I took an unconventional route on my way to running a restaurant, and eventually a franchise with 15 locations nationwide, and counting.
First came the fishing lodge. I got into the fishing business because prior to that, I traveled all over the country teaching people how to sell. I got tired of the travel and decided I wanted to get into the fishing business, of all things, because I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors. Everyone asked me, “Why the fishing business?” They thought I’d lost my mind. I said, “Well, because it is customer-oriented. You’re giving a service.” So I started. I figured out how to fish, and then I hired people that knew how to fish better than me. Then I started giving great customer service because the one thing I’ve always known is it’s not always the product that you’re selling, it’s the service that you’re giving with the product that makes you successful.
So I took a little fishing company and did 250 trips in my first year. The following year, we did 250 trips in the month of May. At its peak, we were doing 800 to 1,000 trips a year. We just kept getting bigger and bigger.
But then two things happened almost simultaneously. First, my late wife, Belinda, got breast cancer. We thought we had it cured, but then it came back. At the same time, Hurricane Katrina hit us. Then Hurricane Rita hit us. The the big oil spill hit us. And Belinda said, “I’ve had enough. South Louisiana has worn me out,” and we knew there was an ending coming. She said, “I want to live in Colorado. I want to live up in the mountains so I’ll be closer to God.” So I sold the fishing lodge and we moved to Colorado.
After a few days there, when we were first trying to figure out where to live, we were trying to find some home food, some Louisiana Cajun food. She turned to me and said, “You know, it’s a shame that a couple of lost Cajuns can’t find home food.” A light went off. I said, “That’s a perfect name for a restaurant.” When she pointed out that I had never even been in the restaurant business, I told her, “But I know how to cook good Cajun food and I know how to give great customer service.”
So we started looking not only for a place to live, but a little place for me to have some gumbo, fried fish, fried shrimp, red beans, and rice–Cajun home food. I found a tiny 850-square-foot building in Frisco, Colorado, right in the middle of all the major ski resorts: Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain. Then I started building the restaurant, The Lost Cajun.
With no experience, I faced a number of challenges. Number one, I had no idea what equipment I would need to operate a restaurant. I hired a local consultant and the first day we walked into the building, they asked where I was going to put my hood vent system. I said, “What are you talking about, hood vents? There’s a door right there. I’m going to put a big fan like I had at the fishing lodge.” They started laughing at me. “Well, I can get a bigger fan,” I said. Then it was explained to me, that I’d have to spend $20,000 on a hood vent system. I literally had no idea. My little $50,000 project jumped by 20 grand. Then they told me I’d have to get on the Ansul system. I said, “Listen, I don’t know Mr. Ansul, but I’d be more than happy to meet with him so that I can understand his system.” They started laughing again. I literally did not know what the Ansul fire suppression system was, that’s how green I was.
My next big challenge was understanding, really understanding, what food and labor cost is. Now, eight years later, I understand how vitally important it is. Until you really understand how it affects a restaurant’s profitability, you’re going to fail. And you don’t just need to understand it, you need to live it breathe it, eat it every day.
Running a restaurant is one thing. You’re serving the food, getting it out there. That’s running a restaurant. But you’re not going to be successful until you learn how to operate a restaurant financially, understanding it in terms of food costs, labor costs, rent and utilities.
It took me years to really understand and get a grasp on that. We opened the first Lost Cajun in 2010 in a little 850-square-foot building with 20 seats. Today that restaurant grosses $800,000 a year. It’s so popular that people start lining up at 11 o’clock almost every day, and on Friday and Saturday nights, there’s an hour-and-a-half wait to get in the building.
The first time I realized I had made the right decision in opening the restaurant was the first time I saw a real profit. There was that ah-ha moment when all of a sudden there were people standing in line and at the end of the week, there was real money in my bank account. For the first six months, I didn’t make a dime. I lost money. But when I saw that first big week when I had everything working right, from the food to the labor, I knew that this could work, that I could make a living doing this.
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But success goes beyond just finances. I say this to prospective franchisees all the time: You can have a restaurant that has superior food, but average service or bad service, and you’re going to fail. But if you have a restaurant that has average food, but the best service, they’ll come back over and over again. We know our food is great, and we have the reviews to prove it. So I say, if you take great food and give great service, it’s virtually impossible to fail.
We create an environment of courtesy and respect. We create an environment of cooperation where “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” aren’t a choice. It is required every day that you treat each other with courtesy and respect. This creates a great work environment that makes people want to come to work every day. They enjoy their job. They take ownership of that building, of that restaurant. Those are not my customers anymore, those are the employees’ customers because they have pride in what they do.
The easiest thing in the world to do is to fire somebody. You just say, “You’re fired.” But what makes us better managers, better owners, better franchisees, better franchisors, is when we figure out how to lift people up, to make better employees, to make better human beings, by giving them environment in which they can thrive and grow. Then everybody wins.
“They’re not just franchisees, they’re part of our family. Every single thing we do every day is about what benefits our franchisee the most.” -Raymond Griffin
That’s why the Lost Cajun has been so successful. We just opened franchise number 15, we have five more under construction, and another five that are waiting on leases and permits. We’re in Colorado, South Carolina and Texas, and about to break into the North Carolina market. I tell people that before you become a Lost Cajun franchisee, you have to prove to me that you have a passion for this food, and you have to prove to me that you’re a good human being, not just an investor. I don’t want just investors, I want people who are going to bind to the system, who are going to bind to our culture of courtesy and respect, and who are going to believe in what we do. And we return the favor: They’re not just franchisees, they’re part of our family. Every single thing we do every day is about what benefits our franchisee the most. Are we saving them money? Are we making it easier to operate their restaurant?
We use the KISS system: Keep It Simple, Sam. When people ask what I do, I say, “I fry fish and I dip gumbo.” I want to keep it down to the most simple equation that I can. We serve comfort food: seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, jambalaya, fried fish, shrimp and oysters, and po boys. We don’t believe in Chef Mike (a microwave) or suntan lamps (heaters). If we can’t cook it, plate it, and serve it within 10 to 12 minutes, we don’t want it on the menu.
My goal is that when people walk out of the restaurant, they’re full. We actually have something called lagniappe, which in French means “something extra.” Whenever a guest finishes a bowl of gumbo, our servers are trained to ask if you’d like some lagniappe. If they do, we give a little refill, dropping a smaller bowl of gumbo right into your big bowl, for free. We literally give seconds like at your mama’s house. Our kitchens are open, our tables are wooden, we have chalk floors that we encourage kids to color on. I want them to feel like they just had dinner at their neighbor’s house.
We want everyone to have fun when they’re dealing with the Lost Cajun because if you’re having fun with what you do, it makes everything so much easier. That’s why we have a signature send-off for when guests leave the restaurant. We say, “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” Let the good times roll.