I had the pleasure of interviewing Moe Habibi, founder and owner of STACK restaurant in Blackwell, Oklahoma. His story, business know-how, and pancakes are impressive.
Moe Habibi immigrated to the United States on September 7, 1977 from Iran. He didn’t know a single word of English outside of “Hello, how are you?” and he had no friends or family here. Moe arrived in the US with about $45 in his pocket, directly to Oklahoma and stayed for a year. He went to school in Arkansas, and when he finished he moved back to Oklahoma and has been there since. “Those were crazy, but fun days!” He’s worked in the hospitality industry for most of his life, the vast majority of it in the restaurant industry. “Opening my own restaurant was always my plan, and I remember the day I started STACK Restaurant. It was Monday June 15, 1998 and we’ve been operating since!”
What do you wish you knew before you started your business?
Moe Habibi: At the beginning, I knew that I had to spend a lot of time at work, but I really wish I knew that as a small business owner you also have to be a Jack-of-all-Trades. Running a restaurant means more than knowing a lot about food. There are mounds of paperwork and bookkeeping to do, not to mention being your own handyman to fix the occasional breakdown. And then there is growing as a people manager – you have to learn how to be a person who is firm, fair, humble, and kind!
What types of challenges have you encountered, and how did you overcome them?
MH: A challenge that I will always remember happened during one Thanksgiving. We are always open on Thanksgiving to serve the elderly in our community who may not have a place to go, or are too tired to prepare a meal for themselves. We are often very busy. When I arrived at work that day, I discovered that the main drain was clogged and we had no way of disposing the waste water. As I was trying to figure out what to do, my crew chief informed me that ice machine had stopped working. I called the plumber, and he said he would not work on Thanksgiving, but he would let me use his drain snake if I go get it. So I traveled 20 miles to pick it up and I opened the drain myself. I would up fixing the ice machine after the repairman declined to come out, too. What a day! Staying calm and telling yourself that this will pass and things will work out is very helpful.
What is Stack Restaurant best known for?
MH: PANCAKES! I’ve used the same recipe for 44 years, coming up with it when I was 19 years old. The pancakes are our best seller, and time and time again I hear people saying that our pancakes are better than a certain chain restaurants’, which of course makes me very happy!
"Rule #1 is never run out of cash, and Rule #10 is also never run out of cash! Whatever the heck you do from #2 to #9 does not make any difference."
What has your customers coming back and your employees staying on board?
MH: The same people sit at the same table and order the same food daily. It’s great to see, and I try to come up with ways to reward customers, like buy-one, get-one half off dinners. Promotions like that are a good way to instill loyalty. The servers are motivated, too. For every special they sold, they earned three breaks. You do it not just because of money, but because a piece of you loves to serve the community and make your employees happy. My longest serving employee has been with me for 11 years. A tenure like that is so valuable because they know the business almost as much as I do!
How do you assess your business growth? What do you look at to know how your business is trending? This could be top line/bottom line, etc.
MH: When the customer says, “This is the best soup I ever had, this is the best pancake I ever had,” you know you’re doing something right. I can look at how fast we move stock and inventory off the shelves and know that business is doing well.
Did you look at banks during your search for financing?
MH: Banks are not easy to deal with. They want to loan money to someone who does not need the loan, not a small restaurant owner who needs a small loan yesterday. OnDeck wants to work with someone who will put the money into their business as soon as they get it, and who can appreciate fast funding because your business’s success depends on getting back to operating as normal.
What did you like about OnDeck that made you choose us?
MH: One reason I liked OnDeck was because they report payments to the credit bureaus, and I wanted to improve my personal and business credit profiles. I use the first round of funds for cash flow management, and the next time I work with OnDeck, I will use the money to do some repair work on the drywall behind our dishwater.
But I chose to work with OnDeck because of the people. The service was great, and my representative was very nice and friendly. I get the feeling that OnDeck has your back and they are there to help you succeed. If I need a helping hand, OnDeck is there for me. It’s awesome.
What are you most excited about when thinking about the future of your business? Any tips for your peers?
MH: Opening more restaurants and employing more people is a goal of mine. There are 10 rules to have when running your own business. Rule #1 is never run out of cash, and Rule #10 is also never run out of cash! Whatever the heck you do from #2 to #9 does not make any difference. Open the new location when you have the funds or access to the funds without hurting your current location is the way to go.