper trail, and eventually see why the numbers didn’t add up. I looked at all the bank accounts, statements, utility bills, food costs, etc. I went down the whole list, auditing everything along the way to find out where the money was going and why this store was failing. I had the power to get the unit back on its feet, and it all came from literally searching for answers. What I eventually found was that the majority of money was being mismanaged and a lot of staff members were stealing food by either not charging the correct amount or not charging people at all.

2. Analyze the intel

I started calling all the different vendors associated with the restaurant. I had to close everything out as the former business and start everything fresh by straightening out each account, dollar for dollar, and figuring out why we owed the money in the first place. I set up the unit as a new business with city agencies.

All of this auditing, calling, following clues, and putting it together took over a month. It was a difficult phase to go through, but a necessary one. Additionally, I discovered that the staff would have to be, for lack of a better term, investigated as well. I had to get all of my employees on the same page. Operations changed immediately; there was no coming or going as they pleased and no undercharging or failing to charge based on the customer. All of this was a form of stealing from the business. It might not seem like it in a literal sense, but as a franchisee, the mismanagement of money when it comes to giving away your product for free is a literal form of theft.

New policies were put in place for the entire service staff, and I had to let more than half of the employees go. Currently, there are only four of the original 12 when I took over.

3. Strategically stake the restaurant out

Because I was a lead case agent with the federal government, I had to put together multiple teams, each with its own team leader. I managed large groups of people, and a takedown had to be very organized and detail-oriented. I had to explain the direction to each team leader, and because of that, I had to explain it differently each time. I had to figure out how people worked and how I could best communicate.

Managing a quick-serve unit should be no different. When I first started, I simply sat back and witnessed how the business operated. I observed how the staff were taking orders, serving food, and cleaning—all of the facets of operations from opening to close. Because of that, I was able to sniff out the issues and identify the good employees from the bad ones. I appointed a manager from the small pool of employees, and he and I still work together to manage those aspects of the restaurant.

4. Document everything

Although dealing with such a different staff was a challenge for me, I still approached it as if I were leading a team as an agent. Now, whenever somebody does something right, it is recorded, and it is the same for when somebody does something wrong. Furthermore, should someone do something wrong, he or she takes part in what we call “counseling” in which the employee talks with me, the manager, or both of us about what needs to be improved and how we can help. I only knew how to approach it from a governmental agency perspective; I’ve never even had any waitressing experience.

Now, with two units, two kids, and the hours spent in the beginning, the business is profitable and moving forward. I think any franchisee only needs to rely on the positive career experiences they’ve had prior and translate them accordingly. A federal agency and a Chronic Tacos are not in the same business category, but both succeed because of structure, accountability, and dedication.

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