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Afghanistan War veteran Kyle McElhaney on becoming a first time PJ’s Coffee franchisee

Kyle and Jen McElhaney won PJ’s Coffee’s franchise license giveaway awarded to military veterans and are currently building their brand

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’re featuring Kyle McElhaney, who, together with his wife Jen, recently won the annual PJ’s Coffee license giveaway for military veterans. McElhaney is an Afghanistan war veteran where he served in the army as an officer and helicopter pilot, and later, was an officer for the National Guard, Although the McElhaneys have not opened their first store yet, they hope to do so within the year in Germantown, Tenn.


“I'm from a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, born and raised, and went to school at Ole Miss where I was in ROTC. I’ve always wanted to serve my country and always felt it was my calling. […] I had the opportunity to fly the 64 Apache attack helicopter deploys in 2010 and 2011 to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Stateside, I finished up my military career as a recruiting company commander. […] After eight and a half years of active duty, I was in Mississippi National Guard stayed for two years.  My wife and I are busy with six kids. In 2018, I saw Amazon was looking for entrepreneurs. […] In 2018 I was the 83rd person selected in the United States out of 30,000 people to deliver the very first Amazon packages on the streets of Memphis with the very first name was on truck on the streets of Memphis. I did that for a few years, and then my wife and I diversified into interior design. support businesses we began looking into coffee and that’s how we got in touch with PJ’s.”

Military Connection

“I think being a military veteran helps me identify and solve problems in a different way. But also I have the ability to interact with people that are from all different walks of life. I think diversity of problem solving and diversity of people interaction brings a lot of military veterans into entrepreneurship. I like the franchise aspect of it because somebody else has already invented the wheel. […] I would like the opportunity to bring somebody else's idea up.”

Why PJ’s

“About a year-and-a-half ago, my wife and I purchased a local coffee shop and ran it for three months but realized we didn’t know anything about the coffee or breakfast industry. So we shut it down after three months because we knew we were not going to succeed. I researched all of the other coffee shops that were franchising and found PJ’s: I love their model. I love the offerings from a food and from beverage standpoint, and the franchise support that I've seen from them is above and beyond.”

Coffee as a good fit

“We have a Starbucks in our area and it has zero competition, and one day I just got tired of it. […]  And as typical entrepreneurs do, we said, ‘there's got to be a better way.’ I started researching and PJ's aligned better with what we stand for and how we want to operate. I had looked into fast-casual restaurants, but I didn't want to go into a full-fledged restaurant with a full kitchen with cooks. This is a nice hybrid: It allows us to build something that is needed inside the market, but we’re doing it with a smaller footprint.”

Real estate challenges

“Real estate is huge right now. We have a very specific footprint that we've have to put PJ’s in and it needs to either be an endcap or freestanding with a drive-thru format. Finding a facility with a drive-thru is extremely challenging. And if we don't find a location with a drive-thru already in it, we can build it, but with building costs up so high, it's not gonna make sense. Coffee shops make good top line money, but they don't make great top line money, so you have to manage your expenses a little bit tighter and by blowing your budget on P&L or rent, you could cripple your business early on and never get it off the ground.”

Franchising goals

“We have not yet opened our first location, but I would love to have 10 to 15 in the Memphis area. We are currently signed on for two PJ’s franchise licenses. We wanted to open by the end of the year but because of real estate challenges, I think we’ll open in March 2023. […] We're looking at any of the suburbs in the Memphis area or even in Mississippi. […] I know PJs will succeed wherever we put it, so I'm casting a big, wide net in this area to try to find something. […] I would love to have four locations open by the end of 2023.

Who they’re looking to hire

“Whenever I'm looking for a team member, whether it's soldier, an employee, or a manager, I look at three different things: effort, attitude, and teamwork. You can't always force somebody to give to give good effort, but you can help manage and get them get them to that effort. […] A positive attitude breed an area of mutual trust and mutual respect. […] I’m also really big on teamwork. We are all trying to go and achieve the same goal as an organization. And whenever we do that, we take care of the team that surrounds us. And we all can achieve that can achieve that goal together.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

Find her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

TAGS: Franchising
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