The year was 1984, and 19-year-old Clara LeBlanc had the idea of a lifetime: Open her own restaurant.
What did a 19-year-old “kid” know about entrepreneurship? Not much, she freely admits. However, after working in restaurants since the age of 13, she knew two important things
• She loved the restaurant business, and
• She wanted to put her strong work ethic to good use in her own business.
“From a young age, I knew I had a different type of work ethic,” she says. “I’d see my co-workers hanging out and chit-chatting during down times, and I’d be polishing the brass or taking spots off the glasses. I didn’t have to be asked to do things. I just did them because I loved doing them. I saw the big picture and the result of my work. For instance, if I washed the potatoes for baked potatoes, I saw how my effort at that task affected my customers’ dining experience. I don’t think my co-workers noticed those kinds of things.”
The first taste: bittersweet
Armed with a lot of determination and a little bit of cash she had saved over the years, LeBlanc went out looking for commercial space to open her own restaurant. Unfortunately before she even started her search, she had three strikes already against her:
• It was the 1980s, when getting a commercial real estate lease was difficult;
• She was a woman; and
• She was only 19 years old.
“Needless to say, I faced many roadblocks, one after the other,” she says. “But I kept going around them in different ways. When I was told that I couldn’t lease commercial space to open my restaurant and that I couldn’t even hold a lease for equipment, I found an existing sandwich shop, complete with equipment, that I could purchase with an option for taking over the lease. So I went around all the roadblocks any way possible.”
Her next roadblock was finalizing the lease. When her real estate broker and landlord were negotiating her lease, they asked her to leave the meeting! “It was a man’s world back then, and I was a young woman,” she explains. “Even though it was my lease, I knew when to pick my battles, and I let them handle it. It all worked out OK, and I still have the same landlord to this day. Fortunately, it’s not like that for women anymore.”
The sandwich shop LeBlanc purchased needed a lot of work. There were no profits coming in, and she knew she had to make some major changes. She did a complete makeover on the restaurant, changing the décor, the menu, and the name. “I didn’t have a new name for the sandwich shop going in, so I had to think of one fast,” she says. “As I was thinking about it, I remembered an old family friend who used to always call me ‘tidbit’ when I was a kid. It was an endearing term to me, and as soon as I recalled that memory, I knew I had my sandwich shop’s new name: Tidbits.”
Hungry for opportunities
LeBlanc knew that in order to make Tidbits successful, she couldn’t sit around and wait for customers to walk in; she had to go out and get them. Immediately, she canvassed her local area, going door-to-door to tell everyone about the new restaurant that was open for breakfast and lunch. Her approach worked, and new customers arrived daily.
She soon noticed that her sales fluctuated based on the weather. Rather than dismissing this revelation as part of the ups and downs of business ownership, she did something about it. When the weather was bad, she called local businesses nearby and asked if they’d like their lunch delivered. With that one simple question, Tidbits’ lunch delivery service was born.
Catering soon followed.
“Back then, IBM was in the neighborhood,” she explains. “They did a lot of lunch-and-learn meetings. I called them one day and offered to prepare sandwiches on platters for their meetings. That’s how our catering business started. I then offered the same service to other companies downtown.”
Once she realized that catering was profitable, she made the tough decision to eliminate breakfast service and focus primarily on lunch and catering—and later to add a retail component. “One of the main lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you have to focus on what you do best,” explains LeBlanc. “Deciding to close for breakfast was not something I took lightly. It was a big decision. We had regular breakfast customers that I didn’t want to lose. But all businesses need a focus. When you hone in and focus on what you do best, that’s when the sales start coming. I’ve seen many companies that are so scattered in terms of their focus, they don’t do any one thing particularly well. Those companies don’t last long.”
Today, LeBlanc’s focus is clear, since she’s found a good mix of restaurant sales, catering, and wholesale. Restaurant sales make up approximately 50%of her business revenue, while catering and wholesale comprise the other 50%.
“We’d definitely like to expand our wholesale business,” she says. “Currently, Tidbits’ sandwiches are available pre-packaged at local Gate gas stations. I’d like to see them at more places in the future, such as grocery stores.”
Her approach to gaining wholesale accounts is similar to how her catering services started: She simply asks for the business. “If I can envision my sandwiches being sold at that location, I have no problem talking with the decision-makers to make it happen.”
Cooking up one great business
More than two decades since opening her doors, LeBlanc still has the same passion for Tidbits as she did in 1984. And that, she says, is one reason why Tidbits is so successful. “If you have a passion for what you do, the growth comes,” she reveals. “You have to be excited about your business. Whether I have two people in the dining room or 200, I’m still excited about my product. Some people lose their passion when sales dip, but you have to keep it up. If you have passion, when sales are down, you won’t sit there and complain. You’ll want to get up, get out, and get the business you deserve. That’s why passion is so important.”
LeBlanc’s passion is evident. Whether she’s up front making a sandwich order or behind the scenes motivating her staff of 25, LeBlanc has an infectious attitude that makes everyone excited about the business. No wonder her husband, Greg, and two adult sons, Austen and Mason, are eager to work in the restaurant with her. And when she’s out in the community talking with potential patrons about Tidbits or offering her sandwiches wholesale to retailers, her sheer joy for what she does shines through.
“It’s all about loving what you do,” says LeBlanc. “I’ve seen many businesses come and go over the years. It seems that many of the owners are not ready for what it really takes to have a business. They think of the glamour of having a business or that they’re going to have a flexible schedule. They don’t realize all the hard work it takes, especially in the beginning, to turn a profit. That’s when they get frustrated, lose their passion, and close their doors.”
LeBlanc believes that if more business owners would shift their thinking from “I have to wait for customers to find me” to “I want to go out and find my customers” it would make a big difference in their success. That mindset shift only comes when people truly love what they do, she says. “When you’re happy with what you do, you’ll put the most effort into your work.”
And as any business owner knows, effort is the secret ingredient for long-term success.
Dawn Josephson is a contributing editor to Advantage. She can be reached at email@example.com.
LeBlanc has learned a number of lessons throughout her 26 years in the restaurant and catering business. Here are a few:
• Learn to recognize opportunities. Bad weather to LeBlanc was an opportunity to get into the delivery business.
• Don’t be afraid to ask. Much of her ventures came about because she asked for the business.
• Focus on what you do best. In other words, build on your strengths.
• Stay passionate. Success is contingent on the love you have for your business.
• Accept that success means hard work. It doesn’t come just because you want it.
• Go find your customers. You cannot just wait for them to find you.