Since 2010, Minneapolis-based Sammy’s Avenue Eatery has served its community in more ways than one. From good food to good jobs, here’s how founder Sammy McDowell grew his business with his people in mind.
After working in food service and hospitality for most of his life, opening Sammy’s Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis was a natural next step for founder Sammy McDowell. Today, he has a second Minneapolis location, a food truck and he hopes to open a food hall soon. The locally loved franchise is known for its signature turkey pastrami sandwich and its homemade banana pudding (both of which McDowell hopes to one day offer at the Minnesota State Fair). Now, more than a decade after starting his restaurant, the owner has acquired a wealth of knowledge not only about creating a successful business, but also about expansion. Here, McDowell shares how it all started and what he’s learned along the way.
Striving to be a positive presence
When McDowell decided to start his own business, focusing on the community was an important priority. “A huge thing was really to spotlight the African American community,” says McDowell. “We don’t have a lot of representation when it comes to business in general, so I really sought out to be present as a business owner in a community. A lot of people — especially young people — learn by seeing things, so I just wanted to be a presence in our community that young people could look up to.”
Although he initially started completely on his own—even using his personal savings to pay for expenses—he has since recruited from the community to form a supportive team. McDowell acknowledges that managing a team isn’t always easy, noting that while he comes from a background of work ethic and integrity, “a lot of times, people are not going to have that super passion around whatever it is you’re doing.”
Building relationships with the community
To cultivate a good environment, McDowell has established systems and procedures for upholding workplace standards. When it comes to recruiting new team members, he advises looking beyond someone’s skillset and paying attention to their general outlook. “Hiring to me is about the attitude and the position they play when it comes to being a team player,” explains McDowell. “We take our time hiring people and make sure that they line up. Believe it or not, a lot of people that I’ve hired have come from the community and they’ve been customers of ours.”
McDowell has a people-first mindset, striving to serve those around him and setting a powerful example, which in turn results in mutual support of the restaurant. Building strong relationships with the community has benefited the business on multiple levels, whether customers are pitching in with small tasks or joining the crew as employees.
“There’s been times when we’ve been busy—especially in our earlier days—and customers have come in and grabbed a rag and wiped down all the tables during lunch rush for me,” says McDowell. “They’ve taken out the garbage. They just jump in and start helping me out. A lot of times when those people needed a job, it was a sure thing.”
“One lady really stood out to me and would say, ‘Sammy where are the rags? I’m going to wipe these tables down.’ She would do that every time for years. If the place wasn’t together she would get it together, order her food, pay for her food and leave a big tip.”
Taking things one step at a time
McDowell encourages other new business owners to take things slowly. “You don’t need to have everything right away,” he explains. “I remember when the mayor was in office, he used to come to our shop all the time and say, ‘Sammy, it amazes me that every time I come in here, there’s a little bit more done. You didn’t just turn over the place but [there’s] a little bit here and there—you got new tables this week, last week you got new chairs, the next week you got some blinds.”
Sammy compares the process of building his business to setting up a new home, one room at a time. “You’re going to be there for a while, so you’ve got time. You want to make sure you’re not overexerting yourself.”
Creating opportunities for others
Running a business is no easy feat, but the rewards make it a worthwhile effort. When discussing the reasons behind expanding his business, McDowell is quick to explain that it’s not for personal gain or entirely about the sandwiches. “It’s really to create opportunities and jobs for families because our ultimate goal is to franchise all the businesses to families—for them to start making a living and to take some ownership in their communities and all those things. For now, that’s kind of the plan, to really help the community out in a bigger way.”
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