Cash Cow

When is it time to go multi-site? Regional coffee shop and health food affiliate chain Butter It Up has some insights.


Written by Pam Kasey
Photographed by Zack Harold

Few West Virginia businesses expand as fast as Butter It Up has. After barely settling into its first location in Huntington in August 2014, the health food store and coffee shop started calving. Barboursville and Charleston locations opened in May 2015, serving up healthy lunches and butter coffee—a trendy new drink that’s exactly what it sounds like. Stores in Hurricane and Beckley followed in September and October, and an Ashland, Kentucky location expects to open in November. More are in the works.

Butter It Up is Jeremy Mullins’ response to an interest he noticed in clean, fresh foods. “You can educate people on things like grass-fed beef and pasture-raised eggs, and the question always comes up, where do I get these foods?” says Mullins, a nutritionist and fitness entrepreneur who gives seminars and consultations nationwide. “People say it would be nice to have a place to have lunch that has no hormones and is gluten-free.”

Mullins is not new to entrepreneurship. He opened the first CrossFit gym in the state in Charleston eight years ago and now owns CrossFit Thunder in Huntington. All of that has contributed to the market for this new enterprise. “There are subcultures of people into fitness no matter where you go in the state,” he says. “I’ve worked on exercise and nutrition in different areas, so I had almost a built-in clientele.”

But six shops in 16 months? “The need was there,” is his quick response. Drill down a little, though, and it turns out he has an interesting growth model—one he’s been part of before. “It’s kind of the CrossFit model of affiliates,” Mullins says. “Affiliates have a little more leeway than franchisees. We develop a playbook at Butter It Up, affiliates pay an affiliation fee, then they follow our practices as far as quality of food and the look and feel of the restaurants. We can plug anyone into the business with the playbook, because it lays out the job responsibilities and how to cook the items.” Beyond that, affiliates have some freedom to customize to their markets. “If they want to fix roast on Monday as opposed to Tuesday, it’s fine, as long as they maintain the quality of the products and they carry a few of the items we all sell.”

An affiliate model makes more sense than franchises for Butter It Up, he says. “A franchisor dictates everything each site does, from the height of the barstools to where you buy them,” he says. “I wanted flexibility in the food purchases because the food available in Morgantown from a local farm might not be the same as in Huntington.” Today, Mullins co-owns the Huntington headquarters and the Charleston affiliate, while the other shops are full affiliates.

What next for Butter It Up? So far, all the affiliates have been started by acquaintances of Mullins, so the company is thinking ahead to how affiliation will work with newcomers. After that, more growth. “I’d like to see it at 10 to 15 sites throughout West Virginia so we know it works here,” he says. “Then I have the dream of having it in every state in 10 years.”

Mullins shares some hard-won lessons about entrepreneurship and expansion:

1. Let expansion come organically.

“It’s time to grow when you really feel the need is there—when you’re getting multiple comments or messages coming in like, ‘You should put one in X place or Y place.’”

2. A playbook makes for consistency.

“With any new business, a lot of time can be spent on training people. Or maybe you just have to switch person A to person B’s job on a four-hour notice. A playbook gives you security in that. Ours is a document that changes as we go. It can include things as simple as, we like our affiliates to do a social media post saying ‘good morning’ to followers. Of course, the recipes are in the playbook, opening and closing duties, those general operating procedures that any business will have. But having something in place that goes beyond that makes sure little things like customer service and atmosphere stay intact.”

3. Make rational, not emotional, decisions about expanding.

“Personally, I would love to have a Butter It Up in Blackwater Falls or at the New River Gorge, just because I like those places and that’s where we spend some family time. But those may not be good sites for a farm-to-table restaurant.”

4. Be prepared for people to think you’re rich.

“People see five Butter It Up sites but don’t necessarily know they’re independently owned and operated. They say, ‘You must be doing really well!’ Well, the initial investment was my own money and I’m personally still in debt.”

 

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