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O.K. Carter: That entrepreneurial spirit cooks up a winner

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Spring Creek Barbecue

Any would-be entrepreneur looking for hints about how to survive and prosper with multiple outlets would be wise to check in with restaurateur Chris Carroll, the Arlington-based owner of 44 restaurants, mostly of the Spring Creek Barbecue or Mexican Inn variety, all spread across Texas from Houston to the Metroplex.

“When I first started the business, the smart old-timers were telling me to get the restaurants up and going, then sell them after a couple of years because it was a terrible industry,” the 74-year-old Carroll said recently from his sandstone office building along Interstate 20 in south Arlington. “Fortunately, I just ignored them.”

Factoid: Recent studies indicate almost 60 percent of restaurants fail in their first three years. Few will still be around after 10 years. Some of Carroll’s restaurants are more than 35 years old.

Oddly, Carroll’s early history focused more on accounting and land development than on the restaurant business. He’s a certified public accountant – a superlative number-cruncher – who studied at the University of North Texas and taught courses while working on a master’s degree.

This was important because Carroll was once tagged by UNT business school professors to find a speaker for a banquet. He had been impressed by Dallas mega-real estate developer Trammell Crow and asked him to speak at the event, which Crow did. Crow was likewise impressed with Carroll, so much so that he hired him, prematurely ending Carroll’s college lecturer career.

Carroll learned a great deal from his years with the entrepreneurial Crow, one aspect of which turned out to be central: Own the dirt upon which your business sits, no matter what the business is. In fact, Carroll’s decision to enter the restaurant business appealed to him not only as a professional endeavor but also because he wanted to own property.

His first fling in the restaurant business came in the late 1970s, a 50-50 partnership with Roy English — who eventually became County Commissioners Court judge — on Homestead Barbecue on Collins Street and Pioneer Parkway in Arlington. The business prospered, English eventually buying out Carroll.

“I used that money and a Small Business Administration loan to create the first Spring Creek Barbecue in 1980,” Carroll recalls. Through the years both he and English have continued as occasional co-investors, though typically in other types of development.

The Spring Creek brand took off, and soon Carroll also acquired the old Mexican Inn chain from a family estate. His strategy of owning the property on which his restaurants sit has been valuable. When he does have to close a restaurant – which happens on occasion – the sale or lease of that land frequently turns out to be better financially than a restaurant. It’s a location, location, location thing.

At his office, Carroll, disavowing the suit look and dressed casually in sports shirt and gym shoes, tends toward an almost shy reticence when discussing business strategies. Press him, however, and he’ll focus on three critical components:

· Do the numbers. Then believe the numbers, whether it’s a precise recipe for preparing smoked barbecue brisket, a cost/benefit analysis of every component of restaurant operation or a traffic statistic for a given location. Establish measurable controls as part of the corporate culture and follow them.

“Being a CPA has been one of the most valuable assets of my professional life,” he says.

· Invest in people and communities, whether it’s a mix of pre-job and on-the-job customized training or a company-funded college scholarship program for employees, many of whom are high school or college students. His company has invested $3 million in such scholarships to date and also offers income incentives for student employees who maintain B or higher averages. That strategy also includes a “put something back” benevolence community investment program that over the last decade has added up to $2.5 million, with emphasis on schools, youth sports, churches and high-profile nonprofits.

· Cater to customers’ needs. “When a customer starts to ask us if we can do something, our first response is ‘Yes,’” Carroll said. “The second response is, ‘Now what’s the question?’”

“I don’t have all the answers,” Carroll says, “but I know that restaurants that do well identify with the community and the community with them. It’s a cliché but in today’s marketplace there’s another critical consideration as well: Enjoy what you do or find another business.”

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.

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