Ascending Aspirations

 

It’s the kind of success many entrepreneurs can only hope to attain.

Sister restaurants Addison’s and Sophia’s have been going strong in Columbia throughout this century. As many of their counterparts closed their doors — Forge & Vine, Bambino’s, Q’s Chinese and Boone Tavern — Addison’s and Sophia’s remain popular with diners, even in the recession. Both boast ratings of 4½ of 5 stars on review sites Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor, where diners post comments such as, “The nachos are to die for,” and “Seems every time I go, they get better.”

Yet despite 15 years of success, restaurateur Matt Jenne and his fellow co-owners began to think their businesses had plateaued. And even though that plateau was a high point on the CoMo dining scale, the partners couldn’t just sit back and enjoy the ride.

“Although we’re proud of our success, we feel like growth is a key component to continuing that success,” Jenne says. “My partners and I are working at our best when we’re growing or working on new projects.”

The partners’ business ventures have seen plenty of growth since their early days. Their story started at another iconic Columbia restaurant — Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, where the four original partners worked when Jenne was in college. Back then, Adam Dushoff, Jeremy Brown, Brad Pippen and Jenne made a pact to open a restaurant of their own someday.

But time went on, and Jenne graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He accepted a job in Toronto, Canada, where he grew up. That lasted about a year.

“I realized pretty quickly engineering wasn’t for me,” he says.

So when his friends called and said they wanted to make good on their pact, Jenne quit his engineering job. Twenty-seven years old and unmarried at the time, he moved back to Columbia to help launch the new business.

“We were pretty naïve upstarts,” says Jenne, now 42. “We felt like we knew how to run a restaurant, but none of us had a business background.”

Initially they thought they’d call the restaurant Saints and Sinners, and planned to offer dueling menus, one with healthier options and the other with an emphasis on fried foods. But they weren’t sold on the name — and neither was their landlord, who wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having it emblazoned on his building. Instead, they named the restaurant after Dushoff’s eldest son, Addison.

“It was what we would describe as a long backwoods road that had a lot of twists and turns,” Jenne says. “We didn’t know what direction we were going at any given time. But in the end, it turned out to be something we were proud of.”

The laid-back urban restaurant opened its doors in 1999, but the partners wanted to keep going — and between the four of them, they knew they had the ability to do so. Two years later, the group launched a second restaurant, Sophia’s, offering diners a more sophisticated, European ambience. In the years since then, the partners — minus Pippen, who remains close to the group but is pursuing other interests — have also diversified their assets by acquiring multiple rental properties.

But this is a group of people who aren’t satisfied with maintaining the status quo.

“The restaurant business is an entirely different animal from when we started,” Dushoff says, “so the idea that we would somehow remain static and still successful is not a recipe for success, we believe.”

And as Jenne puts it, “We’ve reached the point in our business where we’ve plateaued to some degree.” So Jenne put into action something he’d been considering for about a decade: With his partners cheering him on, he enrolled in an MBA program. “I think doing this will hopefully give us some tools to continue to grow in maybe new and different directions,” he says.

“We fully support Matt,” Brown says. “We’re excited to see what kind of benefits we can get from his newfound knowledge.”

Business Buffet
Jenne is a little more than halfway through MU’s Executive MBA program, which is designed for people who already have leadership experience in the business world.

The executive program, tailored to the needs of working professionals, was born out of a recognized need, says Joan Gabel, dean of MU’s Trulaske College of Business. “We developed our execMBA program because we received strong feedback that working professionals needed a flexible, high-quality way to improve their skills without having to leave their employment.”

Students complete about 75 percent of their studies online and 25 percent on campus. So far, the coursework has covered such topics as finance, accounting, economics, management, marketing and supply chain.

“Because I have my fingers in a lot of those pots in my small business, each semester I’m able to apply things almost directly to how I can run my businesses better,” Jenne says.

In a data-management course, for example, Jenne and his classmates created a regression to predict sales at Addison’s. The regression takes into consideration factors such as the weather forecast, previous years’ sales and local events such as home football games. Jenne tested it one day when Mizzou hosted Texas A&M at Faurot Field. To his surprise, his prediction was within $50 of the restaurant’s actual sales that day. Since then, Jenne has been refining the regression, which can be used to help him and his partners determine how many employees to schedule and how much food to order.

He also has honed his management style, courtesy of the textbook, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni. In the book, Lencioni argues that employees should be equipped with ways of measuring their own success on the job. Jenne says he has been trying to put Lencioni’s principles into practice at his restaurants. For instance, he might ask the bus staff to keep track of how many tables they’ve cleared, an exercise that’s more about awareness than hitting a specific goal.

“I’ve never cared if they bused 12 tables or 15 tables; that’s never been what it’s about,” he says. “It’s giving them a sense that their part of the business is very helpful and is accomplishing things.”

Connections
Jenne’s studies have even taken him abroad. The Executive MBA cohort travels to Santiago, Chile, for a weeklong “international residency” that includes meetings with executives from various industries.

Why Santiago? Gabel calls it a special place: “It is a fast-growing economy steeped in a complex history that is quite different from our own. The combination gives our students a robust opportunity to see how doing business internationally creates challenges and opportunities.”

One of the students’ business visits came in the form of a wine dinner at the Kingston Family Vineyards in the Casablanca Valley, tucked in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. The vineyard’s managing partner discussed the winemaking process as the students dined among wine barrels, an experience Jenne found inspiring.

“It was such a neat backdrop to have dinner,” he says. “The takeaway I got from that was the idea of experiential dining, which could potentially be something we could do here. You find the backdrop and make that backdrop part of the reason you’re having the meal.” He envisions a meal using the resources and maybe even a menu from Addison’s or Sophia’s but served in an unusual location.

And of course, every time the MBA students ate at restaurants, that happened to double as market research for Jenne. In addition to observing trends such as the cosmopolitan feel of many Santiago restaurants, he also toured three eateries and discussed the restaurant industry with one of the owners.

But perhaps one of the most important things Jenne has gained from the MBA program is the opportunity to expand his professional network. Although many of his classmates come from different fields — medical, legal, manufacturing, IT — they often exchange ideas that are applicable across industries. “You never know where inspiration will come from,” Jenne says. And he points out customer service is a component of all the students’ businesses.

Friends & Family
Jenne’s personal network is what made it possible for him to go back to school, he says. His wife, Melinda, recently quit her job to stay home with their four children, who range in age from 4 to 12 years old. Although her decision was unrelated to her husband’s enrollment in the MBA program, he says he’s not sure he would have gone back to school if she hadn’t been at home. His partners, too, have been very supportive.

“The sacrifice is not just mine,” he says. “It’s theirs as well.”

According to his partner Dushoff, that’s the way the trio works. “I took off four-plus weeks for paternity leave without a thought in the world,” Dushoff says. “We work to make each other’s lives better.”

The partners do three-month rotations to alternate who acts as general manager of Addison’s, who heads up Sophia’s and who floats between the two. This arrangement prevents burnout, Jenne says, and allows the partners to see their businesses with fresh eyes.

Ready To Climb
So what’s next for the group? Jenne prefers not to discuss anything specific until it’s a sure thing, but he says they’re “definitely looking to do more, whether that’s expanding these concepts or new concepts.”

One major move he is willing to reveal: The partners plan to renovate Addison’s. They’ll begin that undertaking in January. No worries, art lovers — those celebrated paintings by local artist and former Addison’s bartender David Spear will stay.

 

businessceo magazine features
Comments (0)
Add Comment