The Highway Cafe in Cheyenne - small business profile
Are you looking for a cafe or diner in Cheyenne for a good casual meal at a reasonable price? Look no further. I have the answer for you right here. It's a nice size breakfast and lunch establishment in the Wyoming Highway Department building in Cheyenne. Who would have thought of it?
Whether it's breakfast, lunch or a quick snack, I don't think you'll be disappointed. They have a good selection on the menu, and a great crew in the back working away to make certain you enjoy your meal.
Come with me on a visual tour of the Highway Cafe in Cheyenne where we're going to meet Dwight and Nancy Sullivan, the proprietors of this fine establishment. It's been their dream for many years to run their own operation, and they are making their dreams come true.
Their story is an unusual one, and it has some lessons in it for those of us looking to be successful in our own business. This story is one of two people who saw and seized an opportunity.
And, they've been a great success ever since.
Dwight and Nancy operate this nice cafe in the Wyoming Department of Transportation building as a self-financed partnership. It's the original cafeteria for the building, and it's been there for about 40 years. The Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol have offices in and around the building, so it makes an ideal spot for a business that focuses on breakfast and lunch.
The business offers extended breakfast and lunch hours, Monday through Friday, and that makes it very convenient for state employees that work "on campus."
The lunch menu includes fresh homemade soups, sandwiches and salads. When combined with the breakfast menu, you can get about 25 different items as standard on the menu in addition to cookies, chips, desserts and other goodies that are typical of a fine cafe.
Photo left shows Dwight making another batch of calzones for the day's lunch menu.
Daily specials are also offered, and they use a call ahead service to encourage patrons to place their orders early so they can accommodate people's schedules. It's also useful for making good matches between how much food is prepared and how much food is consumed.
For those unacquainted with the restaurant business, you need to know that it's generally a tough business that requires long hours, good planning and constant work. It seems like it would be fun, but it can be quite challenging as well.
It all started when...
The cafe has been around for quite a while, but Dwight and Nancy are relatively new operators, having taken over in the fall of 2008. No strangers to the food service business, Nancy says she has been in the food service industry since she was about 15.
This business opportunity presented itself one day, and the Sullivan family jumped on it. What made this such an appealing opportunity was a combination of factors:
- modest rent with utilities included
- steady and "captive" customer base
- all appliances and equipment in place ready to use
- 40 years as an established place to eat
When you combine those factors and their backgrounds in food service, it was a "no brainer" to give this business a whirl.
Basically, to make the whole operation run, all they had to do was purchase a cooler, food, and some other service items and supplies. Everything else was ready to go. They were quickly able to hit the ground running with limited planning and investment.
Speaking of food, the photo below only shows part of the built-in cooler. They have another cooler as well. You can start to appreciate the investment in food necessary for such a business to start operation.
As it turned out, the Highway Cafe represented an ideal opportunity, and the Sullivans were happy that they wasted no time investigating it and deciding to give it a go. Two months after they "signed on the dotted line" they were in business, and very happy about it too.
Their patrons are also happy about it. There have been any number of compliments regarding the quality and consistency of what they prepare. Some say it's the best that this "cafeteria turned cafe" has ever been. Good for them.
How the business grows...
The near term focus of this business isn't growth so much as it is retention of customer base and expansion of customer base. With the cafe surrounded by state offices, it's clear that keeping customers satisfied and letting others of their good work is of utmost importance.
It would be a challenge to try to draw others to this eating establishment because it's not conveniently located to other businesses, although it is open to the public. There are also no signs allowed for advertising because it's on a relatively large state operated complex.
So, growing the business is secondary to retaining current customers and using word of mouth to reach out to new customers that work at the complex. Being the "only game" within walking distance and also being known for good quality and service makes the Highway Cafe a win-win situation for the owner/operators and their customers that work in the surrounding buildings.
Nevertheless, the Sullivans have their eyes on catering. And, why not? It's the next logical step when you have the home front well under control. Catering would be a perfect avenue for expansion because it doesn't matter where your kitchen is when you're catering an event.
Benefits of the business...
Being your own boss has any number of benefits. Working in a field where you have expertise is also very beneficial to both you and your customers.
Nevertheless, it's clear that the real benefit of this business is that our entrepreneurs basically "walked into it" and started operating, without needing to make investments in equipment, appliances and such. This really cuts the risk out of the equation, and that is as large a benefit as I can imagine.
When risk is taken away, you can relax and have some fun with your business.
In addition, the customer base was ready made and waiting for them to open up. Whether it's breakfast, lunch or a snack, when you have many hundreds of office and facilities workers surrounding you, you don't have to be concerned too much about attracting business, but simply maintaining it. And, that's just what Dwight and Nancy have done.
Resources you'll need...
Usually in a business like this, there are many tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, tools and appliances to purchase. You would need a loan or a sizable lease arrangement to get all the ovens, mixers, coolers, washers, sinks, counter tops, pots, pans, utensils and dispensing equipment that was right there in place waiting for the right team to take over.
Let's look around at some of the resources necessary to run an operation like this.
Photo right is the deep fryer. It's not exactly the size you'd have in your kitchen at home.
And, this is my favorite. I call it "monster mixer." I'm certain it can beat the pants off of the "professional" mixer I have at home. I don't think that's a kick-start level on the right, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised.
Here are a trio of stainless steel sinks in the kitchen. These sinks are very expensive, especially when they're sinks as well as work counters - all made from stainless steel.
It has to be challenging enough to get a handle on all the food and supplies necessary to run a nice size operation like the Highway Cafe. And, don't forget the need for staff. In any business, staffing is of vital importance.
As good planning would have it, the Sullivans staff their operation with family members, specifically, two couples - Dwight and Nancy, and Britney and Julio. Britney is Dwight and Nancy's daughter, so working at the Highway Cafe in Cheyenne is a little like a family outing Monday through Friday.
It's a bit of a throwback to earlier days when many businesses were family run operations. With so many people having limited time with their families, this just isn't a problem for the Sullivan clan.
With a business like this, there are a multitude of variables that help determine what your gross revenue might be. Do you serve 2 meals, 3 meals, or just lunch and snacks? Is your business seasonal or steady throughout the year? These and many other factors come into play with respect to revenue potential.
Let me give you a ballpark figure with respect to gross revenue potential. I would say for a reasonably sized establishment that is run full time, you could expect somewhere in the range of $80K to $150K annual gross revenue from regular operations.
You could supplement that with catering, private parties at your location, and even cooking classes. If you're like most eating establishments, you'll have plenty to do with just keeping us with the regular demand.
Keep in mind that there are lots of expenses that come out of that gross revenue figure. Here is a partial list:
- paper products and other supplies
- employee wages
- waste and spoilage
- maintenance, repair and replacement
- loan and lease payments
Whatever your guesstimate of gross revenue might be, remember to temper it with the idea that there are start-up costs and overhead that need to be factored into the equation. All of those will erode your gross revenue down to a modest net revenue.
Challenges to overcome...
The single most challenging aspect of running this business is it's location. It's off the beaten trail so many don't know about it. Even if people know about it, expanding the business will be a challenge because people have more choice in locations such as downtown or out near the mall. Often times, it's choice that attracts people.
So, business expansion becomes the single largest challenge for our friends at the Highway Cafe. They have plans for catering, and this just might be a good niche operation to focus on. After all, when you cater, it doesn't matter where your kitchen is located.
Dwight says that one of the greatest feelings is knowing that through their efforts they have created the best run cafe in the history of the complex. He's heard this from people that have been associated with the complex since ground breaking, and many of the other long term employees too.
"Knowing that we are solely responsible for this is a great feeling."
The best cafe in the 40 year history of the complex? Wow, that's a clear indicator of success.
Message from our featured entrepreneur...
The Sullivans want to give you some insights with respect to their business, just in case you want to start something like this of your own. They tell us:
- Be willing to work hard, perhaps harder than you ever have before.
- Make certain that your product is consistent, so your customers know what they can count on.
- Give customers what they want. That's why you're in business, and they are the ones that will keep you in business.
- Be flexible because customers love that.
- Carefully consider how your operation is financed, as self-financing can be a little stressful at times.
If you're in Cheyenne, then stop by the Highway Cafe, located at 5300 Bishop Blvd., at the southeast corner of the Central Avenue exit of I-25. Enjoy some good home cooking from scratch, and tell them that Clair sent you.
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