Huddle House franchise provides beacon for Montevallo, Ala.
John Roper, 64, says he missed his calling early in life. He’s served in the military, managed a team of firefighters and owned his own flooring company, but eight years ago he opened a Huddle House 24-hour restaurant franchise in Montevallo, Al. He loves it, and the business has been “very financially profitable for me and my family.” We recently asked him to share his story with others.
What were you doing before Huddle House?
I was in the flooring business. My father owned a flooring company in Birmingham, and I started doing that basically at birth. After school I went into the military. Then I spent 20 years as a firefighter and did floors on the side. After my father died, I opened my own flooring company in Montevallo. I’ve lived here since 1985. After a while, I realized there was a big opportunity here, because we have a four-year college here, and the only restaurant options were McDonald’s® and KFC®. The college kids were always trekking to the next city to go to Waffle House, and I figured they’d like to have an option close to school, and this would be a good business.
What attracted you to Huddle House?
The variety of the food set it apart. It looked a lot more family-oriented, and it had a lot of great food that Waffle House® didn’t have — a much broader menu. We have a great breakfast menu, but we also have great burgers and barbecue, all types of chicken sandwiches and steaks and appetizers and pies. We have great milkshakes, and those have been really popular.
What makes your restaurant popular?
Our town is a little bigger than Mayberry, and the students and faculty of the University of Montevallo like having a good place where they can go for a sit-down meal and great service. We kind of have a corner on the market down here. We’re about a mile from campus, and about 3,000 students go there. We get a lot of students in from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., a really good crowd in the early morning hours, which enhances our sales greatly. Excellent service brings people in, and we concentrate on curb appeal and cleanliness.
Do you still own your flooring company?
No. I had both businesses for about a year, but I was stretched too thin, and fortunately I was able to sell it. Huddle House has been a much, much stronger business. The Huddle House concept and its prices — even in a bad economy, it did well. We pulled in a lot of people who normally might have gone to a more expensive restaurant, but they decided to stay close to home and save some gas money and get a better deal on their food.
How do you like owning the business?
I feel I missed my calling a long time ago. The flooring business is tough — dealing with contractors. I enjoy Huddle House. It is a 24-hour business, so you have to have a good work ethic and give it your attention all the time. Even though I have managers, I keep my hand on it. I also try to stay involved with the company itself. I’m on the franchisee advisory council and the marketing council, and I attend quarterly meetings with the CEO in Atlanta and other franchisees to help them make good decisions for the brand.
How important is previous restaurant experience?
I think having management experience is the most important thing. In the fire department, I was over 40 men, and I managed a lot of people at my flooring company, so I had experience with personnel and business management. The way you handle people and hiring the right people is the most important. I feel like I have a great staff, and that’s what you need to do well.
What is a typical day like for you?
I do a lot of things that other franchisees might hire a maintenance guy to do, like changing light bulbs and cleaning vents. I want to make sure the grounds are always clean and welcoming. I’m always talking to customers, busing tables and making sure people are happy. I’m there practically every day unless I go to the lake on the weekend. When I’m away, I have a camera system that allows me to see what’s going on in the restaurant using a computer or my phone. I want to know what’s going on, and to be accessible. If there’s an issue, I can take care of it quickly.
I like being around my customers. If you go in at 4:30 in the morning, it’s the same guys out there smoking and having their breakfast every day and you can carry on with them. There are different regulars at different phases of the day. We have a lot of repeat customers. There are some folks who are in here for every meal. It’s a hangout. It’s not a private club, but it can seem like it. We do some fun things for our customers, too. We’ll have karaoke some nights, which brings in big crowds. For the 4th of July, we did a pulled pork barbecue plate for $7.99. It wasn’t very profitable for me, but people love it and it’s one of the little things we do for customers to let them know we appreciate them. They become friends.
What makes your business thrive?
Running a good business and being appreciated. Financially, it’s been good to me. It took a little while to get there, because I had some issues with employees at first, but I’ve worked to improve the quality of my staff, and I took advantage of a lot of the training offerings of Huddle House to get better at various areas of the food service aspect, and that really helped me a lot. I like the business. I’m the only restaurant in town that’s open 24/7, and we do a very good business with it. It’s all hands on deck on the weekends. Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the highest sales days, and when school is in session, they party on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and that means more late business. You always have to be alert to games at the college or high school, and parades, because that will bring more people to town and increases business. You always have to be prepared and staff appropriately for times like that.
This is not a business for somebody who isn’t going to pay attention to it — not if you want to be in the upper level of daily average sales. Nobody puts the personal touch on it that the owner does. I like knowing I’m doing my dead best to offer the best service I can. My father taught me that if you’re not working seven days a week, you’re losing money. That work ethic has been important.
What do you do with your time off?
I just took a week off and took all my kids and grandkids to Disney World — 16 people in all, and Grandpa paid for all of it. It may have been the trip of a lifetime, and it’s something I never could have done before owning my Huddle House. I also go to the lake or a place I have in Gulf Shores. I’m getting to the point now where I’ve got a great staff and I don’t have to keep an eye on them all the time. It’s all about teamwork, not adding drama and staying focused on customers.
Would you recommend Huddle House to someone else?
It’s a very good business, profitwise, if the attention is paid to the whole operation. You turn your back on it, and it will suffer. Huddle House has good systems to help you track and manage your business. I think the Huddle House system is very good, and I’m proud to be a franchisee. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of changes, and I think right now it is evolving into an even better system. As far as what I would say to somebody thinking about it — if you love people and will provide good service, good food, a good experience, and if you are willing to pay a lot of attention to detail for every aspect of the business, it’s very satisfying. If you have a great work ethic, you can generate great sales. When I first opened my first one, I had ideas of opening five of them. But at my age now, and doing so well with the one I’ve got, I don’t feel the need to jump into another one. I feel financially secure, and I’m doing good for my family.