Lisa and Tom Noak have been business partners for almost as long as the 37 years they’ve been married.
After spending more than 20 years as owners of a six-unit convenience-store chain, the Noaks went into retirement for a decade. But a chance encounter with a Ben’s Soft Pretzels location led to a talk with the franchisor and, eventually, a business plan to open five Ben’s stores.
Tom Noak shares the advice he’s learned throughout his career with his wife, including selecting the right partner and making a shift to the franchise model.
1. Minimize your risk
During retirement, we were ready to jump back into something. We didn’t really have a good idea what we wanted to do, but we didn’t want to get back into the convenience-store business, so that left other avenues open. We never thought about the pretzel business, and certainly hadn’t had a Ben’s pretzel before. It surpassed our expectations and experiences—that was the first thing to make us curious.
We were looking for something that had a framework or design we could follow. We knew that, of the businesses that were not set up as franchises, a lot would fail. Knowing what Ben’s corporate stores had done, and how they were going about it, helped us formulate whether it was worth us going into.
The whole idea of owning a business set us up for being more prepared in what to expect at Ben’s. There are a lot of people who have no idea what they’re getting into when they get into an ownership situation. In the end, if you look at a franchise business versus the number of people who start a business and fail, I think you’re a lot better off sticking with a franchise that has a proven system and a proven record. What it’s really come down to is: What is your tolerance for risk? No matter what you do, if you’re going to be in business for yourself, the buck stops with you, and there’s no backboard. There’s nobody back there who’s going to stop you from falling, so you need to make the best decision. Part of that is looking at the system and seeing if that’s something that you can benefit from.
We have been owners ever since we were in our 20s, and the only thing that I ever wanted to do was be self-employed. All those years of experience handling all the things you have to handle in the convenience store business coincided with our current work. We are selling a different product, but everything else is basically the same.
2. Pick the right partner
Lisa and I have a system. We got in our first business a year after we were married, and it made us so much stronger. It’s so much easier to have somebody who is on the same plane as you, who is working toward the same goal, who has the same interests in mind, and who has a different set of tools than what you have. That’s the reason that Lisa and I fit so well together and spend so much time together. She has the ability to be more into the details and the paperwork, and I’m more of a management person who goes with the big picture, the handling of employees and attorneys, and all that business stuff.
When I talk to other people about us probably spending 20 hours a day together for the last 37 years, many don’t understand that. They say, “Oh, we would’ve killed each other by then.” But for us, it works out well because of the different talents that she has and the different talents that I have. And I always tell the young men I know that it’s a lot easier to marry somebody smarter than you.
3. Create an environment for success
I’m very anal when it comes to order and things being in their right place and things being clean. At Ben’s, I looked at the operation and did not see the two things that made me never want to own a food business: a grill and a fryer. I had previous experience with this because we had roasted chicken in our convenience stores, and that was just a nasty thing to have; it created so many different kinds of problems. It’s the grease; it’s the continual cleaning; it’s what you do when you throw out the grease; and it’s the smell. I decided that I didn’t want any of that at all. When I looked at Ben’s, I saw the simplicity of running the business and producing the product. We basically have a mixer and an oven, and you have the equipment to serve that product. As far as the rules that we have to adhere to, we have such a simple process; we’re basically serving bread.
With employees, it’s a two-way street. There’s an element of trust involved. You have to trust people to put out a product that is going to be a great experience every time the customer comes in. You also have to make sure that they understand that the customer is the person who is paying the bill, and without them, we don’t exist. From that standpoint, I want to try to instill the idea in them that we have their back. There are things that come up that maybe they might need a helping hand in. For instance, we had an employee who needed a car, and one of these dealerships was going to charge a 27 percent interest rate, so she’d be paying $300 forever. I was able to talk with one of the people I know in the car business. He ended up finding a car that was significantly less, and I was able to buy it, and the employee paid me $100 a month for a year, and then she had a really nice car.
There are times when we can jump in and we can do things for people and help them out—even above what they’re doing in the store.
This story originally appeared in QSR's February 2017 issue with the title "A Convenient Shift."