22 May Hard Knox Pizzeria: A Small Business Success Story
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Alexa Sponcia, co-owner and leader-extraordinaire of Hard Knox Pizzeria. You see, we want to begin to tell the success stories of thriving Tennessee small businesses in order to encourage those who are somewhere along the way, maybe feeling discouraged or overwhelmed.
I thought HKP would be a great place to start. They are doing well in their current location, having gone through an almost double-in-size expansion just over a year ago. Not only that, they have plans to open a new location in West Knoxville this summer. With this success in mind, I thought I may hear a few encouraging stories about the ups and downs of small business ownership. What I got instead was the opportunity to sit down with one incredibly smart and driven lady who has found herself in the place of success by no accident.
I want to share Alexa’s story with you and then share some incredible business wisdom I saw woven throughout that story. There were three consistent themes that appeared in every aspect of her approach to business that I think any business owner would do well to apply.
Alexa started her journey into the restaurant world at the early age of 15. It was a simple cashier job she got from a family connection at a local BBQ joint, and she loved it! The restaurant quickly grew to a massive franchise and by 16, Alexa was spending her summers on the road with the crew, helping to open franchise stores.
After high school, she tried to do college but it was clearly not a fit for her. She is a woman who is constantly in action and you could see that even in our short interview. Her eyes constantly darting about, gathering all the info around her, wondering what her next move would be. She admits to learning by watching someone and then copying them, so sitting stationary for hours just didn’t work out.
As an alternative, she went back to her beloved BBQ restaurant where she spent somewhere around 10 years continuing to work for them. Over the course, she got to develop their training programs, travel and start over 20+ franchise locations. Here she built the base of her business foundation through some pretty hands on experience.
The restaurant world is tough however and when she wanted to break free in order to see some positive change in her life, a friend invited her to move to Knoxville. After managing the bakery at EarthFare, she got possibly one of her most ironic job offers but one that really proved to be a turning point for her. She began working as an assistant for her now husband!
According to her, she was one of the worst assistants, although her husband will not corroborate that story. She confessed openly that she is not gifted in administration. She did however get to do some events and marketing which really brought out her best side. From this job and with the support of her then boyfriend, she launched out and started her very first business doing events for businesses and weddings.
I asked her where she found the courage to take the leap of faith into business ownership. She said good or bad, she has always been a risk-taker. Good or bad, she has always been a leader. While she doesn’t really fear challenges, she does fear that she herself will fail. This is where her relationship with her boyfriend at the time was key. He always believed in her, saw her gifting and pushed her. More than that, he was someone who had started businesses and failed. And started businesses and succeeded! He reminded her over and over that the worst that could happen is that it wouldn’t work.
And what a great reminder because it was a couple years into her business when she realized that while there was a great need for what she was offering, people just weren’t willing to pay and she knew she needed to get out. Married and no job, she found herself wondering what she was going to do.
She had the unique opportunity to consult for a friend’s spouse and set up his law firm operations. Following this venture, her husband’s business partner actually had the crazy idea that they should buy Hard Knox Pizzeria.
It was after all the place where they had their first date and they frequented the restaurant routinely. In April 2014, they reached out and had a conversation with the original owners, Dean and Jill Bastian who at the time were contemplating franchising. Alexa had lived, breathed and slept restaurant franchising and just knew that was not something she was interested in. You may have a phenomenal product but the ability to control every customer having the same wonderful experience was just too difficult.
On a whim, they offered to buy in as partners and surprisingly, Dean and Jill said they were ready to hand it over! They remain in as minority partners but on October 31st, just 7 months later, Alexa began her journey of leading Hard Knox Pizzeria to success.
Alexa’s story is remarkable for many reasons but also, I hope, not rare. Here is a woman who is extremely smart, seriously driven and hard-working but didn’t really fit into the mainstream mold of college and climbing a corporate ladder. This doesn’t mean that she skipped out on all the dirty, glory-less hard work that comes before success. In fact, experience became her teacher. The invaluable experience that she brought to the table of small business ownership was refreshing and incredibly wise. I noticed three unsolicited themes surface question after question. People, operations and numbers.
This was mentioned more than anything in over an hour of talking about her business. If you ask her what the most challenging part of business ownership has been, she would answer ‘people’. If you ask her what the key to doubling her business in size was, she would answer ‘people’. She has focused immense amounts of energy on building her team and furthermore building a culture within that team of respect, honesty and trust. Her desire is to be known for paying restaurant workers well (not a common occurrence), treating each team member as a valuable part of the team and leaving them with something more than before they worked with her.
Alexa is focused on growth and knows that if she doesn’t have an top-notch team equipped to deliver consistent excellence in the daily operations, she will fail. She runs her business in a very collaborative way and her leadership team are all invited to take ownership in the success of the business and to help analyze the weaknesses. They are trained to know the trends and numbers, and hire, schedule and place orders accordingly.
When she took over HKP, she touched everything but the food. She knew the product was amazing but she immediately set to doing what she does best. She overhauled the whole operation and made it as streamlined and efficient as possible. Introducing technology was a “no-brainer” as far as she was concerned. It not only improves their ability to better serve their customers but it also allows them to focus on the growth of their business because they aren’t drowned in time consuming menial tasks.
She is absolutely gifted at setting up effective systems but she gets bored quickly with day-to-day operations. This is why she knows it is imperative for her to have a solid team to execute it. Even with operations, she always pointed back to the people who carried it out. With a huge part of her focus on operational excellence, she equally focused on getting really great people who see value in, not just a job at a restaurant, but in running a really successful company.
The way she drives an excellent team to invest in running a successful company and not just a pizza joint is by fueling them with numbers! She makes it a point to find general managers and leaders that thrive off of the numbers. Bonuses are driven by sales so she wants to empower them with the info they need to really better the business and themselves at the same time.
She knows what the industry margins are and what their margins have to be in order to make money but so do all her general managers. They are responsible for evaluating the numbers each week and keeping the sales on track.
She also knows that for the overall trajectory of the company, knowing the numbers is essential. She uses this data to see how and where they are growing, see where they need to grow and then clearly present this information to her partners. This is really the fuel for her constant forward momentum. She strongly encourages all business owners to get a hold of this data.
THE BIG PICTURE
For Alexa, each of these three components was important and could not stand without one of the other pieces. Each instance of discussing her success would start with one and then bleed into the others. She focused on building a team to intuitively execute a system. This system kept the operation efficient and mined valuable data which was converted into fuel for driving the business forward through her trusted team. It was this, again and again.
As a final observation, one thing that also stood out to me as a huge contributing factor to Alexa’s success with Hard Knox Pizza and in business was humility. She knew her strengths but she was also aware of her weaknesses. In small business, it is no new news that you often have to wear many, many hats. But as growth came, she knew the smartest thing to do was to invest in people who were good at what she was not. “You do what you have to do but then at some point, you pay the money.” For things like IT, payroll and bookkeeping, she says outsourcing is one of the smartest things you can do. Focus on what you are good at and get the value you need out of those areas.
Beyond this, she frequently seeks outside council. She finds people who are excelling and asks them how. If she is about to step into a new area, she finds someone who has gone before her and finds out all she can about it.
I stated earlier that Alexa’s story is remarkable but I hope not rare. What she has accomplished in business IS remarkable. But this model can be followed by any business owner. Find an excellent product, build an efficient system and excellent team to carry that out. Let your numbers inform you and appropriately adjust your course as you plot a course to building your own business success story!