From Stand to Brand: How To Build An Empire In Your Flip Flops

Beginnings are tough. This May will be five years since me and Abby dragged my roommate’s little modular K-Mart patio bar down the stairs of my apartment and out to the sidewalk of Ocean Avenue in Belmar, New Jersey. That was our business model back in 2014- a blender, a freezer, two umbrellas and some extension cords.

I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that I could see a big opportunity right from my balcony: A beach full of people, and a food that was absolutely perfect for a day at the beach. It was a brand new industry for me, completely uncharted waters, but I figured I could learn by doing. My best friends called it a lemonade stand. We called it Playa Bowls.

Five years later, this little lemonade stand called Playa Bowls has become my life’s work. And if I’m being honest, it still feels like the beginning. I’m still learning by doing. I’m still stashing my surfboards in between the freezers, and we’re still taking little breaks to hit the water if a decent swell rolls in.

But you know that you’re doing something right when so many people ask about those early days. And now more than ever, from all kinds of people, I get those questions: How did we get started? Where did this idea even come from? No really, who’s in charge around here?

And just so we’re clear, I am never ever too busy for these questions. I love meeting the people who support us. Maybe you’re reading this because you’re a potential franchisee. Maybe you’re trying to get your own restaurant to the proverbial Next Level. Or maybe you’re just an enterprising kid looking for advice on your own lemonade stand. Whoever you are, thanks for reading. This column will be a place where I can tackle all of the questions and war stories and anecdotes at once.

These past five years have gone by faster than a warm summer night. I still can’t believe how big this little idea has gotten. I can’t believe how my life has exploded. I’ve learned more, traveled farther, and met more amazing people in the past five years than I ever thought I would in a lifetime. And sometimes it only begins to seem real when I’m trying to explain my career to somebody else. Sometimes you don’t even notice all the twists and turns of your own neighborhood until you’re giving someone else directions.

That being said: If you’re looking for directions, I’m still just one guy, and I’m not a financial genius. I’m not the guy with How To Get Rich books on his nightstand. I’m not the guy who takes notes while watching Shark Tank. OK fine, we did try out for Shark Tank, but we never made it on the air. That was about four years and 70 locations ago. No hard feelings, sharks. The point is, I can’t teach you how to catch lightning in a bottle, I can only tell you how I did it.

I’ll tell you how we turned that one little sidewalk stand into 70 (and growing) locations. I’ll tell you how we turned a profit by the end of our very first summer, in an industry that sees virtually 100% of new businesses taking first quarter losses. I’ll tell you about the mentors that have helped me right the ship over and over again, and the brilliant pieces of advice that I’ve picked up along the way. I’ll tell you how it feels to see the line of customers stretching down Ocean Avenue and around the corner- and not just during a grand opening or a weekend or a holiday, but on a perfectly ordinary business day.

And if it sounds like I’m getting a little braggy- don’t worry, I’m going to tell you all of the awful, cringeworthy, humiliating situations that I’ve gotten myself into as a business owner. I’ll you about times when I broke down and cried like a scared little baby. I’ll tell you about nights when I smashed signs and menus and sandwich boards into little pieces and swore off the whole ridiculous Playa Bowls idea forever. I’ll tell you about times when I’ve been pushed around, told off, put in my place, or had to beg somebody not to kick my ass.

And I’m going to tell you about the wrong turns. I’ll tell you about the money that could have been saved. The fights that could have been avoided. The raging explosions that should have been celebratory fireworks. I’ll tell you about overpaying thousands of dollars for frozen fruit machines back when I was absolutely certain that self-serve frozen fruit was going to be our next blockbuster menu item, only to find out that these machines were overly-complicated Chinese-made junkbots. That was the summer that I spent long, crazy, sleepless nights making Facetime calls to Chinese repairmen at 4 in the morning, desperately trying to calibrate the machines that I was convinced would grow our business. (They didn’t.) Eventually, I had to drop a few more hundred bucks just to get those malfunctioning junkpiles hauled away.

If anything’s changed over the last five amazing years, it’s my attitude. I’m learning how to grow this brand without falling into the trappings of ego. I’m learning how to crush the challenges without losing my cool. And no matter how many waves I catch, I know that there is always another wipeout lurking somewhere in the future. At the very least, maybe you can learn something from one of my wipeout stories.

So if any of this word vomit sounds good to you, please feel free to stay tuned. Click on our site, drop me an email, or just say what’s up if you see me around the stores. I’m launching this column not just to chronicle the amazing growth of our brand, but to pass some good luck and warm wishes onto the next entrepreneur, the girl or guy who has no idea where to begin. Beginnings are tough, but trust me, they go by fast.