Still feeling that Thanksgiving food hangover? Well, Lisa Schulte and her husband, Adam, own a restaurant that might help you get back on track: Quarks American Bento. Quarks is a healthy, fast-food restaurant based on an idea the Schultes created: a bowl of whole grains, lean meats, fresh raw veggies, and house-made sauces customized by each patron similar to a Subway sandwich. Based in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Quarks is working to educate the local market on the concepts of bento and whole fast foods.
Why did you start the company?
My background was in the medical field. I was a surgical technologist for 14 years. My husband Adam and I ended up losing our jobs on the same exact day. He was working in concrete and they were slow. He was on long-term disability, so they cut him. My company sold off and they weren’t hiring my position. The whole thing ended up being the push I needed to take this leap. We started working with our local Small Business Development Center because we really didn’t have a background in the restaurant industry. It was a steep learning curve for us.
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How did you finance the business at the beginning?
It was a combination of personal savings, credit cards, and a small amount from a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.
What’s the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting out?
I wish we would have spent money more conservatively and not spent money on things we thought we needed. Don’t buy it until you actually need it.
What’s the smartest thing you did when you were first starting out?
We took the time to write a business plan. And we’ve networked with the banks and local businesses. And we’ve done market research.
Managing the Business
How do you manage cash flow?
We have a calendar that we write down our ticket count on each day. And we have a spreadsheet that tracks in-store sales, catering, and outside delivery. We also use QuickBooks.
Planning is kind of a day-by-day thing. We don’t have as much cash flow as we need to be comfortable, so it’s really about prioritizing the strongest needs and making sure those get paid. In this industry, it’s not consistent. It’s really just reviewing your numbers from the months and the years before and trying to figure out and anticipate what you could have now.
Quarks are fundamental elements and we feel that we serve fundamental foods. We are a new concept and we are in an area that doesn’t really know what bento is or what quarks are. It’s been a huge education piece for us through a lot of grassroots marketing. We’re still getting to know the industry and getting to know the neighborhood. We talk to a lot of other restaurants in the area to get ideas of how to reach volume. Having more of a presence in the community, we’ve seen more catering business.
What’s the most difficult thing about running the business?
The marketing piece. That was something I was not educated on. I underestimated the importance of it. We’ve learned a lot about marketing and what works and what doesn’t. It takes time to figure all that out. It feels like you’re wasting money as you learn, sometimes.
What is the most rewarding thing about running the business?
Talking with the customers and hearing how satisfied they are with our product and our service.
What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?
Find a mentor as soon as you can – someone who’s willing to spend time with you and help you make the tough decisions.
What’s next for Quarks American Bento?
We want to be a nationwide company. We want to franchise. We’re not there right now.
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