Despite Warnings Of A Summer Slump, Zeheria Brown & Her Husband Took A Risk On A Sports Bar

July 16, 2014  |  

Zeheria “Zee” Brown already had a demanding full-time job as an insurance executive with Geico. Plus she is a mother of a seven-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. But when she and her husband decided to go into business together there was no hesitation–even though the two decided to venture into the risky restaurant business.

In May 2014, the pair opened Top Shelf Sports Bar & Grill in Plant City, Florida. The sports bar and restaurant is upscale but not so much as to scare away families. They offer everything from nachos and chicken tenders to raw oysters and steak.

Contrary to popular belief, the restaurant business isn’t as risky as most believe. According to the latest stats from National Restaurant Association, overall the restaurant industry saw sales of $683.4 billion, with a 3.6 percent increase. The restaurant industry accounts for 10 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. And there has been an increase in sports bars over the past couple of decades.

“The rise of sports bars in the 1980s provided an example of industry adaptation to consumer health concerns,” reports the National Club Industry Association of America. “In contrast to the dark, smoke-filled bar of past decades, sports bars are lighter, with an updated, high-energy ambiance. The vast majority of such bars, in addition to having televisions for their customers to view, serve full menus of lunch and dinner items… Sports bars also target women and families, often tailoring their menu to include light, healthy food in addition to burgers and other American fare.”

Among the reasons some restaurants fail is that in addition to having to comply with numerous regulations, many owners take out loans that they wind up defaulting on. But for the Browns, this isn’t a worry. They opted to self-finance their venture. It didn’t hurt matters that Zee has an MBA and knows a thing or two about business.

Zee Brown tells MadameNoire.com just how she and her husband are making it work.

MadameNoire: Why the restaurant business?

Zeheria “Zee” Brown: It’s what me and my husband always wanted to do, so it was okay–even though I am working a full-time day job. I didn’t know really anything about the restaurant business and people tried to warn me off by reminding me of this, but I was able to transfer some of the skills I have from my career in insurance. The restaurant is like my third child. Now the business is a newborn.

MN:  Did you always want to go into business for yourself?

ZB: Well, I can tell you that the passion I have for the sports bar is totally different. When you are building something totally from scratch, and when you have a workforce and a community depending on you… it pushes me. The feeling I get when I walk though the doors of Top Shelf is like a rush of euphoria.

MN: What was the launching process like?

ZB: We started working toward it a year ago and opened the doors in May this year. We did our research and knew there was a so-called “summer slump” but we went ahead anyway. We were just going hard and doing the best we could. The summer slump is called the “Three Brothers”–May, June, July. Some restaurants even close for those three months, but we saw that what we had to offer and where were the summer slump shouldn’t be a major problem.

MN: A lot of people are wary of the restaurant business.

ZB: It is a high-stakes field for sure, but I have never been one to shy away from challenges. And we honestly saw that the community needed something like this, so we wanted to give something back to the community. This is where we both grew up.

There are other sports bar-like establishments, but a single woman would feel unconformable in their atmospheres. We wanted a place where everyone would feel comfortable coming–single women, men, families. We don’t have a security guard at the door because that’s not the type of environment we have created. It a great community spot, and while we are a little upscale we are not so off-putting that people can not come with their families for dinner.

MN: How did you finance the venture?

ZB: We are bootstrapping entrepreneurs to the core. We saved up and did some creative financing and considerable sweat equity. We had so many people saying they could do this or that for us, but we figured out what we could handle ourselves and what we absolutely had to outsource. We also took a unique marketing approach. Some people thought it was a risky approach, but we used social media. We realized that people are not going to try a new restaurant just by reading an advertisement. We used social media to show, through photos, the experience of coming to Top Shelf. We had reviews. These are the things that make people come try a new place and so far it has worked.

MN: How is it working with your husband?

ZB: You really have to learn to work on a different level. You have to learn to work as a team even when tensions are high. You might want to give your husband the cold shoulder over a disagreement but because you have to make some important business decisions now, you put the cold shoulder off for a few days. But in reality the petty disagreements disappear because you just don’t have time for them. So I think it has actually strengthened our relationship and made us realize what is important.

MN: How is it juggling all your roles–insurance executive, entrepreneur, motherhood?

ZB: It is challenging. Luckily as far as sleep I have tricked my body to operate when I need it to. But I will admit it has taken my daughter some time to adjust to the new schedule and my time limits. But we have talked about it and she understands this is temporary and that mommy will go back to dancing, and all her activities as soon as I can. But it is for my daughter that I want to do well with the restaurant. She is at an impressionable age and I want her to see we can succeed through hard work. I want her to be proud of us.

MN: What are your goals this year?

ZB: We want to expand our customer base. People seem to know our name but they don’t where we physically are. So we are thinking of creating an outdoor seating space. We will put our names on the umbrellas and create more name awareness and actually have people associate the location with the name. And as the football season approaches we are looking to bring an NFL player for an autograph session. We are also trying to do some city events and we have just started developing some charitable work. So there is a lot to do–I don’t know when I will sleep!

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