Small-town entrepreneur keeps up family tradition and keeps Huddle House in his community.
When Ben Hoover was considering what the next chapter of his life would look like after a career in school bus manufacturing, he found a ready-made solution right at his fingertips. Today, the third-generation restaurateur is the owner of Ben Hoover Enterprises, which operates two Huddle Houses in Southwest Georgia. This is his story.
So, how many Huddle Houses do you own?
I have two Huddle Houses. One in Moultrie and one in Pelham, Georgia. I joined Huddle House in 2002 as a franchisee.
Did you open both units at once or did you stagger them out?
I opened Pelham, Georgia, in 2002, and I acquired my family business in 2011 in Moultrie, Georgia.
And when you say family business, what do you mean by that?
I was in business together with family, my mother and Junior. They retired, and after their retirement I took the business over and bought them out.
What was it about these locations that appealed to you? Are you from either of these cities?
More or less our family hometown is Moultrie, Georgia. So, whenever I would go home, we would meet at the Huddle House, which my mother and Junior owned at the time. So pretty much whenever I would go there, it was something that I always thought I might want to do. After 25 years working in the school bus manufacturing business, I was thinking that, well, maybe after that I might want to do something in the restaurant business. My family has been in the restaurant business for a long time; I guess you could say I am the third generation — my grandmother, my mother and then myself.
If somebody is not familiar with Moultrie, can you give me an idea of roughly why Moultrie needed a Huddle House — what does a Huddle House mean to Moultrie?
Our Huddle House in Moultrie has always been well-known as a family-owned operation. We pretty much meet-and-greet with a lot of friends. We have a lot of family that comes through there and we are really sports-oriented. Since we have the No. 1 high school football team in the nation, we are pretty proud of that.
Do you do any sort of fundraisers for them, or sponsorships? Do they meet there?
We do quite a bit of sponsorship with the football team locally. We have signs on the football field, and we give gift certificates every year to the football players, mostly the seniors. We do a lot of the “player of the week” awards and recognize a defensive and offensive player every week.
That is great. What is the restaurant scene like in Moultrie?
It is fairly competitive, I would think, but we are real proud of what we do in town. We are really the family gathering place. We know most of our customers by name. It is comical at times, and we all have a good time with the customers. The customers have a good time with the employees. It is kind of a fun gathering place.
Tell me a little bit about your customers.
There are probably about four or five who come in just about every day, and you can plan on them like clockwork. They go over all the politics in town and all the things that are happening. Pretty much what you would see in a typical Huddle House. Early in the mornings we have the group of guys that are pretty much like the coffee club guys, and there are about 8 or 10 of them. They are the ones we have to pamper.
What about your staff? Do you have any long-timers there?
Yeah, I am proud to say we have quite a few employees who have been with us for 14 years. I’ve got two employees who have been with me since I opened the business up — one in Pelham who was with me for 14 years and then another one who worked in Pelham but now works in Moultrie, Georgia, with me. Then I have quite a few employees who have five or more years senior with me. I’ve probably got 10 or more who have been with me over five years.
It must feel really good to be able to provide not only a gathering place for the community, but jobs as well.
Yes, we do try to make sure we have a good work environment. We work with most of our employees. They seem to be pretty happy. I think they like the leadership, too. We have very good leadership in both restaurants.
What is your role in the operation of your restaurants?
I am pretty much like a lot of the owners in this Huddle House business: We do anything from washing dishes to cooking eggs to cleaning bathrooms — pretty much whatever it takes. A lot of it is just being there with the customers, visiting, touching the tables, I like to say. You just gotta go there and be friends with the people who come in and greet them like they are family. We just really have a good group of people who come in and a good loyalty base, which I am very proud of. A lot of really good people come see us.
Are either one of your restaurants part of the Evolution remodel design?
We have remodeled both restaurants. We remodeled the Moultrie store in 2014, and then the very next year we went and remodeled the Pelham store. In fact, I think Moultrie was one of the first stores remodeled during that year. I believe there may have been a few others done, but we were close to some of the first ones to remodel. Ever since then it has been a fantastic experience. I am very proud of what we have done since that time.
Can you expound on that? Have you seen your same store sales increase?
The same store sales have increased. The customer perception of our business has really ramped up. It is amazing just to see the acceptance of the town and how the people have come out and just really enjoyed coming in and their eyes brighten up and look around and you can tell they really like the new look for Huddle House.
What do you think about the direction that the leadership team is headed in the next 5 or 10 years?
I have been in the Huddle House business since 2002, and I don’t think I could be more optimistic of where we are headed from where we were. I think we had some difficult times during the 2005 – 2010 years, but I believe that since 2011 our brand has improved immensely. I am very proud to be in this business. It has made a big difference in my family’s life just because of the success we see in our Huddle Houses, plus the success we see in the brand. It feels a lot better now to go around and tell somebody we own a Huddle House. The customers, I can see even through their perceptions that our Huddle Houses have a better brand name through them.
I am sure CEO Michael Abt would love to hear that as well. Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of support you get from corporate as a franchisee?
I like the way the support group out of the corporate office is now because they are very involved. You can tell when you make phone calls to the corporate office you get results. What you say does not fall on deaf ears. They are very engaged in their franchisees. The Franchise Area Directors do a fantastic job. I really can’t say enough about the way I feel. This new group of people that are in the corporate office now, from Michael Abt down, are a lot more involved, and you can tell they have a lot more compassion for the franchisee.
Are your two locations both freestanding? Do you own those?
Yes, they are both freestanding Huddle Houses and I own both of the businesses.
Was the real estate play an appealing part of the offering to you, as something that could be a long-term investment strategy?
The freestanding stores made a large impact on me as far as the real estate investment in the restaurant itself. On top of it being a Huddle House restaurant with the recipe of success that you can follow as a franchisee. That made a big impact on the decision that I made.
Let’s say I was interested in investing in Huddle House and I called you up — what could you tell me about being a franchisee? Should I do this, and if so, why?
I think now would be the time to invest in Huddle House. We’ve got some great new guys in the corporate office with Michael Abt and the team that he has chosen. It seems like we have a lot of great new innovative ideas as far as going to the new set-up. I do believe that the real estate investment and the business investment itself are moving in an upward direction, which is what everybody wants to hear when they get an investment going. I just think the Huddle House restaurant brand is doing better now than it has ever done since I have been involved in it.
Is there anything else that you think would be important to let prospective investors know?
I think the main thing is they need to understand that when involving yourself with a franchise, you need to really be particular about what group you want to chose to invest in, because not all franchisors have a good recipe for success. But from the very beginning and even through the tough years, I knew that if you followed a good brand and a good company that had good leadership in it, as long as you followed the recipe you would be successful. You are not doing something experimentally; you are following behind people that have already done this and it is proven to be something that was successful. So if you follow those guidelines as a franchisee and follow those rules and take advantage of the help that the corporate office hands down to you, most of the time you are going to be successful.
Knowing what you know now would you do it all over again?
Yeah, I would certainly do this all over again. It has been a good experience and even through the hard times. It is still something that you learn from. But, like I said, if you follow what I call the recipe that the corporate office gives you, if you do what you are supposed to do, follow the guidelines and have a good, open attitude, it is a great place to be.
I love the story about it changing your family’s life.
Yeah, my grandmother was a Dairy Queen operator and my mother was a Dairy Queen operator. Then, like I said, a few years later we got involved with Huddle House, and at one time the family had three Huddle Houses. So whenever I would go home, the first place we would meet up at a lot of times would be at the Huddle House. It kind of became like part of the family, and I feel like I’m carrying that on.
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