Customer Wise: From employee to sole owner

Michelle Di Gangi
Posted by Michelle Di Gangi
Small Business Banking

We recently met with our customer Valen West, owner of the Fly Trap, a famous San Francisco restaurant in the South of Market “SOMA” neighborhood. In this quick Q&A, she shares with us how she transitioned from being an employee of the restaurant to the owner and how she has been able to handle the challenges that come with being a business owner.

Valen West standing in front of the bar at Fly Trap.I’m impressed by Valen’s hard work and leadership, and I’m sure other business owners could benefit from her experiences.

Q: The Fly Trap has been in existence since 1883. What has been the key to its longevity? A: The original name of the restaurant was Louie’s. Louie, the original owner, would hang flytraps next to the sample food outside of the restaurant to prevent horses and flies from getting near the food, as they were very attracted to it. The locals started calling it the “Flytrap” restaurant. Louie did not like this new nickname so he sold the restaurant. The new owners changed the name to Fly Trap. I believe the history of the restaurant has a lot to do with the longevity.

How did you become the owner of Fly Trap, and how were you able to handle the transition?

I began working here in 2008 when Hoss Zare was the owner. After six years, Hoss and his partners offered me 20% of the restaurant. Another two years after that with the help of Bank of the West I was able to buy out Hoss and his three partners for full ownership.

The transition from employee to owner was surprisingly smooth. I think it was a combination of working as the bar manager since 2008 and always taking the lead. What was a bit challenging was retraining the staff on changes I wanted to make.  It’s been almost 1.5 years since the transition and we’ve had some turnover, which is always expected in any changing of the guards. But I’m really excited over the subtle but noticeable changes.

What challenges do you face being a restaurant owner and how are you able to overcome them?

The restaurant business is a tough business.  It’s not consistent by any means, and finding good help can be a challenge. San Francisco is also becoming more and more expensive with the rise of minimum wage and prices in general for operating costs. I am able to overcome some of these challenges by focusing on the variables I can change, such as overtime and cost of goods sold, instead of focusing on what I cannot change, like how much rent is.

What are three tips you would share with women interested in managing their own business?
  • It’s not as easy as it looks.
  • You’ll have to learn patience.  What works for one will not work for another.
  • Find creative ways to get the end result to be what you want it to be.
How are you able to maintain a good work/life balance?

Finding time off when you have your own business is a dream for the first few years, especially when you have no other business partners involved.  It does help if the business is closed one day a week.

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