I met Jennifer “Jen” Jenkins four years ago when she came to SCORE Savannah for help in starting a new business. Armed with a master of fine arts degree and experience as an instructor of printmaking at the Savannah College of Art and Design, she wanted to open a coffee house.
Immediately, I thought the last thing the world needed was another coffee house. Before I could tell her how difficult a loan process would be, she informed me she had the money (home equity and family) and her opening was in two months.
She wanted help projecting profit for the business and some guidance navigating the regulatory maze.
Today she operates two of our city’s most popular coffee and wine venues, Foxy Loxy across from the Public Library on Bull Street and Coffee Fox on Broughton Street downtown. She also owns commercial rental property on Bull. My role, after discussing cash flow, was primarily cheerleader and supporter.
Recently, I sat down with Jenkins and asked a few questions:
Q: What caused you to believe that without a business or retail background, you could succeed in the competitive coffee house market? Were you nervous about losing your investment?
A: I have always been nervous and still am worried about losing my investment. I don’t know if that ever goes away, but when I decided to open Foxy Loxy Café, I was so stubbornly excited to dive into it. I’m sure I minimized the risks in my mind.
I still did my research and knew, as a consumer, that there was a need for a serious coffee establishment in downtown Savannah. Matching up with Philip Brown, of PERC Coffee Roasters, was an important step in the necessary education I needed to make sure Foxy’s espresso beverages stood apart.
Q: In retail food operations, location seems primary for success. How did you obtain your locations and how important are they to your success?
A: I had frequented the property Foxy now inhabits as a customer of Pizza Rustica and therefore had some familiarity with the location inside and out. I knew we would be able to attract the SCAD community with our proximity to Arnold Hall as well as my past relationship with the college.
I was more concerned with the challenge of reaching locals and tourists since our location is not necessarily ideal for those key groups.
The Broughton Street location came to me through word of mouth. … I was open to the idea of a second location once I started Foxy but decided that I would only do it if the perfect location popped up. I was prepared to wait, but 102 W. Broughton was offered to me very early in the process, so I jumped on it.
Q: Please describe your challenges in obtaining the necessary government approvals to open Foxy Loxy.
A: Savannah is not a user-friendly city for new business owners. Much of the process, especially the order in which you are to go about obtaining permits/certificates, is confusing and mysterious to a first-timer.
No one seems to have an overview of the process, so I had to figure out, through trial and error, which equals a waste of time and money, how to navigate my way through the various departments. No one was forthcoming with information or advice. I often say that the permitting time periods involved for both of my businesses were the only bits of time in my 12 years here that I have felt unwelcome in Savannah and considered moving to another city.
Q: What difficulties did you have with signage downtown?
A: I didn’t have any difficulties with the awning we put in place for The Coffee Fox on Broughton Street, but I did run into issues when I chose to hang four small signs, 6 inches by 14 inches, underneath our awning.
These signs listed our main attractions, craft beer, wine, espresso and pastries. I also had a hand-painted sign hanging from the “102 West” sign that said “Espresso.” I was asked by the planning commission to take down the smaller signs because someone had complained.
I then listed this information using vinyl lettering on the windows instead.
Q: What would you have done differently knowing what you do now?
A: I made some rookie mistakes, but we had enough customers coming in the door, and the healthy revenue growth over the first four years has allowed me the time I needed to learn and adjust.
Decisions I made to save money in the short term are coming back to bite me, so I would have spent the money needed up front so that build out, repairs and appliances would have lasted me longer.
If I had predicted the volume of business more accurately, I would have made different decisions during build out that could have helped us handle it more efficiently.
Q: You had help from your family in opening Foxy Loxy. What advice would you give to others who contemplate operating a business with family members?
A: My parents are generous and trusting. Both of those qualities need to be in play otherwise the stress and doubt at the beginning could be too much for the relationships to handle. Perhaps at the beginning there was too much advice aimed my way, but once the success of the business validated my instincts, my family began to trust in my decisions.
Q: What are the differences between the markets downtown and on South Bull Street?
A: The Bull Street location is a seasonal business dictated by the SCAD academic calendar while the Broughton Street location is a seasonal business influenced by the local tourist industry.
Q: What is the most difficult part of owning a business?
A: I struggle most with the never-ending nature of the work. I never feel as if I can take my eyes off of these businesses and therefore can never really take a meaningful break. I think this will get better over time as I get better at finding good managers and tasking them with the full scope of that job.
Q: Last May your son, Ison, was born. How do you balance roles of mom and business owner?
A: This is tricky. I squeeze work in when he naps and when he goes to bed at night, but I often feel as if I am barely putting in the amount of time needed.
Q: You do not have time to mentor prospective business owners, but what advice could you provide someone who dreams of starting a business?
A: Starting a business is like the most intense stress test. I think the most important thing is to believe in what you do and have a deep passion for it. Otherwise self-doubt will consume you and you won’t make the decisions you need to make.
Q: Can you add something about managing employees, how your experience changed your view or practice?
A: This remains the most challenging aspect of cafe ownership. I think I pull most from my short time as a professor to inform how best to direct, motivate and discipline a group of people. There is, of course, always more to learn as there is a never-ending array of personalities and group dynamics to consider.
Kenneth Zapp is a professor emeritus at Metropolitan State University and a mentor at SCORE Savannah. Contact him at Kenneth.Zapp@metrostate.edu.