1851: Tell me your story, especially as it relates back to family, franchising and scale. Give me some of that background.
Jonathan Ellis: Absolutely. Well, I'm very lucky, pleased, honored and privileged to be born into a great situation of a McDonald's franchise family. I am a third-generation McDonald's franchisee. My grandfather Rogers, in 1969, opened his first restaurant in Beaumont, Texas. He was the fourth McDonald's in the state of Texas, and at the time, Texas was the last state that Ray Kroc entered.
I am a lucky individual to not only be born into an entrepreneurial family, a restaurant family and a franchise family, but also a family that believes in work ethic, paying it forward and the possibilities of what hard work, a good work ethic and a positive mindset brings to the table. Not to mention how a little bit of leadership goes a long way. It's just been a blessing being raised in that scenario where you're on the front counter at 10, on the roof fixing air conditioners at 12, running shifts by 16 and running your own restaurant by 20... There are certain goals that you set early in life, just by being exposed to not only the entrepreneurial side of a family business but the operational components of the day-to-day checklist of life. It’s hugely beneficial being able to sit at that dinner table and listen to everyone have conversations about business, cheeseburgers and the daily grind of running a drive-thru. That brings us to here and now, and just growing up in a franchise family, a franchise business, I've always had franchising in a warm regard. I look at the arches more as a family crest, as a family legacy. It’s kind of like, "This is who we are. This is what we represent. This is what we believe. This is where we're going. Hey, let's go there. You want to be a part of it?"
Long story short, I’ve been a lifelong franchisee with multiple brands, and now I’m a first-time franchisor with Honest Lash.
1851: I want to unpack some things, but first, what's your earliest memory of being in a McDonald's and also understanding that this was your family's hard work behind it?
Ellis: I would say it's probably a Play Place somewhere on a merry-go-round. But that was before the ball pits. Dad always had me test the ball pits before we opened just because during construction, you know, things fell in the balls. You're proud of the family business, but then you don't realize you're learning all those small, how to run the day-to-day things.
1851: When you're 20 and you're operating a restaurant, and you're fully baked into the franchising world as a part of your family, is there any point where you think, "I'm going to divert from my family and go do something different on my own"? And what kept pulling you back to franchising and family?
Ellis: I went to college and graduated at 23. When I say running restaurants, running shifts, I mean that was part of college and summers. I would say I was in my mid-20s when I was officially back in the business, committed and confirmed. There was an interim period after college where I moved to Austin for a bit and opened up a food truck on Sixth Street and was selling sausage on tortillas till 3 a.m., three or four nights a week.
I always had restaurants in mind; it was always going back to McDonald's. At some point, I knew being the oldest of six and being a third-generation McDonald's family that McDonald's was always in the cards. Even now, driving by McDonald's, you’re just in awe of just the manpower, the vision, the scale and then connecting all those dots with Dad and Papa and their story, I could say, "That's the prize. That's what you've always wanted."
After I graduated, my dad said, "Don't come back until you're 30 and have gotten your 20s out of your system and found a wife, and you're ready to start a family and put some roots down." He knew this was a big thing, and I shouldn’t come back until I was ready. So when I was 25 and moved back, my dad said to me, "You're starting on fries." Because I came back from Austin thinking, "Where's my restaurant? Which one am I going to run?" And he said, "You're not running anything. It's day one. Go get in the back, go get the grill and go learn everything again. It's been a few years. Everything's different." Because that's the thing about McDonald's. It's always growing, evolving and changing.
McDonald's was always the goal and the prize, working on fries to grill to the front counter to shift manager to assistant manager to GM... I knew that when I showed up, all eyes were on me, and everyone was waiting for this third-gen kid to screw it all up and ride the coattails with no work ethic, so I said to myself, "These guys all think I'm this way anyway, so why not prove them wrong?" As much as it's a blessing, it's also kind of a chip on your shoulder to a certain degree. It's like, "I'm not going to be the spoiled kid. I'm going to be the guy that works his tail off and proves to you that every promotion, every step of the way was all earned and not just given."
1851: Two things I'm hearing very clearly: family and work ethic. I think that's such a critical element because so many people buy into franchises thinking, "Alright, I pay my franchise fee. I spend the money to get this open, and now magically I flip on the light and I make money." And they don't. They have to hustle. As a franchisor, I want to hear how you're relating that back to what you're doing now. So obviously, first any comments on that and then second go into telling us what Honest Lash is.
Ellis: Absolutely. Franchisee, franchisor, it's two sides of the same coin. It's very much a relationship and a marriage. It's very much a binding contract, of course, but also, at the end of the day, it's a relationship, and that's what Dad always told me. This is a serious decision, on the same page as buying a house, getting married and having a child. Franchising is essentially, I don't want to call it a shortcut, but it’s like, "You help me and I'll help you." We lean on each other in good times and bad times.
The hardest part is the first few years or 18 months where you're just grinding and head down making decisions. The journey goes like, “Oh my gosh, that's colossal. We'll never get past this. Okay, let's get past it. Wow, that was awesome. Now we're past this. We're ready for the next thing." It’s a never-ending cycle, and it’s important to understand that when you're entering into this partnership.
So, for the story of Honest Lash, it starts a decade after I went back to McDonalds when I was ready to go out on my own. I looked at a number of brands, and I came across an eight-location Sylvan Learning Center deal in DFW. I liked it so much that I decided to go all in on Sylvan and put all my personal eggs into that basket. Six months later, the Austin market went up for sale, and so being excited, young and motivated, and seeing things moving in the right direction, I got a little too in front of myself and decided to get it. Do I regret it? No. Do I wish I wouldn't have doubled down in the first year? Yes. But you know what, if I wouldn't have bought Austin, we wouldn't be here talking about Honest Lash.
Fast forward to 2020, and Sylvan Learning, even though it was an education business, was not considered essential. Our business was shuttered for several months, but beyond that, when we opened back up, the demand wasn't there. I luckily worked with corporate and was able to facilitate a deal where we sold 12 of the 15 Sylvans back to corporate and neighboring franchisees. The three in the Austin area that didn't sell, we converted to lash studios.
Then another business I haven't mentioned yet that we bought into was another franchise model based out of Florida called Signarama. I've experienced a little bit of a lot of franchises, and when you bring in these other models, you can cherry-pick the best stuff from other leadership, industries and businesses.
Honest Lash is essentially a COVID pivot. I mean, we were 1,000% born because of 2020. We were born out of tenacity, being painted into a corner and not knowing where we were going… I looked at this lash business as an opportunity where I could pull all of my desks, chairs and learning equipment out and install lash chairs and equipment for a low investment cost. I knew a couple of people in Austin that were cosmetologists and estheticians, and I just realized, "Hey, let's go. Let's go open a lash business."
1851: Tell me the "why you, why now." Why should anyone care about buying an Honest Lash, and why should they care about it now?
Ellis: We're very clearly a family business, and what I care about most is the why. And so, the why is, it's up to me now to pass my family’s knowledge and decisions onto the next generation of owners and pay it forward. I want to help others get the benefits and luxuries of life that McDonald's gave our family — and I don't mean just money, like financial wealth. I mean, what McDonald's has baked into our life and how we do things and accept challenges head-on. That's what I want to pay forward. And so, franchising very much encapsulates that. It's a family, it's a franchise, it's systems, its operations, it's all the things.