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Brooks Bassler - BB’s Café

Brooks Bassler

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Brooks Bassler grew up in South Louisiana, which means he grew up around real Cajun food. After graduating from the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, he perfected his Tex-Orleans menu concept. Years of hard work later, his FOUR restaurant locations are doing well and Brooks has no intention of slowing down. He’s optimistic about building business at his current locations and opening additional locations in the future.

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Russ: Welcome back to the BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business built for business, coming to you today from BB's Café on Westheimer in Houston, Texas. And I'm with the founder and owner, Brooks Bassler. Brooks, welcome to the Businessmakers Show.

Brooks: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Russ: You bet. Tell us about BB's Café.

Brooks: BB's Café is we're calling it Tex Orleans style cooking. It's a very strong Cajun influence but we manage to put a little spin on Cajun and incorporate some of my favorite aspects of good Tex Mex cooking.

Russ: All right, Tex Mex but really Tex Orleans.

Brooks: We're calling it Tex Orleans, mostly Cajun, but if you're a purist, we're not a pure Cajun joint, but we do offer some of the most authentic items in Houston.

Russ: As you know, you got on my radar because you're a graduate of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston. I was hearing about you probably shortly after you got into the business, which you now are at how many restaurants?

Brooks: We have four locations.

Russ: So didn't they teach you at the Wolff Center that it's very difficult and very risky to open up restaurants?

Brooks: You hear that all the time and people just kind of tend to hear and see the bad of restaurants but it's a really phenomenal business to be in, extremely challenging, labor intensive, personnel issues all around, but at the end of the day, if you're a restaurant guy, once you get that first taste of it, it's hard to get away from.

Russ: Okay, well, take us back to the beginning. What triggered the idea to get into the restaurant business and specifically with the menu that you've stayed consistent with in all four restaurants?

Brooks: Absolutely. I'm always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was raised by two entrepreneurs so being an entrepreneur was kind of in my blood. When I went to the University of Houston, I didn't really know about the Wolff Center but when I got there, I learned about it quickly and I really loved that program and they make you choose a business plan when you're at the program. So I've always kind of had the itch for a restaurant. I've always thought it was a cool business to be in. I grew up around constant food and entertainment. My dad actually always wanted to be in the restaurant business as well but he never got into it, so I decided to choose the restaurant route. From there, at U of H, they make you pick a business plan, and they connect you with entrepreneurs in the city that are in that business, and I got to work for a few, and figured out that I really love the business, and figured out the biggest challenges that are associated with it, and stayed in the business. I was a waiter, waited tables through college.

When I got out of college, I continued to be a waiter and I was a bartender and did that for a few years after college. The owner of the restaurant I was working for at the time approached me because they were trying to kick off their catering program. It sounded really cool. It was basically an outside sales job. I took it, and I ran with it, and I was very successful at starting up it was basically entrepreneurship. I was running a business inside of a business, and he gave me a lot of freedom with the job, and I was able to grow his catering business exponentially, caught the attention of a larger company in town, went to work for them, grew his business exponentially, catering business. So my background, aside from being a waiter, was catering sales, knew nothing about the kitchen aspect of the business.

Russ: Which is an important aspect.

Brooks: Extremely important. I kind of learned that the hard way. When I was 27 or 26, I decided to go off on my own. It took me about a year to really develop and fine tune the concept, find a location, and get it open. There was a year when I was unemployed. My family's all from South Louisiana. In South Louisiana, it's all about food and entertainment, having a good time, so I grew up around really good cooks, good Cajun cooks, so I decided, "Well, I'm gonna do Cajun. I'm gonna do

Cajun food." Then a mentor of mine, Ken Jones, I really started talking with him a lot, "Well, okay, how are we going to fine tune this and make it unique? There's quite a few Cajun restaurants around.

Russ: Yes, there are.

Brooks: So we say, "Well, we're gonna focus on the po' boy." We opened up as a po' boy shop, but more importantly, we're going to focus on late night hours of operation, and so the original location on Montrose and Westheimer, it's open till 3:00 AM, which was extremely challenging the first two years of being a business 'cause I couldn't afford a manager and so I was doing everything.

Russ: Were you open for lunch, too, and dinner, straight through to 3:00?

Brooks: Lunch straight through. It was brutal but it worked. It really was a unique identifier for the brand and it's something that we're proud of.

Russ: Wow, and is that restaurant still open?

Brooks: Absolutely, yeah.

Russ: Still till 3:00 AM?

Brooks: Yeah.

Russ: My goodness, incredible. So here you are now, this is your fourth one and this place is pretty big. Is this your largest one?

Brooks: This is the largest footprint. It's 6,400 square feet, bigger than I wanted it to be but it made sense financially. It's a very good rent rate. Our deal has been growth but we don't spend a ton of money when we open locations. I feel like I'm pretty savvy and smart when it comes to picking locations that don't require a lot of upfront costs when you compare it to other restaurants. The bones were here. It's a second-generation restaurant. There's tons of equipment here. There's tons of furniture here, so it just made sense even though it was bigger than we wanted it to be. But we started really small with the original and we're finding out that that concept, although it's profitable, it's not where we want to be. We want a bigger footprint. We want the volume. We want to be able to afford a full-blown management team and that's what the bigger locations allow us to do.

Russ: Okay, so how long have you been open at this location?

Brooks: We've been open here two and a half months, actually.

Russ: Okay, how is it going?

Brooks: Good, good. We opened up the first week and we were profitable the first week, which is just incredible. We're not busy. It's just a really steady business flow but it's already doing numbers that are above my third-year projections.

Russ: Wow, cool. So you must attribute some of that to the location. It's a pretty primo location.

Brooks: I think so it is. Choosing location is extremely difficult and everybody has their opinion and take on location, so at the end of the day, you just go with your gut, and I feel like, yes, it is a great location. The thing about Westheimer in this area, it's probably one of the most competitive areas in town in terms of restaurants, how many restaurants there are and how many people are in your trade area. It's through the roof, extremely competitive, so naturally, there is going to be some turnover with concepts over here.

Russ: Well, as you know, Brooks, we have a business audience here, and so they look at these things with admiration when you're growing and successful, but also, you can look at restaurants, and at least for me, there are just two extraordinary challenges compared to other models. No. 1 is staffing. It seems like it's extremely important and difficult to get good people and very difficult to keep them. Do I have that right?

Brooks: Absolutely. What I've found, our labor, our workforce, our waiters, and our cooks, and our bussers, those guys, for me, it's a little more challenging managing those guys than it is our managers. I've been able to find some really top level managers that are really well paid and they're happy where they're at and they see the growth of the business, so they see the big picture in where we're heading, so they're in it to win it long haul.

Russ: And they're experienced? They've worked in the restaurant business.

Brooks: Extremely experienced. My two top guys, or three top guys, actually, have quite a bit more experience than I do. It's helped us to grow and it's allowed me to work on the business instead of grinding out inside of four walls 60 hours a week. But the labor guys, it's just extremely difficult to keep them motivated, to retain them. The turnover in the restaurant business, it's through the freaking roof. We're talking well over 100 percent.

Russ: No, I totally believe you. Is there a BB's culture that's developing that -

Brooks: Absolutely. We have a service culture initiative that we work on every day and that's with how we talk to the guys, how do we give them worth and value in what they're doing. 'Cause at the end of the day, people want to feel good about what they're doing, so we do have some initiatives we work on every day to try to help with that and it helps quite a bit but it's still the turnover of the labor guys presents a huge challenge for us _____.

Russ: I understand. The other category that seems complex to me, maybe it's not as complex as staffing, but it's inventory, and inventory control, and food. My God, how do you know what to order, and what happens when you order too much, and what happens when you run out of food?

Brooks: Right, absolutely, and it all comes back to the most important equation in my business is personnel. If the guys do what they're supposed to do, it all works, but we have systems in place in how do we count our product every day? Every morning, we're counting our product because you have to keep the product rotating. It's extremely important for freshness and quality. If someone screws that up, well, it affects the customer, so it all comes back to people.

Russ: Say you run out, which I guess is a good problem. It shows you that sales are there. So what, does somebody get in the car and run to the grocery store?

Brooks: It depends on what time of day it is, which hopefully we're not running out of anything in the middle of lunch. That very seldom happens. Now we're open late and if we run out of something after 10:00, we're probably gonna explain to the guest, "Hey, I'm sorry. We're out of that product." Yeah.

Russ: Okay, so you brought up late, again, so the original store stayed open until 3:00. How late do the other stores -

Brooks: They're all open till midnight or later - actually all of them are open three days a week till 2:00am and then the rest of the week until midnight.

Russ: My goodness. So that's got to be sort of a differentiator, I mean you've developed a reputation for being - the late night crowd can be a little unruly too, can't they?

Brooks: Yes, absolutely, it's a different clientele and they can definitely be unruly at times but what I have found out at my Montrose location, and other locations, is that at that hour it's a little more pricing elastic. They're not really paying as much attention so they tend to order more food than they need and the PPA is higher than our traditional hours.

Russ: So it's more of a profitable clientele?

Brooks: I think so, you just have to learn how to manage them. And of course you always have knuckleheads and you always have to deal with those guys.

Russ: All right, so here you are, I mean obviously opening new stores and growing, so I imagine the plan includes more; are we talking even expansion outside of this part of the geography?

Brooks: We're definitely focused on Houston right now, I mean that's my short and long term vision is to corner the Houston market. I think I'd be a fool to consider any other options outside of the Houston and surrounding market. How long is that going to take us to do? I think Houston can easily support ten locations - ten BB's locations - so focused on the Houston and surrounding is where my mid's at.

Russ: Okay, are you even thinking about another formula maybe with another restaurant too?

Brooks: I always have that itch so when the time is right I'm going to do another concept, but right now at the end of the day my - I actually just walked away from a deal where I was really close. I've always had this itch to do this barbeque deal and I was really close on signing a lease - extremely close - and the landlord said look, I've got to have an answer today and I said man, I can't do it, my focus needs to be on BB's right now.

Russ: That's probably a good decision. So one last area of questions, I think I heard that you started this first one and just sort of funded it out of the cash register.

Brooks: We did.

Russ: You've been doing that the whole way?

Brooks: So the first three restaurants were all funded through internal cash flow and debt.

Russ: Bank credit?

Brooks: Bank credit, exactly. And so what that allowed me to do is to retain the business and hold full control.

Russ: Which is important.

Brooks: Absolutely. However, moving forward I'm really experimenting. This location is the first one did it where we went out and we raised all outside money.

Russ: Wow, interesting; so you've got some investors now?

Brooks: We do, we have sixteen investors, I've gotten to meet most of them, awesome people, very supportive and we're just - this one's working already and it's going to continue to work and so the plan is to keep trying to expand on outside money.

Russ: Cool. Well Brooks, I really appreciate you sharing the story of BB's.

Brooks: Absolutely. Thank you, appreciate it. Enjoyed it

Russ: All right and that wraps up my session with Brooks Bassler, the Founder and Owner of BB's Cafes. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com; brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.

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