Small Business Summer Spotlights: Serving Up Love & Empowering Young Careers with Connie’s Chicken & Waffles
This summer, Instacart is celebrating small businesses with our Small Business Summer Spotlights series. We know small businesses are the heart of their communities, and we’re proud to help them thrive and grow. Every Friday, we’ll introduce you to one of our many small business partners, so check back each week for the latest installment.
It’s not just that everyone is welcome at Connie Parker’s house. It’s that she makes you — whoever you are, whether she’s known you for years or just met you — feel like family, her sons say. If you show up for a summer barbecue, Connie puts a plate of home-cooked food in your hand and introduces you to the family. If you show up for Christmas dinner, she pulls up a chair and sends you home with a gift.
“It was just the most warm and welcoming environment at our house growing up, and that all started with our mom,” Shawn Parker says, reminiscing of neighborhood potlucks featuring mac-and-cheese competitions and mountains of cornbread. “She always brings everybody together.”
Today, Shawn and his brother Khari are serving up that same warm and welcoming environment at their beloved Baltimore restaurants — named after, well, who else? Connie.
“It’s all about inclusion, love, and making every single person feel welcome,” says Khari, who with Shawn founded Connie’s Chicken & Waffles, a fast-growing chain of eateries based in Baltimore with locations in Maryland, Delaware and Florida. “Our product is food, but when we think about the business, it’s really all about the people.”
Locally renowned for its creative twists on a popular pairing, Connie’s Chicken & Waffles serves up unique offerings like Oreo Waffles with Chicken Tenders and Blueberry Waffles with Hand-Breaded Shrimp. The company now employs more than 40 team members across five Connie’s locations, as well as a Baltimore pizza shop.
And, according to the brothers behind the business, they’re just getting started.
As part of our Small Business Summer Spotlights series, we had the pleasure of catching up with Shawn and Khari while they were down in Sunrise, Florida, opening their newest location. We discussed how two brothers with no background in the food business — Shawn from real estate, Khari from IT — started a thriving restaurant company, some of the ways Instacart Business has helped them grow their business, and their vision for the future.
Start by taking us back — how did Connie’s get started?
Shawn: One afternoon — it would have been fall of 2015 — my brother and I stopped by this new food hall that I had heard about in Baltimore, where we both grew up. There were some interesting options, but I’m a pretty simple eater, and there wasn’t anything that just was a simple, staple, comfort food… something you would find at home. We were driving around afterward and one of us said, “Hey, we should open our own restaurant.” Normally, when one of us has a crazy idea, the other will be the voice of reason and bring it back to reality. But this time, we just knew, this felt right. We said “Let’s do it,” and off we went.
What’s the most rewarding part of owning and running your own business?
Khari: I love the challenges every day brings. There’s nothing like waking up in the morning facing a seemingly impossible challenge and going to sleep at night having overcome it, knowing you found a solution and made a real difference. When you’re running a business, there are no shortage of challenges, so I think you have to love that aspect.
Help me understand how you think about hiring and the culture you have built with your employees?
Khari: That’s another one of the most rewarding parts of this experience, getting to work with our team. Many of them are just out of high school and entering early adulthood, and we’re really invested in their long-term success. One of the questions we always ask during the interview process is “What’s your biggest, most unimaginable goal?” For Khari and me, we take it upon ourselves to help them start to make that goal feel real, start to make a plan for how to achieve it, and take the first steps toward that goal.
What does that entail — what kinds of things do you work with your employees on?
Khari: For us, career empowerment and financial literacy are really important. It might sound odd, but no matter how great they are, we don’t want our people to stay with us forever. While they’re with us, we want to help them build out their career vision and develop the life skills and business skills they need.
Shawn: For example, we actually help a lot of them set up their LinkedIn profiles and learn how to network and market themselves on social media. We’ve worked with many of them on financial literacy — in fact, we realize some of them weren’t doing direct deposit because they didn’t have a bank account, so we helped them go through the process, step by step, to set up their first checking account and understand how it works and the benefits.
In just the last few years, we’ve had team members go out and start their own food truck, another has started a clothing line, another is creating a mobile video game services company. That’s what we love to see.
How did you originally start using Instacart in your business?
Khari: I don’t remember when we first started, but I do remember all those daunting trips back and forth to the store. We always said we would put technology at the core of our business to help us work smarter, so one day we decided to give the Instacart app a try, and the first time we used it, we were just like “Wow!” It just saves us so much time, and as a business owner, time is money.
Shawn: It was just too much time away from the business. We were going to Restaurant Depot almost every day, to the point where we were on a first-name basis with the team there and the other restaurant owners coming in daily. Plus, you just never knew when you were going to get a text from one of our employees saying “We’re down to one bottle of water left.” Now, we can just order directly from them through Instacart and have it all delivered.
Especially as we started to expand, there was just no way we could be making multiple store runs for multiple locations all day long. Honestly, there’s really no way we could have expanded without using Instacart.
How much time do you think you’ve saved using Instacart?
Shawn: I looked at the app recently and I think it said we have saved some crazy amount of time, like 2,000 hours since we started using it. And I know that every one of those hours is an hour Khari or I would have personally spent driving around trying to track down the ingredients or supplies we needed.
The company recently launched Instacart Business to help tailor the app experience for small business owners. Are there particular features that have made the platform even more helpful?
Khari: It’s actually funny because when we first started using Instacart, I remember being a little worried because I didn’t know if businesses were even allowed to use it or if it was only for individuals or families — I didn’t want to get kicked off! So I was very excited when we first heard about Instacart Business.
Shawn: For Khari and I, being able to create pre-populated carts has been extremely helpful, and so has the one-click re-ordering functionality, because we’re mostly ordering the same supplies. It just makes our lives way easier.
Looking ahead, what are your focus areas for the business over the next few years?
Shawn: In the next couple years, we have several initiatives that we’re working on, including at-home waffle kits that allow you to enjoy Connie’s anytime from the comfort of your home with friends and family. We’re building out a consulting arm, through which we work with other new or aspiring business owners, including restaurant owners, and we are developing an app that helps companies save time and money through people management support.
And even further out?
Our ultimate goal is to create an affordable franchise model for Connie’s. We want to create opportunities for our team members and others in the community to buy into this model without the financial barriers to entry that typically exist when it comes to owning a franchise. We hope to eventually be in every city in the United States — and then we’ll start looking internationally. So we’re just getting started.
Learn more about Connie’s Chicken & Waffles here, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. To learn more about Instacart Business and how it can be a lifeline for small business owners to save them time, save them money, and help them stay focused, click here.
Previous Small Business Summer Spotlight: Fighting Food Insecurity with 3 Guys from Brooklyn
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