Marcel's Culinary Experience's Jill Foucré on How to Open a Store

Are brick and mortar stores antiquated, outmoded husks to temporarily house products? Or are they still the lifeblood of the economy? Whichever way you lean on this seemingly binary situation, it won't stop people from opening more stores. Nor should it. One of the most appealing aspects of being an entrepreneur is doing things your way, and sometimes that means opening a shop -- big-box chains be darned.

That's what Jill Foucré did on September 26, 2011: She opened Marcel's Culinary Experience in
downtown Glen Ellyn. Although she is co-owner with her husband, Foucré runs the store's day-to-day activities, which entails a lot: it's a retail store and also full-scale cooking school. Not only that, but Foucré says she expects to more than meet her numbers this year to turn a profit, which, well, is no small feat not only in this economy, but in any economy for a store's first year.

But rewinding back to the start, and to help entrepreneurs everywhere understand some of the toothaches involved with opening a store, I gave Foucré a call.

What's involved with opening a store? I'm sure it's still fresh in your memory.

Jill Foucré: [Laughs.] It's extremely fresh. Obviously there's a lot of planning. I have a pretty extensive business background but in the health-insurance business. I'd never been in the retail business before and I spent a lot of time when I left my corporate career working on a business plan just making sure I even had a viable business because I needed to make sure this is something that is financially viable for us and is gonna perform. It's not a hobby.

Yeah, it's a business.

Jill Foucré: This isn't something I'm just doing something on the side. This is our profession. This is what we do. So I did a lot of research on the planning around whether the business itself could be viable and that was writing a full business plan. I spent close to four months researching and writing my business plan and then once we made a decision to go ahead, then it was just a huge project: finding a physical space, knowing what our products are going to be and getting the cooking school part of it up and running. We ended buying a building. A 115-year-old building in downtown Glen Ellyn. So, we gutted the first floor of the space, the apartments upstairs and so we had a very significant construction project, which probably was one of the more challenging aspects of the pre-opening activity for me because I had never managed a construction project before. All of the pieces and parts from fixtures to infrastructure to inventory to staff to computer systems to office supplies -- there are a million little details. Printing, marketing and branding. All of those kinds of things. Websites, social media. I had a big project plan that I put together to help to manage all those pieces of it.

Then I surrounded myself even during the business-planning process before we decided to move forward -- I had brought in a team of people who were experts in the areas that I was not an expert in. So, people who were experts at retail strategy and design. I had a contractor. I had an architect. I hired a chef pretty early on to help with the development of the cooking school part of it. And then I hired a retail manager who had extensive experience from Williams-Sonoma who would really be able to help with product selection and merchandising and all that. I would say a piece of advice that I give to people when they ask -- and sometimes when they don't -- is that you've gotta be really self-aware about what your own gaps are and make sure you've got the team wrapped around you to fill them in.

So, this sounds pretty intimidating. But was there any of part of the process that was actually much easier than you predicted or thought it might be?

Jill Foucré: Nobody ever asks me that. Really, when we were, say, six months post-opening day, so we had gotten through the holiday season and had a good amount of time under our belts I could really look back and say, "You know, nothing major went wrong." We opened within two weeks of when we expected to, which, given the magnitude of the construction project and the problems we found along the way -- an old building that we were trying to put new kitchens into, etc. -- and I was so prepared for something to go massively wrong. Just thinking inevitably that'd happen. I think that's equal parts good luck, good planning and good staff.

The one thing that has been easier? I didn't have to go search hard to get a great workforce and a great staff. They found me. My chef found me. The retail manager found me. She heard about what we were doing. Other people had talked to her. I got on the social media pretty early on in the process, so I had a Facebook presence out there way before I had a website or anything like that. Those people found me and they brought other people to me. So I haven't had to really pound the pavement for really exceptional staff.

What surprises have popped up along the way?

Jill Foucré: It's really more about what we've sold. When I did my initial business plan I had a distribution of revenue across different product categories that has been very different from what the reality has been. So, for instance, I expected that our specialty food would be a small percentage of our total sales. Five, seven percent. Something like that. It's been much bigger than that. There's a big market out here for specialty food. Same thing with all of the tabletop. I never dreamed that I would be selling table lenins and that kind of thing to the extent -- personally it's never been my space. As a percentage of our total sales, we sell more tableware and table lenins than we do cookware. I never would've thought that would be the case.

But that's just about the demand being different from what I expected. Our total sales have been significantly higher than what I initially projected, but of course my expenses have been commensurately higher as well because of things that surfaced that I didn't think hard enough about. Overall, the financials have been, in aggregate, pretty much what I expected. It's just the moving parts haven't all fallen where I thought they would.

You're about 13 months out now from starting. How far out did you make predictions for in your plan?

Jill Foucré: My initial budget numbers, when I go back and look at them, they're pretty far off. Again, in both directions. The revenue is way low and the expenses are way low. I did a re-forecast. So, in July of this year, based on my first six months of actuals and then knowing I had October, November and December actuals from 2011. I'm working on 2013 numbers right now. Whatever those initial numbers were, I did a one- and three- and a five-year plan in my initial business plan. None of those numbers are going to hold up. They really aren't relevant anymore. It's really about the forecast. If I hit my numbers this year -- which, I have no reason to think I won't at this point, I'll break even. So, for a first full calendar year, I think that's pretty good.

I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but if you were going to do this all again, what would you do differently?

Jill Foucré: I don't know that I would do a ton differently. Managing that construction project was really hard. It was probably one of the most frustrating and stressful things -- the beauty of it is at a certain point it was over. It's not like it's an ongoing thing. That part of it, I think I would have partnered with someone who had more experience managing the construction and the contractors and all that. But that was kinda a time-box thing. There's no ongoing pain associated with that. I think the thing that's sobering is how much money it takes to keep things running. So, fortunately, I have it, but the cash-flow associated with the business is -- the business has to perform. Nobody can run negative cash-flow. Well, I guess some people can, but I don't intend to year after year after year.

I just talked to a guy last week who I used to work with. He lives out in Denver and he wants to do this same exact thing. So he called me for advice and I told him, "Make sure you got the money because you're just going to hemorrhage cash for a while." It's very sobering.

Well, that's a bummer note to end things on.

Jill Foucré: [Laughs.] But to flip to a more positive note, the whole process is so gratifying. I spent 31 years in a fabulous corporate career. I did big, big stuff and had a big, big job and nothing has even come close to the level of personal satisfaction and professional accomplishment as getting this place open and running it on a day-to-day basis and making it perform. It's just really gratifying and it's hard. It's constant. It's relentless. Everyday you have to think about what's tomorrow, what's next month. There's nobody just doing stuff for you. But at the flip side, you get to make every decision for good or for bad and be completely in control of your own destiny. That's a great feeling. 

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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