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VMS Success Story: Native Café experiences expansion, growth through Studer Community Institute Program

   The Brown family knew they had a great thing going in Native Café. Their Pensacola Beach restaurant, open for over a decade, had built up an excellent reputation and loyal following. But, by 2020 they were facing a crossroads. “With our limited space, it was kind of like expenses were rising and we didn’t have enough room to meet demand.”, said Arin Brown, Native Café, Co-Owner.


   That’s when another co-owner, Ashlee Brown, found out about Studer Community Institute’s Venture Mentoring Service. The renown VMS program was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and brought to Pensacola by SCI. It’s a free service that pairs selected entrepreneurs with a team of mentors for ongoing advice and guidance. Ashlee’s friend Dannon Byrd and her business, Tap The Coast, were among SCI’s first group of VMS mentees in 2020. “She posted on social media that this program had changed her life. She private messaged me and texted me and said, you need to be a part of this,” said Ashlee, “I actually had to convince the family, the rest of the owners of Native Café, that this was a good idea.” That included her husband Jesse Brown, “I’m stubborn. I didn’t necessarily want to do it at start. I’m like, well, I don’t have time for that.”

   Ashlee used her persuasive powers, Native Café applied, was selected, and had their first VMS meeting in April of 2021. “Hearing the opinions and suggestions from the group, that was when I was like, okay, this was a good idea because they have valuable information and perspective that I wouldn’t necessarily have or thought of,” admitted Jesse. “They made us feel heard, valued, respected, like we were on the precipice of something great,” added Ashlee, “And so immediately it changed the game for us.”

Native Cafe meets with VMS mentor team in January 2022
Native Cafe meets with VMS mentor team in January 2022

   Native Café’s original mentor team, chosen from SCI’s incredible stable of over 40 volunteers, included Bert Thornton, the legendary Vice Chairman Emeritus at Waffle House, Sterling Gilliam, Director of the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola, Curt Morse, Vice President at The First Bank, and D.C. Reeves, then SCI’s Chief Entrepreneur Officer who would go on to become Pensacola’s Mayor. “They were happy to hear anything we had to say,” said Thornton, “and that just ignited our desire to give them everything that we had.”

   The monthly meetings quickly produced many actionable, difference making suggestions that the Native Café team put in place. Including employee engagement methods, recurring pricing evaluations, and the importance, even for a family business, to have structured management team meetings. “My gosh, within the first six months, just checkmarks of things that we needed to pivot”, said Ashlee.

   The guidance went beyond just VMS meeting sessions. Thornton, who helped build Waffle House into a powerhouse as President and COO, made numerous onsite visits to assess and lend expertise. “You can’t sit in the office and run a business in the field,” shared Thornton, “I could not sit in that office and hear what they were saying. I had to see what they were doing.” Jesse made it clear how impactful those visits were. “He came in multiple times and walked through things with us for hours, would sit here and help me and my sister (Arin) identify issues.”

   Other mentors provided loads of impactful advice in different areas, enhanced by the addition of Bob Hart, one of Pensacola’s top legal minds, who specialized in business and corporate law for the highly respected Clark Partington firm. In many ways Gilliam’s experience as NAS Museum Director proved an especially important resource. “His insights into hospitality and consumer demand and how to make an experience better,” said Jesse, “we really listened to his insights on that.” “They knew that as they grew they had to do things standardized,” said Gilliam, “ and they have done some remarkable work in standardizing their procedures and refining those procedures.”

Native Cafe meets with VMS mentors in early 2023
Native Cafe meets with VMS mentors in early 2023

   Of all the help SCI’s VMS team provided, nothing was more vital than shepherding Native Café through their pivotal expansion plans. In the summer of 2023, over two years into their VMS journey, the restaurant celebrated a grand reopening, almost doubling in size, with so many of their previous challenges overcome by the well thought out new space.

“All of that confidence to move forward on the business strengths that we had already built, built but didn’t know that they were there because we doubted, that doubt was gone,” said Ashlee, “It is 100% entirely due to the mentors and the SCI VMS program that we are where we are.” “Maybe we would have made it there after a few more years and probably a lot more struggles,” added Arin, “I definitely don’t think we’d be as successful in our expansion if we hadn’t had that mentorship to give us more skills to meet this challenge.”

   The joy is shared by their mentors. “They are exponential of what SCI is all about,” said Thornton, “They want to get better. We want them to get better and we have the experience. This is going to go down as one of the great success stories in SCI history. For folks like us to be able to help other people succeed in a really grand way, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Native Cafe co-owner Jesse Brown visits with VMS mentors Sterling Gilliam and Bert Thornton after successful expansion
Jesse Brown visits with VMS mentors Sterling Gilliam and Bert Thornton after successful expansion

  The once skeptical Jesse Brown could not be more won over. “I would do it ten more times if I could because it helped me grow as a business owner, as an entrepreneur, more than anything I’ve dealt with in years before. I think it’s just invaluable to any business out there. And I tell every business person I know, hey, you need to apply. You need to get down there and get in the group because it’s only going to help your business.”

   “It really speaks to Pensacola,” observed Gilliam. “Pensacola, hands down, has a unique aspect of we are going to take care of ours. In this homegrown, entrepreneurial, small business environment, with SCI  supporting that, it’s the essence of a really top-notch community.”

   To learn more about SCI’s VMS program and how you can get involved as a mentee, mentor, or supporter, visit studeri.org/vms

Steve Nissim is Chief Storyteller for Studer Community Institute, a non-profit 501c(3) organization in the Pensacola, Florida area whose mission is improving the quality of life for all people in the diverse communities we serve. Learn more at www.studeri.org