Everyone with the dream of starting a restaurant also has a dream of money falling from the sky to get those doors open. Lauren Fernandez, founder and CEO of Full Course, an Atlanta-based restaurant development and investment firm, knows her job is to shake off some of the stardust.
Fernandez says the company’s “sweet spot” is emerging fast casual dining, but they also incubate product lines, licensing and franchise startups. Her role encompasses everything from “cheerleader and coach to confidante,” and she has particular interest in supporting and elevating women, people of color and immigrants.
No support from the company’s investment fund comes without a deep dive into the operator’s vision for their restaurant, a receptiveness to the realities of the business and the commitment to a solid strategy. Here’s more, in her own words.
Q. What’s your typical first impression of the clients who come to you?
A. The vast majority of people have no idea of the myriad ways to grow their business. You’d be shocked at how many people are ill-informed and lack a strategy. The most common thing I see is a knee-jerk, ‘I’m going to franchise.’ I have clients with that squirrel distraction. With all of our clients, we ask, ‘What’s your end goal?’ It always comes back to serving your goal.”
Q. So, you have to tone down the enthusiasm a little?
A. I want to hear all their crazy ideas. But we have to focus on what the real agenda is. We work with them on a five-year plan. There are many people out there with a dream, but maybe it’s the wrong horse in the wrong race.
Q. What are some of the mistakes people make right from the beginning?
A. I find that they make a lot of decisions without thinking of questions they should have asked. In choosing real estate, for example. This is arguably one of the hardest things to undo. They like the way the building looks, the intersection it’s located on. But they haven’t done the research to really understand who their customer is, where they live or work and at what time of day they’re usually going out. Oftentimes, the client’s focus is on the stuff that’s fun: The design. The logo.”
Q. Are there distinct challenges for women and people of color?
A. We started our LAUNCH program after discovering many women and minority entrepreneurs are struggling to even open their first restaurant. When dealing with brands that are culturally representative, there needs to be sensitivity to how it’s introduced into the market, and a lot of them don’t get the funding they need. It has never felt more glaringly obvious, with my gender and Hispanic background, that private equity is primarily a male-dominated environment. We need to invest in the early stage of growing diverse brands to succeed – not to just coach them.
Q. How important is technology to the business?
A. New restaurants start with the easiest to use and the cheapest, not thinking about all the ways they need to scale. The most obvious one is they choose a POS system that doesn’t integrate with sales, catering and loyalty programs. It’s a huge problem if you choose tech platforms that don’t integrate with each other. For small businesses, maybe it only becomes a really big problem down the road; but the earlier you catch these issues in tech, the easier and cheaper it is to fix.
Q. What’s the key to sustainable success?
A. A strong team is the most important thing. One of the biggest risks of failure is people trying to wear too many hats. You have to learn delegation and role definition and a chain of command. I tell people the goal is getting you out of the business so you can focus on the business. Define the brand, the mission and shape its culture, because that flows into everything. It’s not just about paying more for your employees, but them wanting to come to you and keep working for you.
Q. How hard is it to get people to pull back from more locations to grow sustainably instead?
A. It’s like an onion; it will make you cry at first, but you’ll feel better in the end.
What’s It All About?
The voice of experience: Lauren Fernandez spent decades in corporate roles from international mergers, trademarks and intellectual property, to developing supply chains for food companies and growing multi-unit franchises after working as general counsel for FOCUS brands, the parent company of Carvel and Cinnabon.
What’s on the menu: Her company, Full Course, covers a wide range, from restaurant growth, licensing, franchise and product development consulting to investing through their FC Polaris Fund.
Price tag: Packages range from educational courses at $99 to full consulting support at $9,000.