Kristen Sumpter, owner of Red’s Beer Garden in Atlanta, GA, had traditional views about life after college. “I’m from Wilmington, North Carolina,” she says. “I grew up avoiding financial risk. You get your nine-to-five job. Your retirement savings. Your paid vacation. Save all your dollars. I wanted that path.”
Earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public sociology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, “I thought the world was my oyster,” Kristen says. Except for one problem: “No one was hiring public sociologists.”
Kristen did, eventually, get a job at the University of Georgia. It required her and her husband, Ed, whom she met in undergraduate school, to move to Atlanta. “When I got the position, it was my dream job,” she says. “I never thought about entrepreneurship. Owning a business seemed too risky.”
Ed had a different idea.
The Unlikely Path to Entrepreneurship
Kristen calls her husband a dreamer. “He had this vision of opening a coffee shop or a coffee food truck,” she recalls. They talked about it often and decided to take some business courses together. That’s where the idea for Red’s Beer Garden was born. At first, Kristen says it was a pipe dream. But then she became more excited about the idea of running her own business than she was working her “safe” day job. So she rolled up her sleeves, wrote an 11-page business plan for Red’s Beer Garden (the name a nod to her ginger locks), found a location (in the community-oriented Benteen Park neighborhood) and opened for business in January 2020.
Two months later, a global pandemic hit.
A lot of businesses opened in Atlanta right before and during the pandemic, Kristen says. Those that succeeded have one thing in common: a willingness to pivot at any given moment. While she admits that the unpredictable day-to-day needs stunted her learning curve as an owner, it also forced her to seek out mentors and support. In fact, she spent two years navigating local networking organizations and working with a financial planner before learning about Bpeace. “I was desperate,” she says. “I think I even said that in my Bpeace interview.”
Fortunately, that honesty worked to her advantage. As a female small-business owner, Kristen qualified for Bpeace’s Jobs Maximizer program, which teams “Fast Runners,” Bpeace’s name for fledging business owners, with “Skillanthropists,” seasoned professionals who provide volunteer consulting services.
The Bpeace Advantage: Making Valuable Business Connections
As Marla Gitterman, Bpeace’s U.S. Country Director, explains, the goal is to match business owners with business professionals in related industries or who have had similar business growth challenges. Kristen’s key objectives, according to Marla, included:
- Increasing revenue through customer retention and expansion
- Improving profitability
- Growing sales through strategic marketing efforts
Bpeace partner GLG worked with Marla to find the perfect expert to match with Kristen: Zach Flanzman, President and Chief Operating Officer of Brown Bag Seafood Co. Though Brown Bag has grown to 14 locations across the U.S., the fast casual restaurant still operates with the same team it had when it opened its first site off Millennium Park in Chicago. According to Sidney Jankauskas, Brown Bag’s Director of Revenue, “We’re still very independent and relate closely to other independent restaurant operators, no matter the size of their business, because of the similar, day-in and day-out challenges we face.”
Brown Bag and Red’s also connected around their unique concepts and how they translate into branding. “We’re quick and casual yet offer quality seafood; Red’s is fostering an identity as a combination restaurant and bar,” Sidney says. “Working on the brand itself can be an underrated use of time and effort, as it’s really hard to tie to a specific return to the work you put in. But it’s so important.”
Brown Bag’s familiarity with the market was another bonus. Since launching in Chicago, Brown Bag has expanded into the South, with multiple locations in Atlanta, GA, and Charlotte, NC.
The Prime Focus: Improving Finances
Right away, Zach could tell Kristen was doing something right. Her team at Red’s had been in place for more than a year, and “that kind of retention is unheard of in the restaurant industry,” he says. What’s more, she knew what areas of her business did and did not require focus.
Having joined Brown Bag in 2017 from Bain & Company, where he spent three years as a consultant, Zach knew that homing in on the areas of a business that require change is often a much longer exercise. “There was nothing we focused on that [Kristen] did not already know was an opportunity and vice versa,” he says. “She felt very accomplished in some areas and in others, she said, ‘I need that.’”
Tops on the “I need that” list was gaining a better understanding of cost of goods sold (COGS). Kristen was really confused about weights and mass, so Zach pointed her to websites that have become indispensable. Kristen also speaks highly of a souped-up Excel spreadsheet Zach shared that enables her to track COGS against Red’s menu. There were several ingredients she was ordering that were quite premium—but weren’t essential to the overall outcome of dishes she was serving. Zach showed her how she could save 40 cents per order by substituting the high-end ingredient with a lower-priced alternative. “Suddenly, with small changes like this, you go from being in a bad place to a good one,” Zach says.
To improve Kristen’s ability to understand how the business was doing on a month-over-month basis, she and Zach spent a good amount of time looking over Red’s P&L statement. They talked about how to budget and review results, and how to establish goals in order to track results against targets.
When Zach recommended that Kristen raise her prices, she feared losing customers to sticker shock. Still, she listened and took a cautious approach, increasing prices gradually over the past year and a half. So far, so good, she says: “We’re still getting five-star Google reviews.”
A Fresh Take on Marketing: Building Red’s Awareness
Marketing Red’s Beer Garden was another area Kristen hoped to improve. When she started the Bpeace engagement with Brown Bag Seafood, she was paying a local public relations firm a monthly retainer to drum up media coverage and spent money on Facebook, Instagram and Google ads for key events. But she didn’t have a marketing budget to speak of and definitely was not tracking return on investment.
With Sidney’s guidance, she transitioned to a more grassroots marketing strategy. “At Brown Bag, we’re often splitting marketing and revenue growth efforts between initiatives that are scalable and company-wide versus market- or store-specific and local,” Sidney says. “Red’s is highly focused on growing its local market, so it made sense to lean into those lower-cost tactics.”
Instead of spending dollars randomly, Kristen has formed relationships with local influencers, sports teams and organizers of athletic events. For example, by offering discounts to teams that stop by for food and drink after games and races, she’s building brand awareness while growing her pool of potential repeat customers. She’s also investing in catering and pop-up experiences to gain exposure and contributes to charitable organizations.
With a monthly budget, Kristen is now forecasting her marketing spend and ensures her budget is directed toward low-cost yet trackable tactics.
The Intangible Benefits of a Bpeace Alliance
When asked to describe her experience as a Bpeace Fast Runner, Kristen admits there were times she felt in over her head.
“I knew I had a lot to learn,” she says. “I felt very vulnerable. Here I was, having been in business for three and a half years, and I often didn’t know what Zach was talking about.
“I’m someone who typically doesn’t like to ask for help. But Zach was so patient and he’s a great listener. I 100 percent feel like I have a base that I didn’t have before.”
That confidence, according to Zach, is the ultimate reward for the investment of time in a Bpeace engagement. As he puts it, “A real, true benefit for any young business participating in a six- to eight-month program like this is realizing you can spot situations and potentially work through them independently in the future—or feel comfortable seeking help quickly when you need it. Kristen now has that.”