Susan Mendenhall wasn’t necessarily looking to be a restaurant franchisee 23 years ago, but her brother-in-law Randy Mendenhall, a business owner himself, had a vision. He noticed IHOP was building and selling a location in Tri-Cities, Wash., and told her he’d buy the unit if she would run it and then take over ownership when she was ready.
About three years later, he said it was time for her to take over. But she was “nowhere near ready.”
“I had only been focused on operations and didn’t understand the business side because he had accountants taking care of that. He said, ‘let’s build another one, then,’ and put me in charge of the construction process,” Mendenhall said during a recent interview.
Randy also brought her onto the business side for six months – a sort of boot camp for her to learn the balance sheet and everything that pours into them.
“He dragged me in kicking and screaming. It was a wild ride on a roller coaster. I was giving him my time because he was putting up a lot of money for this. He is quite the visionary,” Mendenhall said.
Indeed, last month, she was named IHOP’s 2022 franchisee of the year – her second time receiving the honor (the first was in 2018) and the company’s first female franchisee to earn the title twice. The company recognized Mendenhall for her leadership (she serves on various franchisee committees for the company), community involvement, training and mentoring commitment, and results – including double-digit positive traffic and comp sales in 2022. Though she’s achieved an extraordinary amount during her time with the brand, she credits Randy for his encouragement to learn the business inside and out and recommends anyone interested in franchising do the same.
“Learning the PnL is the most valuable thing I’ve done. It’s hard to control things if you don’t know what you’re controlling,” she said. “And, the beautiful part of being so involved is I now know where every pipe, vent, duct, electrical outlet is in the restaurants. I can read blueprints with the best of them. I can walk into a restaurant and listen and within 5 minutes, I can tell if there’s a noise that’s not normal.”
She believes having this knowledge has not only made her a more effective franchisee but has also allowed her to be taken more seriously by contractors. Her early days were especially tough, she said, and with all the highs and lows of running a business, she cites not being taken seriously as her biggest challenge.
“I can’t tell you how many times this little lady had to be schooled about a plumbing leak. It’s frustrating to be treated like a second-class citizen who doesn’t know the difference between a P-Trap and a faucet. I was insulted constantly,” she said. “And we went through times when I couldn’t find anybody to work on my stuff, so I had to bring my husband in and sometimes he would call repairmen to smooth the waters. But the guys still have to deal with me.”
Things are better now, and she’s found a loyal contractor that respects her expertise. But the experience has continued to motivate her, especially as her oldest daughter learns the business as district manager to eventually take over the reins of Mendenhall’s two IHOPs.
“I want it to be easier for her than it was for me. And not just for her; I have a female GM, assistant managers, lots of team members,” she said.
As such, her highest career moment isn’t winning the company’s Franchisee of the Year Award twice (though she’s quite proud about the honor), but rather her involvement in a program called Women of IHOP. The program started in 2017 when then-president Darren Rebelez asked her how to get more women involved in company decisions. The group gathers at the company’s annual meeting, and started with about two dozen or so participants. This year, it was standing room only, or well over 100 women, Mendenhall estimates.
“It was by far the highest point of my career. The women at IHOP were so appreciative of that meeting and telling me it was the first time they felt heard and recognized and seen,” she said.
Her goal is to leverage this momentum to grow the program: “I don’t think our one meeting a year is going to do it for me and I don’t think it’s going to do it for other women in this company. We want more time together. We want a place to go to share information,” Mendenhall said. “You always see pockets of men networking, but you never see pockets of women. why is that? We need to be meeting more and helping each other in that way.”
Helping each other is her parting advice to anyone wanting to know the secret to her longevity and success – just as her brother-in-law helped her and as she hopes to help the women – the people – of IHOP.
“IHOP franchisees are a force to be reckoned with. They’ll share anything and everything with you – where to get the best pricing, supplies, anything,” she said. “We are here to help each other and that has been instrumental in my career.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]