Shannon is the creative force behind Bean Sprouts. She created the award-winning Imaginibbles menu, including Do-Re-For-Me, the winner of the Best Kids’ Meal in the U.S. She leads the direction of the Bean Sprouts brand, including menu development, store design, and merchandise. Shannon oversees all licensing programs and partnerships. She has an extensive media background, including years on television, and is an award-winning author of American Girl publications (including multiple food features) and parenting books.
How did the concept for Beansprouts come about?
When each of us had young children, we realized there was no place to eat that was healthy AND fun, that appealed to both kids AND adults. Even at places that were wholesome and family-friendly (think Panera Bread), our kids showed off their rambunctiousness while businessmen and women tried to hold meetings at the next table over.
We created Bean Sprouts by taking every challenge we could think of when dining out with kids (there were many!) and finding solutions. Bean Sprouts offers both a playful menu that encourages children to try new tastes, and an experience that appeases parents (hello, organic espresso bar, fabulous sandwiches, and extreme attention to allergies).
A few years after opening our first location in a strip mall, we started getting inquiries from family destinations, asking if we would consider being their concessionaire. We discovered that many destinations – from children’s museums and science centers, to zoos and amusement parks – had amazing experiences at their locations. Unfortunately, their current food offerings did not reflect the missions or imaginations of their exhibits.
We switched our business model to solely serve family destinations and soon discovered that our proposals were beating out some of the biggest fast food places in the country. And as a small business, we didn’t need to spend big marketing dollars getting people in the door of a new concept. We were planting Bean Sprouts where we already knew there were plenty of visitors!
How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business offered a steep learning curve. First of all, we opened alongside the recession, in 2007. So the odds were stacked against us. Plus, we had little to no food service experience.
What we did know, especially from being parents of youngsters, is that we had a dynamic concept and could brand and market extremely well. We knew that our first year was crucial to rely on others’ knowledge to fill in our gaps.
What was incredibly encouraging from the beginning was that the country seemed ready for our wholesome kid-focused concept. Many fast food brands were under heavy criticism. Michelle Obama was inspiring families to get fit with her Let’s Move! campaign. Audiences were primed for Bean Sprouts.
The best part was that because Kelly and I were scrappy and did not have a chunk of extra change in our bank account, we learned the ins and outs of every aspect of our business. We had to. From fixing ice machines and working the line, to booking, catering, and hosting countless birthday parties, we know the hard work it takes to keep Bean Sprouts thriving.
That has helped tremendously when we hire new team members, especially leaders. They know that we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty, and can offer insights based on experience.
What was your marketing strategy?
As mentioned, by planting our cafés where our target audience is already coming, we haven’t had to spend lots of resources on traditional marketing. Instead, we put our efforts into researching, experimenting, and sharing how to make healthy food fun (and profitable) in our industry. Our new cookbook, Bean Sprouts Kitchen, is a great tool to show others how to succeed in that realm.
This has led to being featured experts in major national media, such as Good Morning America and The Today Show, and in nearly every major parenting publication and parenting blog.
We also serve as speakers at conferences, both on this topic and on the advancement of women and minorities in our industry, as Bean Sprouts is one of the only exclusively female-founded restaurant chains in the U.S.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Our growth took some time. For many years, we just had one location. We hammered out all sorts of kinks, tried new menu approaches, different customer service elements, cooking school classes…everything. We just needed to see what would stick.
Once we changed our business model to serve only family destinations, and honed our menu and offerings, our confidence grew exponentially. And then, when we completed our capital raise, we finally felt free to aggressively pursue new locations. Bean Sprouts has doubled its size in the last two years and plans to double again the next 18-24 months.
How do you define success?
That’s an interesting question. There’s obviously the success of seeing your number of locations grow, and sales increasing.
That’s certainly exciting, but what’s more encouraging is to realize the reasons behind that. Families are more aware of what foods they put into their bodies, and are turning to wholesome food as a lifestyle choice. What really means success to us is to see children loving our Imaginibbles menu – trying new ingredients and flavors, and surprising their parents with what they’ll eat, just because the dish is presented in a playful way.
And personally, success comes from showing our kids that you can build a business that helps people and provides you flexibility for your family. We’ve made sure to share the ups and downs so that they understand the challenges and rewards of creating your own opportunity.
What is the key to success?
First of all, you definitely need the support of your family! Entrepreneurship is an exciting and gut-wrenching adventure, and your family needs to be on board for you to be able to go full-steam ahead.
Above all, everything we do filter through our HIPP core values. If our employees, vendors, partners, etc. aren’t in line with Health, Innovation, Positivity, and Playfulness, we typically don’t work together. We want to ensure that Bean Sprouts is an incredible experience, whether at our order counter or behind the scenes.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Surround yourself with people who know a lot more than you do. Don’t try to do everything yourself. You can’t be an accountant, lawyer, manufacturer, marketer, creative director, etc. Focus on your strengths and fill your gaps with people who have experience. When people believe in what you’re doing, they will often want to help.
Make sure to listen to their feedback, both positive and constructive. Some ideas thrown your way will not make sense for you to undertake, but you will discover nuggets of truth and wisdom that you can apply.
Keep that circle close…they will be invaluable!
What are some of your favorite books?
Kelly and I LOVE sharing books and podcasts, and make sure we’re constantly opening our eyes to new ideas and proven practices.
We’ve used many of Patrick Lencioni’s tools, including the “Playbook.” It is how we set our company goals and what we use to structure our meeting agendas.
Some of our faves when it comes to books/podcasts:
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Eesh…we’ve had a few. I remember hearing that the key to a successful marriage is not to fall out of love…at the same time. The same could be said for business partners as there will be times where the energy, efforts, and excitement aren’t always equal.
I remember when Kelly and I were in New York during the holiday season for an investor presentation, which I do not believe went well.
We’d also just closed one of our locations and were working to open in the Southern California market. We were in the midst of a big capital raise and were still overseeing all of the operations, marketing, food and beverage…you name it, ourselves.
We desperately needed to hire a COO because we couldn’t build a business if we were stuck in the day-to-day operations, but we didn’t have the funds yet to hire.
So, Kelly and I sat in our hotel room at 5:00 PM during Christmas time in NYC. We were exhausted and emotionally-drained. We didn’t have any motivation to even go outside and look at the beautiful holiday decorations in NEW YORK, which didn’t even cost any money!
I don’t remember who said it first, but we basically said it might be time to shut down Bean Sprouts, and then it was silent. It was the first time one of us didn’t object to the idea of closing the doors.
Thank goodness after a long while, one of us escaped that funk and motivated the other outside to see the big tree and ice skaters in Rockefeller Center. That’s one of the BEANefits of taking a trusted business partner along this incredible journey.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Kelly and I are both incredibly perseverant—you have to be when you come from a broadcast news background.
I think our unwavering belief in the Bean Sprouts’ mission to “spark children’s appetites with yummy, good-for-you food; and delight grown-ups with a happier mealtime” and the overwhelming positive response keep us going.
Plus, we love a good challenge. So when faced with what seems impossible to overcome, we’ve stretched our thinking in ways we never could have imagined.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I don’t believe that you need to have spent your entire career in an industry to become successful. That lack of perspective can allow you to think outside the box and approach the industry in innovative ways.
That said, it’s crucial to surround yourself with experienced individuals on whom you can call for advice. People who will share their successes and failures and who will also give you their honest opinions.
When we were in the planning stages of Bean Sprouts, we wrote a huge list of anybody we knew who might know anybody who could help us. At first, we were hesitant to share our business idea, for fear that someone would steal it. But we realized that if we didn’t share anything, we’d never get anywhere.
We had a lot of coffee meetings, letting people know what Bean Sprouts was, and asking if they had any connections to people who were passionate about health and food. That led us down many windy paths to our current major investors. They are wonderful, supportive, smart professionals who challenge us to think bigger. If we had to guess, we probably had around 30 coffee meetings to get us to one investor. Good thing we like coffee!
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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