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    Keeping the Dream Alive: Turning your vision into a viable business

    By Michael Goodwin | Yahoo Small Business

    Every successful business starts with a vision. Every unsuccessful business does too.

    How can you tell whether your dream is destined to succeed? And once your new business is operating, how can you keep that dream on track?

    We asked three successful entrepreneurs how they came up with the idea for their businesses. What led them to make the decision to go ahead and commit time, money and energy to turning that dream into reality? How they knew their vision could become a viable business?

    Food, Wine and Jazz

    Frenchmen Street in New Orleans is one of the Crescent City's prime destinations for music tourists. Clubs, restaurants, bars and music halls line the sidewalk from Decatur to Royal. Brass bands play in vacant lots for free. Mobs of people roam the streets, drinks in hand. But for ten years there's only been one coffee shop-café on Frenchmen Street: Café Rose Nicaud.

    Some people just call it Melba's.

    Melba Ferdinand and her husband Kenneth bought a small building on Frenchmen Street in 1993, and opened a PJs franchise coffee shop. After ten years—years during which crowds on Frenchmen grew, and the music ran later and later—they heard their customers asking for food, beer, wine and a jazzier musical ambience.

    "We went to PJs," Melba recalls, "and they said 'No, absolutely not, you gotta look like and sound like everybody else.' So we notified PJs that we would not be renewing our ten-year franchise."

    Ken and Melba
    The Professionals

    Instead of jumping into a new operation, the Ferdinands took their time. They hired consultants, spoke to other café owners, and got some help doing a new business plan—a step that seems to be critical to most successful start-ups.

    "We had done business plans before," Melba says. "But this time we wanted to do the conceptual stuff, not the drudgery. We hired our niece Asante to assist us as Project Manager, and we started traveling to gather ideas. We went to San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, and looked at a lot of coffee shops there. We really paid attention. We looked at menus, finishes, colors, look and feel..."

    Finally the Ferdinands engaged a team of professionals. They hired someone to help with interior design. Then they hired someone to help with the menu. "None of us had any direct experience with serving food," Melba admits, "so we had a guy from the University of New Orleans Culinary School come in and work with us. It was good to get the expertise."

    The new café opened in 2003 and did pretty well.

    There were some surprises, though. Initially, Ken and Melba had planned on purchasing prepared food and reselling it, but it didn't work financially to pay for quality food and then resell it at a casual dining price. "The food we were buying was OK," says Melba, "but we couldn't control the freshness, or the ingredients, or the price. And we didn't have confidence that we could prepare high-quality food ourself."

    Then in September, 2005, Katrina hit. It was a game changer.

    Praising Us For Being There

    Café Rose was closed for a month and a half after Katrina. The Ferdinands had spent all the money they had paying old bills, and no money was coming in—but they had to re-open. "For two or three weeks we were the only food location in the whole Marigny/Bywater neighborhood," Melba remembers. "People were demanding food. People were hungry. They were back in the city, they were living in their homes, they had no gas, lots of them didn't have electricity, so people needed some place to eat. We went to Sam's and bought grits, eggs, bacon, started making sandwiches, started cooking breakfast and lunch food. We couldn't keep up with the business. People were in there crying about what had happened to New Orleans, praising us for being there, and loving the food.

    "So as other businesses re-opened, we decided that we'd keep the food—actually do food ourselves. We didn't need to buy prepared food from anywhere else, we could make it ourselves. And we've been doing that ever since."

    Next step? The café may be turning into a table-service restaurant!

    "We're in transition," Melba explains. "People use the cafe as a library. They come in for the wi-fi, they order a $2 cup of coffee, and they want to stay six hours. We need to move away from the coffee shop model, and we're looking at traditional table service—but we're not sure how we're gonna do that since we've had so much success as a coffee shop. If we have table service that will be easier to control. But we'll have to create more of a day-time market for a restaurant."

    Now Starring On HBO

    In the last ten years, thanks in part to great food and well-chosen wines, Café Rose Nicaud has become a beloved fixture on Frenchmen Street. (In fact, a number of scenes in HBO's Treme TV series were shot there.) The vision has changed, along with the customer base, but Melba thinks that's great.

    "We had this idea about how everything would go," she says, "and then reality set in. After Katrina our customer base was different, and we've had to make adjustments. And I think that's healthy. It's a mistake to stick with something just because you said you were gonna do it that way. You need to have growth and changes over time to make it work and to keep it interesting."

     

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