If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.
In this week’s installment of Franchisee Spotlight, we spoke with Village Inn franchisee, Danny Lehan, who owns eight locations (soon to be nine) of the BBQ Holdings-operated casual-dining restaurant chain throughout Florida. Lehan spoke about climbing the ladder of success from being hired at a Village Inn as a busboy at age 16, to owning several restaurants himself, and why he never left the company.
Working up the ladder of success
I started at Village Inn at 16 and it was my first and only job. I started as a busboy working at the weekends at the Largo Village Inn in Florida. My best friend from high school was a busser there for about three months, and they were looking for another busboy, so he told me to apply. I was a busboy for about three weeks, and I got employee of the month on my third week. Then, I went into dishwashing and cooking just to kind of diversify myself in the back of the house, and then I became a full-time server. After four years, I am loving serving people and waiting on tables. They put me on the graveyard shift, made a ton of money and bought my first at the age of 20. Then I decided to go into management.
Realizing a longtime dream
When I was 16 years old, I came home and told my parents that I wanted to own that specific restaurant someday…. Believe it or not, the 30-year lease had expired on [that Largo Village Inn] and corporate did not renew it. I called the landlord every week for 11 months, and finally they caved and let me become a franchise partner. That was in 2011 when I was 32. [At that point] I was actually general manager of a Village Inn in St. Petersburg, Florida, which we then bought in 2017…. I went to my father and asked him to borrow the money to start the restaurant and he signed up for it and I did it.
Why Village Inn
I fell in love with the brand and how it interacted with the community. I personally love our food and our style of service. It taught me amazing lifelong skills. Village Inn is the one thing in my life that has always been there for me, and I've just continued to develop and grow within the company.
Ownership learning curve
It was tough learning the cash flow—the ‘business of the business.’ You know, when sales taxes are due… so learning the back end of cash flow balance was probably the biggest understanding of the business.
We clustered ourselves in Pinellas County and Hillsborough County, and we now have two in Pasco County. They’re probably all about an hour and 15 minutes apart. Then in January of 2024, we have a village Inn in Roosevelt opening, which I'm super excited about, which will be our second restaurant in Largo where the original is located, so we’re going to have two in that city…. We then bought Riverview, Brandon and Land O’Lakes out of their bankruptcy. We did three at one time. Then for this year…. I got an opportunity to buy a second-generation restaurant, which was Daddy’s Grill, and I turned that one into a Village Inn. Then another franchise partner who was a one-store operator, he decided to retire, and we bought his restaurant.
The benefits of coming up from within
I learned everything from A to Z. Working my way up has served me well because I have great empathy and understanding for every position inside the restaurant. When I walk in, I know exactly what they're going through. I know exactly what they are they're dealing with. I have no problem jumping in any spot, because I've worked my way through every position.
Paying it forward
The restaurant industry has what, 300-400% turnover rates? We have about a 90% turnover rate. When you walk into one of our restaurants, it’s not unusual to meet a cook that has been with us for 30 years, or a server that’s on year 17. The longevity of the team development has been really rewarding for us -- we do a lot of great things for our team. For example, in a couple of weeks, we’re closing down our restaurants for the day and taking our entire team to Busch Gardens and riding rollercoasters and we have an awards ceremony. We do this every year, for four years running, and this year we're expecting about 400 people because of the size of our team.