CULTIVATING A NICHE IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS: MADISON PARTHENON GYROS POLISHES BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT PLAN WITH THE HELP OF SBDC
Erin Vranas, who owns Parthenon Gyros on State Street in Madison with her husband Dimitri, has worked in restaurants since she was 16. “The restaurant industry is a perfect fit for my strengths and personality,” says Vranas, who just turned 30. “It’s part of my heart. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Vranas met her husband Dimitri eleven years ago when she was a student at UW-Madison. He had been running Parthenon Gyros, his family’s restaurant, since 2004, after graduating from DePaul University. “Parthenon Gyros has been in Dimitri’s family for many decades. His grandfather and father emigrated to the U.S. from Greece with nothing and worked tirelessly, eventually coming to own the Parthenon,” says Vranas. “I started managing the restaurant in 2010, and as of this year, Dimitri and I have taken over the restaurant entirely, so Dimitri’s dad can sit back and relax.” Parthenon employs 25 people, with Dimitri handling most of the customer facing, operational, and fix-it responsibilities, while Erin handles back of the house paperwork, dealing with suppliers and employees. “The geeky office stuff is the kind of stuff I love to do,” she says. “Of course, it’s a small business, so we both do a little bit of everything, from being mechanics and accountants to prepping and serving food.” Parthenon Gyros has been in its State Street location for 45 years, and the Vranases do a lot of catering, specifically local business catering, as well as graduations, birthday parties, and wedding receptions. They also offer delivery through EatStreet and UberEATS and offer seasonal dining in their outdoor roof garden, where they also book special events from time to time. They also cater for the Madison Greek Fest every July. “You can’t buy history,” says Vranas. “We’re really lucky in that aspect. We’re a destination restaurant—people come downtown for us. We even hear about people coming here from other parts of the country.”
In fact, the myriad requests the Vranases receive about expanding to other locations were part of what led Erin to the Small Business Development Center at UW-Madison. “I was looking for ways to improve and eventually expand the restaurant, and one person led me to another, which led me to SCORE, and then the SBA, and then the SBDC,” she explains. “It was kind of a rabbit hole of contacts, truthfully.”
When Vranas discovered that the SBDC is located blocks from the restaurant on the UWMadison campus, she applied through the SBDC website for a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), which she received. The grant funded a portion of her participation in the SBDC’s Entrepreneurship Training Program, which she completed in November 2017, after turning in her business plan.
“The most important part of the program for me was the consulting that was involved,” says Vranas. “I got the most from my individual counseling sessions, researching the local restaurant industry, and diving into my business plan. It was definitely what I wanted and needed—I was able to apply what I learned specifically to my business plan.” On the first day of the Entrepreneurship Development Program, students are provided with a very specific business plan template, which includes a rubric and a financials spreadsheet.
“It’s left up to the individual as to when they seek business plan guidance, so motivated business owners weed themselves out,” says Vranas. “I started writing after the first day, using the template.” Students also received information on how to conduct market and industry research, as well as access to UW-Madison Business Librarian Peggy Smith, who works with students in the SBDC program.
“Peggy Smith is a goddess,” says Vranas. “She was super helpful—she knows our restaurant and has been going there for many years.” Vranas found herself captivated by market research. “I did an enormous amount of market research—I was so interested in it and learned so much,” she says. “It was one of my favorite parts and helped me to get a real handle on the state of the restaurant industry, specifically what we’re doing in the quick-service industry, and gave me areas to focus on and a sense of the opportunities moving forward.” Vranas used Ibis world to get an industry forecast, learning that the industry is growing and facing labor shortages as a result. She took note of trends that indicate customers are less interested in frequenting big chain restaurants.
“People are looking for authentic experiences from independent restaurants that are unique and niche, and that’s what we have,” she says. “In the past, restaurants tried to capture every audience. Now, people come just for gyros, and we’re the best at it. It validated what we’re doing.” Vranas also delved into the financial aspects of her business, using the numbers she had and researching them more. She uploaded her P&Ls and balance sheets into the spreadsheet provided and did calculations to predict long-term growth, necessary price increases over time, and inflation.
“Writing motivated me into action, and I was able to complete items in my business plan during the writing process,” says Vranas. “As a small business owner, you do everything, so you get very distracted, with innumerable projects constantly popping up. It’s good to have a well researched, detailed plan to keep you on track.”