SBDC Counselor, Doris Bernal CBA
Robert and Shawn Sparks had always dreamed of owning their own business. The husband and wife met while working for a major restaurant chain in Daytona Beach, and had toyed with the idea of moving to the country and starting a restaurant. Twenty-three years later and still working for the same restaurant chain, Rob and Shawn hadn't given up on their idea. So in 2003 when the Astor Mule went up for sale, the two looked into buying it. The restaurant was nestled in Astor, Florida, a small vacation community famous for fishing, boating, and hunting, and was the perfect location for them to live out their dream.
They had the experience; Rob had worked in restaurants since he was 16, and Shawn since she was 15. They knew what it took to manage a restaurant. But Rob and Shawn were afraid of the uncertainty that comes with owning a business, and Rob was comfortable in his management position with the restaurant chain, so they decided against it. The Astor Mule was instead purchased by a husband and wife, who turned it into Natale's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria.
Four years later, when one of the owners passed away, the restaurant went up for sale again. This time, Rob and Shawn decided if they didn't go for it then, they never would. Purchasing Natale's was going to cost $250,000, so Shawn contacted a local Astor bank. The bank liked the idea of 'Sparky's Place.' 'Bring me your business plan, and we'll go over the details,' the banker told her. 'I'll make it short and sweet,' Shawn responded, and went to work on their plan.
Shawn and Rob put together a few paragraphs about how they envisioned 'Sparky's Place' their country restaurant in the making. Before Shawn took their 'short and sweet' plan to the bank, she stumbled across the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). She met with Doris Bernal, a Certified Business Analyst, and shared her plan. Doris reviewed the plan, and broke the news to Shawn that it was not going to be enough. Like many prospective business owners, Shawn and Rob had never written a business plan, and had little knowledge about what it entailed. Doris explained the process, providing them with tools to help them formulate their ideas and put them in writing.
So Shawn began working diligently on their plan, with Rob helping as much as he could between his long work hours. Within three weeks (record timing), they had finished their plan. Doris reviewed their new plan, and sent them back to the bank. The bank had a few questions about their financial projections, but these were worked out by Shawn and Doris revising the plan only slightly. Two days later on July 25, 2008, Rob and Shawn were approved for a $265,000 loan.
This was a great victory, especially in a time when banks had been restricting lending to businesses. Wanting to succeed, Shawn attended several classes from the STARTUP series offered by the SBDC. They opened Sparky's Place on August 29, 2008.
'It was really good to learn to do the business plan. It surprised us how little prepared we were,' says Shawn. 'We needed a good plan, and Doris gently guided us, helping us with the numbers. She cared about what we were doing, and she really wanted us to succeed. We couldn't have done it without her.'
Shawn and Rob are proud of the service Sparky's Place provides to their community. They retained Natale's employees, adding three more to the original team of seven. 'We've given people jobs and a new place to go, with lots of improvements,' says Rob. They didn't throw out Natale's menu entirely, but revamped it, increasing the portion sizes, adding a kids menu and offering breakfast. Sparky's kept the pizza though, and many regulars are glad they did, since Astor does not have many restaurants which offer pizza. Shawn and Rob are vigilant about what their customers want, asking regularly for feedback.
'It's been very rewarding owning our own business,' says Rob. 'I work for myself, so I'm more relaxed and I come up with my own recipes.' But the most rewarding part about this restaurant to Shawn and Rob: 'Being able to fulfill our dream that we had for such a long time.' 'It's been a bit scary at times,' says Rob, 'There's always the fear of not making it.' But Rob and Shawn are determined to succeed, regardless of the economy. With their determination, vigilance, and little help from the SBDC, they've got a pretty good road map for success.