Restaurant Development & Design

MAY-JUN 2017

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3 4 • r e s t a u r a n t d e v e l o p m e n t + d e s i g n • M A Y / J U N E 2 0 1 7 Coming Back from Disaster 1,000-YEAR FLOOD Smoothie King Denham Springs, La. Estimated cost: $300,000 Roger Wilder owns a chain of 12 Smoothie Kings in the Baton Rouge, La., market. Last August, he learned the hard way that you don't have to be in a recognized flood zone to be flooded — badly. Torrential rains brought nearly 30 inches of rain over two days to the state's hardest-hit areas, which included Wilder's Livingston Parish market. Ac- cording to the National Weather Service, those areas had a less than 0.1 percent chance in a decade of such an event happening, leading to what's been called a 1,000-year flood. Heeding official warnings, Wilder had closed all his stores on Friday, Aug. 13. The water continued to rise through the weekend and crested on Sunday. His home was spared, but it would be two days before he was able to get out and see the destruction left behind elsewhere. "I thought I must have had multiple stores flooded because you couldn't get out, and phone service was down for a while," Wilder recalls. "People started using Facebook to send pictures. The first one I saw was of my original store, in Denham Springs, sitting in about four feet of water. Someone was in a boat on the street and took the shot." Despite revenue losses from being closed system wide for a few days, there was some good news: Except for rela- tively minor water damage, 11 of his 12 stores were in good shape. The bad news was that the Denham Springs location was essentially a total loss. "This area was like a war zone," he says. "The first time I got to the store, it knocked me out. It's nothing you can prepare for." Wilder knew that he would rebuild — despite having no flood insurance — but other than getting the muck cleaned out and the interior gutted as quickly as possible, he focused first on relocating employees to other stores and helping his community. With a lot of product nearing expira- tion, he borrowed a food truck and van from Smoothie King's headquarters, gathered a crew and began delivering smoothies to shelters and to people working in the steamy August heat to clean up and rebuild. Smoothie King operators in nearby markets contributed product and volunteers as well, and the brand became something of a local hero during the disaster recovery efforts. "People were losing it just be- cause we were giving them a 12-ounce smoothie," Wilder says. "We got more sweaty hugs and people crying on our shoulders than we could have imagined. But these were the people who had kept me in business through ups and downs since I opened that first store in 2001. Everyone was hurting so bad, I just wanted to help." It would be almost a month after the flood before Wilder pulled himself out of what he calls TLC mode to shift into rebuild mode. As he puts it, there was no rush. "When 80 percent of your guests are displaced, what's the hurry to rebuild? So many homes were affected, there was nobody around to visit the store," he says. Wilder kept a makeshift food truck parked in front of the store to generate a small amount of revenue and keep a couple of employees working. But with no insurance to pay for reconstruction, he faced steep financial hurdles. "There was no assistance. It took about six months to finally get some money from the government. That whole process was a joke — never-ending paperwork," Wilder says. "We took a big cash-flow hit from having all stores closed for a few days, and we continued to make payroll. I ended up borrow- ing against whatever I could, carried a bunch of debt and used my own savings. One huge lesson I learned is that cash is king when something like this happens. If you have something in your bank ac- count, it's a hell of a lot easier to keep your employees and get the engine going to rebuild. Insurance is great, but if you have cash to pay people and don't have Smoothie King franchisee Roger Wilder's Denham Springs, La., store was destroyed in what's been called a 1,000-year flood. Despite having no flood insurance, he was able to rebuild in the same location, but sales have yet to fully rebound. Photo courtesy of Smoothie King/Roger Wilder

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