Practical Optimism

Optimism Works: “Success is knowing when to re-evaluate.”

Welcome to Optimism Works. In this series, the Texas Optimism Project interviews people who, through optimism, have made achievements in their life and career. From starting a business to paying off debt, these Texans reveal how taking small steps can lead to big leaps of progress.

Sharon Mays is an Austin-based entrepreneur and the owner and founder of Baby Greens, one of the country’s first fast-food salad restaurant concepts. She had the vision to see past her 9-to-5 job to make it happen—and even then, opening her dream business wasn’t enough. After growing the restaurant to a value over $1 million, Mays closed all three of the stores in 2009 because operations were not meeting her vision. She realigned Baby Greens’ mission, values, and operational goals to ensure its viability as a franchise, and with the support of her family, friends, and customers, successfully reopened her restaurants. After all, she had big plans for Baby Greens from the very beginning. Here, she tells us how she did it. 

When did you first decide you wanted to open a restaurant?

It was a perfect combination of timing and circumstance.

I was working for the Internal Revenue Service, having just changed career tracks and feeling disillusioned. I was hoping a 9-to-5 job would allow me to find my passion outside of work.

Coincidentally, I’d recently decided to become a vegetarian, and the only meat-free option in the IRS cafeteria was a sad excuse for a salad bar. One day, as I eyeballed the chunks of iceberg lettuce, I thought, “I just want a salad that’s fresh, affordable, and easy to get!” When I got back to my desk, I wrote, “Drive-Thru Salad Restaurant” in my idea book. 

When you were getting started, what feelings do you remember having about your goals?

At first, I didn’t think Baby Greens was a good idea at all. Nothing close to the concept existed in the marketplace, and I had never worked in a restaurant aside from a six-month stint as a Starbucks barista. 

Nonetheless, I spent my days jotting down menu ideas and sketching what the space might look like. It was a welcome distraction from work, and honestly, at first, it was just something to focus on so I didn’t get depressed.

As I breathed more life into the idea, the more real it became. I went through the emotional roller coaster many entrepreneurs encounter: Some days, I thought it was the best idea I ever had. Other days, I felt like I’d never be able to make it happen. Many days, I reverted to thinking it wasn’t a good idea at all.

Ultimately, the idea wouldn’t let me go. Even when I tried to move on, it would still be lurking, waiting for me to come back to it.

What was the very first step you took? How did you stay on track?

I’m a big believer in timing. One of my personal mantras is: When the window of opportunity opens, you have to be ready to jump through it.

The first thing I did was research how to open a restaurant. I started a list of all of the things I’d need to learn to make Baby Greens a reality. At the top of it was learning how to cook and make salad dressing!

I got a notebook so I could keep all the ideas, recipes, and notes in one place—I still follow this practice today. Having everything in one spot helped me track the progression of the idea and all of its moving pieces. It was about three years between the time I had the idea for Baby Greens and the day I turned on the “OPEN” sign. 

Describe the moments when you felt like giving up. Why didn’t you? 

In the early days, I never felt like giving up. I had nothing to lose, and when you’re in that headspace, anything is possible.

But along the path to opening Baby Greens, I took a job as the local marketing manager for Chipotle so I could learn more about opening and operating a reputable fast-casual restaurant. When I accepted the position, I told myself I would work there for exactly one year, and then, no matter what, I would quit. But it turned out I loved my job. I was happy and thriving, and I started to consider letting go of my dream, convincing myself that saying ‘yes’ to this job wasn’t saying ‘no’ to my dream.

I had one friend in my life who disagreed. She said, “You’re going to get in there and you’re going to love them, and you’re going to forget all about Baby Greens.”  

Her words stuck with me. I loved my job and I wanted to grow there. But ultimately, I knew if I stayed, I’d always wonder about what could have been. I could see five years into the future, driving down some city street, passing someone else’s drive-thru salad restaurant, and feeling nothing but regret. A month later, I left.

How have the unprecedented events of 2020 affected your business? 

Boy, have Baby Greens and I been through a lot in the past few months! We’ve been open the entire time, but it’s been a crazy ride. In the beginning, our sales dropped by almost 75 percent. I didn’t know if we were going to make it, but I refused to close. I told my staff to trust me, and that we were going to make it to the other side.

Then, civil unrest took over the country. I experienced some real depression and anxiety with everything that was happening, but then the outpouring of support for Black-owned businesses came to life. Our sales tripled overnight. 

It’s been great—and quite hectic at times, but overall it reinforces that staying open was the right decision. It has been the most difficult time of my entire life, and I have no idea what each day will bring. But I’m more hopeful today than I did at the beginning of this. We’ve made it this far, and I feel like we’ll survive. 

How has optimism played a role in everything that’s happening, and in the larger goals for your company?

Scientific research has shown that positive energy attracts positive energy, so I believe a positive outlook increases the possibility that I will be successful. This is how I look at things: if the outcome is unknown, then on some level, the possibility that things are going to work out is equal to the possibility that things will not work out. So, if all things are equal, why not assume that the best will happen instead of fearing the worst? Our thoughts become our actions, so I always do my best to stay focused on positive thoughts and optimism.

Where have you found support along the way?

There have been many sources of support.

My mom gave me the initial push. She listened to me go on and on about Baby Greens, and one day when I was talking about it, she said, “You’ve been talking about this salad shop for two years. You need to either do something about it or stop talking about it.” She provided our first investment of $25,000.

Also, our customers were a huge support. I was so nervous the day the local paper was going to run a story about our re-opening, worried that people wouldn’t care or had forgotten about us. But after the story was published, I immediately started getting texts and notifications. Customers from all over the city drove to North Austin to show us some love.

What has been surprisingly hard? Surprisingly easy?

Just as my company and team have grown, my role has changed. The transition from entrepreneur to employer was, and continues to be, my greatest challenge.

My job now involves developing a place that attracts, empowers, and retains employees. It’s not just about corporate culture and work environment, it’s the development of systems, job resources, and training programs. Big companies have specialized teams devoted to this task. I just have me and my goal of a company with whose mission is to “Spread Joy.”

I learned that I’m very good at operations. When I look at a problem or situation, I see it in its entirety, from start to finish, so figuring out the logistics of how food and people move in and out of the restaurant came to me quite naturally. It’s like working on a puzzle. You have to figure out how to make all of the pieces fit together so it works. Running a business can be quite stressful at times, and I find great solace in making the pieces fit together and run smoothly.

How do you define success? 

Success means trying my very best. I’m a constant work-in-progress, and I always want to be learning and growing as a person and as a professional. Sometimes success means knowing when to re-evaluate.

I had big plans for Baby Greens from the very beginning. I didn’t want to just own a few drive-thru salad restaurants—I wanted to build a world-class brand and grow into a regional or national chain. But as we became more successful, I started to notice cracks in the system.

Baby Greens had three separate initiatives: a restaurant chain, a franchise company, and a line of consumer packaged goods. Things were moving so quickly and there was little time to build the infrastructure necessary to grow it into the brand I knew it could be. I couldn’t repair the operation while it was still in motion, so I decided to temporarily close my stores. It was a huge risk. And even though it was my decision, it broke my heart.

I’m a big believer in timing. One of my personal mantras is: When the window of opportunity opens, you have to be ready to jump through it.

In 2015, I wondered if it was time for Baby Greens to return. I had been thinking about it a lot, but I needed money, location, and help to relaunch the brand. I was feeling discouraged, but as luck would have it, within about six weeks, everything I said I didn’t have was sitting right in front of me.

The window of opportunity had opened, so I jumped through it.

What advice do you have for other people who are trying to do what you’ve done?

Success is not reserved for “special people.” Regular people are living the life you want for yourself, and the biggest difference is that the people living their dreams decided to go for it. I truly believe most goals can be achieved. Think about what you want, develop a plan, and write it down. Stand in front of a mirror and tell yourself that you can do it until you believe that it’s true. And then go for it. And don’t get caught up in the idea of “fearlessness.” It’s a misnomer. Yes, it will be scary. Yes, you will fail. You might even embarrass yourself. You’ll live. Get back up and keep going. Courage, tenacity, and resilience will take you far in this life.

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