Jay Gould is a foodservice trailblazer. Since co-founding the Cultures chain of quick-service health-food restaurants in 1977, he’s gone on to launch such industry stalwarts as New York Fries and South St. Burger Co. While there’s little doubt of his business acumen now—he’s now at the helm of more than 180 successful franchise locations and is expanding rapidly overseas—it hasn’t always been that way. Gould spoke with PROFIT about overcoming skepticism, identifying good ideas and the importance of sticking to one’s guns.
PROFIT: You’ve been ahead of the curve in introducing health food, fresh-cut French fries and gourmet burgers to the mass market in Canada. What do you do to assess whether the market is ready for your ideas?
Jay Gould: Gut feeling has a lot to do with it, and quite a bit of stubbornness.
But truthfully, I think most business decisions are just applied logic. You have to possess the ability to objectively assess whether something makes sense.
I grew up in Brantford, and in the downtown core there was a fry truck. I was addicted to those fries. For years, driving back and forth between London and Toronto, I’d make sure to use the route that passed through Brantford, just to get those fries. So the New York Fries concept made perfect sense to me. Everyone eats French fries, whether they admit it or not. If you can make them better than the guy beside you, it’s not that much of a stretch to see there’s a business there.
That said, I don’t know if you ever really know for sure that something will work. I think you have to stick your foot in the water a bit. Do we spend a lot of time doing market research about any of our ideas? The answer is “No.”
PROFIT: It’s natural for people to question the validity of new business concepts, especially before they launch. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs facing skepticism?
JG: If you’ve already seen something, it’s not a new idea. That’s why you’ll find so few people are in agreement about it—because they haven’t seen anything like it before.
I’m not a fan of concept-by-committee. Everyone else will weigh in on your idea or your concept, and tell you myriad ways to improve it. In my humble opinion, that waters things down.
The one thing all my ideas have had in common is that everyone I told about them thought they were dumb. That included my bankers, my lawyers and my accountants.
Your advisors—professional or otherwise—have little to gain by recommending you go ahead with your hare-brained idea. They’re not going to share in the glory if it works, and they may feel culpable if it doesn’t. And they’re probably just hearing the idea for the first time; they haven’t had time to process it.
You have to have conviction in your own idea. As we were launching New York Fries, for months and months I had to deal with naysayers telling me, “You’ve got to be kidding. Everyone else in the food court sells pop and fries. Are you out of your mind?” But we sold our first 100 franchises without ever having to advertise for franchisees. People were lining up to buy a franchise. That was very gratifying.
PROFIT: Still, it’s tough to be a trailblazer. How do you keep your conviction when everyone is betting on you to fail?
JG: You have to really stick to your guns and move along with a singular purpose, because you’re going to have equal parts terror and exhilaration for the first while.
At Cultures, we lost money for the first several years; many people around us wanted us to shut it down.
But we kept going because we had customers. We were competitive in terms of sales, and people liked us. The problem was that we didn’t know how to manage things efficiently. If there was a drought in California, for example, we had no contingencies in place; we would have to buy lettuce from Mexico at three times the price.
It was frightening, but we knew we were on to something because customers kept coming in. Sure, only five percent of the population wanted the food we were offering in the late 1970s—but we were the only place for them to get it.
At the end of the day, in retail, a good product is the star. That is where it starts and stops. Once you have that, just stick to your guns in getting it in front of customers.