10 Tips on Starting A Business Against All Odds From Harlem Biscuit Company

In March of 2020, Chef Melvin “Boots” Johnson found himself in a situation like many others at that time; seeking unemployment benefits and getting turned down. “So I took my skills and just said, ‘Alright, I’m going to do something,’” he says. “And I started cooking fried chicken and biscuits, right out of my garage.” This leap of faith turned into a leap of certainty. “Next thing you know I have 30 orders from moms that are just excited to not be cooking on a Friday night.

That was the first unofficial day of Harlem Biscuit Company and since then they’ve sold over 7,000 biscuit sandwiches. Boots teamed up with his business partner, Warren Satchell, and together they are rapidly building their business, looking for a permanent brick-and-mortar location, and tackling any challenges that come their way.

Square recently partnered with Harlem Biscuit Company for a Q&A in Square’s Community where Boots and Warren shared their advice and words of wisdom for how they started a business against all odds. Here’s their top advice for business owners:

  1. Starting a business will teach you a lot about yourself and your business partners. Starting a business is not an easy feat and one that comes with a lot of ups and downs. “What starting something tells you about yourself is whether or not you have the will to do it again,” reflects Satchell. It’s also very important to choose who you go into business with wisely. Johnson has his own criteria for how you can determine if someone is going to make a good partner and be a team player. “I’ve been an executive chef for over 25 years. I’ve had a couple of restaurants with other partners before. But wrong partners. This one is different. Warren likes sports. Never do business with a man who doesn’t like sports.”
  2. Plan out your roadmap and what channels will help you get there. You don’t have to have an exact plan for your business immediately, especially as you’re learning about your audience, but you should be creating a business plan and mapping out certain milestones you want to hit, and what channels will help you achieve them. Harlem Biscuit knows that they eventually wanted to branch out into a permanent brick-and-mortar location, so they’re already focusing on how to extend their business past just having an online presence. “If we were solely focused on being a fast-casual operation with delivery as our main source of revenue, then a brick-and-mortar potentially wouldn’t matter. But we’ve identified our long-term roadmap and having our own brick-and-mortar storefront will help us get there. We’re thinking beyond being just a brick and mortar. We’ve got our sights on catering, being on grocery store shelves and in freezers, and ultimately so much more,” says Satchell.
  3. Get to know your audience by testing things out. The best way to learn what your customers are looking for is by running tests and looking at the data. When responding to a question about how often a business should run promotions, Satchell gives sage advice that can be applied to many aspects of your business strategy: “Start testing. Test once a month, test a weekend. Test until you have some data that will help you formulate a strategy. We aren’t a promotional brand and there’s nothing today that tells us we need to be.”
  4. When scaling your business, don’t be afraid to lean on third parties. Delivery services, like apps and On-Demand Delivery through your website, can be huge tools in helping you scale quickly. Taking on delivery operations yourself, especially when just starting out, might not be the best idea. Satchell notes that for Harlem Biscuit Company, “Deliveries are outsourced, all third party. That’s the only way we would have been able to scale this quickly,“ and Johnson adds, “We use our website, Grubhub, UberEats, and DoorDash. They have doubled our business using these platforms.”
  5. Build loyalty through every customer touchpoint. A loyalty program is important for creating a repeat customer business, but building a relationship with customers happens every time they interact with your business, regardless if that’s on your website, in person, or through your social channels. On the topic of building loyalty, Satchell advises “Loyalty is a broad term. What I can suggest is looking at loyalty through the lens of every single customer touchpoint. Every opportunity that the customer interacts with your brand is an opportunity to build loyalty.”
  6. Build relationships with your customers and other members of the industry through social media. Instead of thinking of everyone else in your industry as a competitor, think of it as a community that you can learn from and lean on. A good way to connect with other members of your industry, and your customers, is through social media. Harlem Biscuit Company has tapped into influencers through Twitter and Instagram and those organic relationships have helped them spread the word about their business. Johnson notes that “right before we opened I would post on Instagram about our launch and one guy from TBO Harlem reached out to me and wanted to do a collaboration. He posted about our opening and boom, another influencer popped up also.” Satchell adds that they’re now able to be selective and intentional about their social media relationships because of this early support from the online community. “All of the energy around social media influencers has been organic at this point, which we’re hugely grateful for. I’m now being intentional about poking social media influencers across the food/hospitality/restaurant industry about working with us to help continue to build our audience, community, and following.”
  7. Focus on consistency and the rest will follow when you’re starting out as a home-based business. For starting a home-based business, Satchell advises businesses to first “think of what your long-term strategy looks like. And let that drive every single thing you focus on now. Focus on consistency and consistency in execution. Focus on building a loyal following and let that loyal following advertise and advocate for you. Let them market your brand and business. There will be moments in every single part of your journey that dictate where your focus should be.
  8. Invest in training your staff. Your staff is just as important as any other part of your business, and Harlem Biscuit Company recommends youspend time hiring the right staff and investing in your talent and the training you provide for them. “Systems and processes first start with talent,” says Satchell. “[We’re focused on] making sure we have the right talent. In addition to talent, we’re making sure we’re placing a ton of emphasis on training, execution, and instilling consistency in everyone’s mind from the front food to the kitchen.”
  9. Invest in the right technology for your business. Running a business comes with having to manage a lot of interwoven channels and touchpoints. The technology you use can make all the difference in how smooth your business run, which is something customers take notice of. Harlem Biscuit Company got up and running quickly and is scaling even faster. As they grow, they’re learning what tools and technology they need to keep up with demand. “We’re currently building a lot of operational processes into our day-to-day and some that we can take with us to our respective brick-and-mortar shop. We’re also taking a look and doing a ton of homework on things such as additional platforms, services, and technology that will help us be even that much more efficient and allow us to automate where possible to avoid everything manual. There’s always something to focus on that nobody tells you when you come up with these brilliant ideas!”
  10. Be resilient. This past year has tested a lot of businesses, and resiliency is not an easy thing to achieve, but Satchell and Johnson try to stay focused on their business, and that allows them to weather any challenges and setbacks that come their way. “Will and Determination are the keys to a resilient business. We thankfully have a product that does most of the work for us but we still have to show up daily with a mindset to WIN.”

Read more about Harlem Biscuit Company, and other resilient business owners like them, in Square’s Stronger Than Before whitepaper.