Huddle House Franchise Review: Tony and Rhonda Hernandez, Natchitoches, LA

Less than two years into owning their first Huddle House franchise, husband-and-wife team is considering second location.

Empty-nesters Tony and Rhonda Hernandez, who have been married for nearly 10 years, were ready for the next phase of their lives to begin in 2012. Tony’s contract as a development officer for Northwestern State University was just about up and he got wind of an opportunity in his area. The couple teamed up to run their first Huddle House right in their hometown of Natchitoches, La.

Dual owners at work and strong partners at home, Tony, 54, and Rhonda, 51, are knee-deep into owning a Huddle House franchise that’s about 20 minutes from their home and flourishing. When they’re not running the business, they’re catching up with their grown children — Tony has two sons and a daughter from a previous relationship, and Rhonda has a son and daughter. They talked to us while making a four-hour drive to pick up a friend at an airport. This mini-break from their restaurant is one of the perks of franchise ownership, which gives them flexibility when they need it.

How long have you been a Huddle House franchisee?

Rhonda: Since July 2012.

What were you doing before?

Tony: We owned some storage units, and I have been in sales all of my life. I was working at a university’s alumni office and my contract was about to end, so I began researching going into business for myself. I heard about this property being for sale and started researching it. We liked the quality of food Huddle House carried and heard about how much help the company provides you as a business owner. We were really impressed and are even more so now with the new CEO, Michael Abt. We are really excited he’s on board. He is making some tremendous, positive changes.

When looking into potential businesses to own, were you leaning toward a dining establishment?

Tony: Yes. I grew up in the restaurant business as a kid. My first job was being a waiter at my parents’ restaurant when I was 10 years old. And Rhonda and I enjoy working with the public.

What kind of restaurant did your family own?

Tony: It was a sit-down, family-type dinner place in Houston, Texas, with a lazy Susan on the tables that you turned around to pick what you wanted off the plate. Then they owned a Spanish-type of restaurant, since we are originally from Cuba.

Rhonda, did you have food experience as well?

Rhonda: No, but I’ve had a lot of retail experience as well as owning businesses. My customer service experience has played a big role as well.

Tony: It really does. The customers don’t want to see you behind the counter all day; they want to talk to you.

Do potential franchise owners have to have food experience?

Tony: It’s not important. If you have empathy around people when they have an issue, you will be very successful. But if you can’t handle people’s complaints or recommendations, you shouldn’t be in any kind of people business.

Rhonda: With Huddle House, you don’t have to re-create the wheel. You do what they have laid out, and you’ll be successful. But if you go into a privately owned restaurant, you have to come up with your own policies and procedures and recipes and all that. Even though I didn’t have a background in restaurants, I didn’t have to have it.

What type of research did you do before taking on your Huddle House?

Tony: We traveled around Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama looking at different Huddle Houses and getting information from different owners. To us, the ones who are the most enthusiastic and involved in their locations seemed to be more successful. They are the ones who treat their Huddle House franchises like a mom-and-pop operation. They are more hands-on.

How large is the opportunity to grow with Huddle House?

Tony: We’re looking into another location further in the downtown area. Right now, we’re sort of on the outskirts, so we don’t reach people who are further into town. Having more locations is very feasible once you get your feet on the ground. We were only going to do one, but a year and a half later, we’re thinking about adding this other location. It’s almost like having a child — when you have one or two, you might as well have three or four.

What do you like about your job?

Tony: It’s not hard. If you don’t have a good group of solid employees, you’re going to struggle, but we’ve managed to have most of our employees with us for an average of a year. We enjoy the flexibility. We can go away when we know it’s not going to be a busy time.

It also must be nice not having a boss, right?

Tony: I do have a boss – it’s Rhonda [laughs]. Of course, our customers are our bosses. When they brag to us about how good things are, we say, “Thank you.” And anytime something goes bad, I say, “Please don’t hesitate to tell me; that’s the only way I can correct it.”

Anything else you’re enjoying about your job?

Tony: We also enjoy visiting with other franchise owners. The new CEO is making that a lot more convenient for us to meet throughout the year to share stories and ideas. They hold these franchisee meetings at central locations, and they’re easier for franchisees to attend because there’s less travel time. We also have monthly conference calls. There is more communication now between franchisees as well as between franchisees and the corporate office.

Who are your competitors?

Tony: We have a brand-new IHOP that opened across the street in March. We’ve lost only one employee since then. We do get an effect from interstate traffic when non-local people don’t recognize our name, but our local people have been very supportive and are good repeat customers.

What sets Huddle House apart from its competitors?

Rhonda: Our atmosphere and our friendliness. We talk to our customers all the time. We had one just the other night from Michigan who was showing me pictures on her phone. We have a laid-back atmosphere.

Tony: Our regular customers enjoy visiting with us.

Rhonda: If we’re not there, they ask where we are.

Tony: Our servers go out of their way to thank people as they leave and welcome them when they come in. And they go out of their way to help people coming in with children, such as finding ways to appease a crying child. And, of course, the quality of our food is very good, and our prices are more than reasonable.

What’s your favorite menu item?

Tony: The Swiss Chop House Burger is my favorite with the deli bun.

Rhonda: I like the Philly Cheese Steak.

How many customers do you have in a day?

Tony: Our average is about 200 a day.

What does a typical day looks like for you?

Tony: I start off by changing into my slip-proof shoes. Then I check my sales and manage the financials of the business. After about an hour, I go out and greet the guests and see how the employees are performing throughout the day. I love how I can sit at the counter and see both what’s going on in the kitchen and see what’s going on out on the floor. When I leave, I say thank you to everyone and do some paperwork.

Rhonda: I’m always hands-on with the customers, and I’m always interacting with the employees. I enjoy walking around and talking to people.

Tony: When we’re not at the restaurant, we check on things through the camera system. If we see something is not going the way it should be, we call to see if our employees need help.

Do you feel that you have been successful, and if so, what’s been your secret?

Tony: Our sales were 20% above the previous year when the previous owner ran it. Being involved in your community is the secret. We do pancake breakfasts with local organizations, and we support the local organizations. The Huddle House format is especially made for couples like us and people who are involved in their community.

Rhonda: We live in this community, and when people who knew us heard we were the ones who had bought this Huddle House, they decided to give it a try.

Would you recommend a Huddle House franchise to someone else?

Rhonda: Yes. It’s easy. Everything is laid out for you.

Tony: Huddle House’s system works. It’s even better now with the new CEO.

What type of person do you think would enjoy owning a Huddle House?

Tony: A people person.

Rhonda: You’ve got to be a down-to-earth person.

What are some of the personal benefits of franchise ownership?

Tony: The support you get. The Huddle House folks are not only supportive, but they’re very open to input. It’s not their way or their highway. I can’t see any McDonald’s franchisees being able to recommend a food item. We suggested Natchitoches meat pies, which are famous around the world, and now Huddle House is looking into putting the pies on the menu.

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Could Huddle House be the right opportunity for you? With 400-plus units in more than 21 states, Huddle House is looking to expand further. The core values on which Huddle House was founded in 1964 — serving quality food in a warm, friendly environment that brings the community together — remain intact today. Typically open 24 hours, Huddle House serves any meal, anytime. If you think Huddle House might be the right franchise opportunity for you, please fill out this form to download our free franchising report or call us at (770) 626-7286.