Saturday, October 23, 2010

A small business dream

Ever since Lorri and I were first married, we discussed opening our own restaurant. Back then, it was either a Cafe or a Sports Bar.  We were married young and both came from humble beginnings.  Lorri was raised by her mom and grand parents and I was a foster child, on my own after high school graduation.  We had no money, but we had each other.  Our first priority was not as much the career, but of starting a family.  Five years into our marriage, we had three children. Our restaurant was no more than a dream to us back then.

It did not take long for us to decide that one of us needed a college education.  I had a career job as a Denny's manager.  There were going to be plenty of opportunities for me to advance with the company.  Lorri embraced the idea and soon began college.  Raising 3 children while obtaining a college degree, let alone keeping up with the bills, is not an easy task.  After a long stint of part time classes and full time towards the end, Lorri graduated.  She started her career in public accounting, but soon worked her way to becoming the Controller of Red Hook Ale Brewing.  Her career ultimately launched a series of events which allowed our dream to come true.

In 1997, Lorri's career was doing well enough for me to leave my job security as a training manager for Denny's and open our first restaurant franchise.  We invested all of my profit sharing savings from Denny's and our available credit to open a Subway Franchise in West Seattle.  There were 81 Subways in the Northwest territory at the time and our new Subway was ranked dead last in sales volume.  It was also a 35 minute commute on a good day.  Having seen many small business owners work 24/7 to make ends meet, I had my doubts, but Lorri really believed in me.  She pushed me out of my comfort zone.

In 2004, we had started exploring our dream again.  We started a file to gather ideas.  From visiting the Red Mill Burgers in Seattle, we were suddenly inspired to feature burgers.  We wanted it to be fast casual like Subway and feature gourmet burgers.  Every burger joint we knew was loud with fast colors.  Get you in, get you out!  We wanted our restaurant to be different.  For several years we put photo's we liked from restaurant magazines in a file.  We added menu items, recipes, and service ideas.  I would research for hours to find a name.  I would show Lorri, sometimes drawing it with a logo.  Lorri would either answer with an emphatic "No" or just laugh.  One colorful logo with a cow doing a back flip over a burger is still hidden away to give her laughter on a cloudy day.

In June of 2006, I called a "Now leasing" sign in the Mill Creek Town Center.  Lorri and I had discussed it and decided to at least check it out.  We thought we could afford around 2500 square feet.  We were definitely not ready, but it couldn't hurt to call.  Red Jacobsen answered the phone.  He was a retired investment banker who had decided to become a land developer.  At the time, the location I had called on was still just dirt.  He ask me what kind of restaurant I planned to open.  I told him burgers, beers, and desserts.  This immediately got the conversation going.  Turns out, the spot was going to be a 2501 sq/ft stand alone building.  He had told his partner the previous day that he wished a burger restaurant would go there.  The more we talked, the more it seemed like destiny.  I went home and excitedly told Lorri about the conversation.  Soon, we made an appointment to both speak to Red.  The investment was daunting to us.  The lease was the highest we had ever seen in our lives.  We both agreed that we weren't ready for this, but then again, we might never be ready.  After giving it considerable thought, we both decided, "Let's just do it!"

By 2007, we were the owners of six Subway franchises.  Our first Subway was now ranked #71 out of the 205 Subways in sales in the NW Territory.  We had managed to set aside some money to invest.  We just needed a name.  On a road trip to visit our daughter Jessica in Pullman, WA, Lorri and I started brain storming names.  Somewhere near Vantage, Lorri threw out the word 'Blazing' and I immediately added 'Onion'.  We both knew that was our name.  In March of 2007, the first Blazing Onion opened its doors in the Mill Creek Town Center.  Not exactly a smooth launch: There were 3 times as many customers as expected, the hoods couldn't keep up and billowed smoke throughout the dining room, the hot water heater and ice machine couldn't keep up, the back room was too small (not enough freezer, cooler, or storage space), there were too many burgers for the cooks – they struggled to keep up with the volume, and much more. After eight weeks of chaos and nightmares that would scare away most small business start ups, the equipment and team began to figure it out and the Blazing Onion started on the road to success.

You put your ideas down on paper and review them over and over.  You tell your friends, the bank, or other business associates about your idea.  Some will nod with approval, some even get excited.  Others will listen with a smile while screaming "OMG" inside their head.  Executing those ideas for the first time is tough and ultimately where success or failure will be determined.  Things just don't always translate from idea to reality like you imagine.  Working hard dedicating your time to quality rather than quantity, can determine how fast you overcome.  In our case, we had very high service expectations and a no compromise for high quality food.  We had problems, but we worked hard to fix them.  In the end, our core values won the battle.  Opening the Blazing Onion was the toughest thing we have ever done, but also the most rewarding thing we've ever done.  We can both look back now and laugh at the stories, but there are no regrets.  The trials are a core ingredient to our Brand strength and make for unforgettable lessons.  Being a small business owner is a daily challenge, but it is the American Dream for a reason.  Thanks for letting us be a part of your lives.

David Jones, CEO/Co-Founder


  1. This is a fascinating story, David. I've heard you tell it in person, and it was fun to read it, too.

  2. Amazing! Love to know the history. So glad to be working with you.