Summer Entrepreneurs Have A Sweet Treat For You

by Casey Penn ([email protected]) 645 views 

Arkansas food entrepreneurs Holly and Jeff Burris and Hunter Harris are betting on yes as the answer.

Sources like bear out such expectations in articles listing food-stand ventures (vegetable stands, ice-cream stands, hot dog carts, etc.) as low-investment, high-profit-potential business startups.

It seems that capitalizing on the public’s yearning for roadside refreshment smacks of good business sense.

Take Hobo Joe’s, a shaved-ice trailer known for its semi-permanent stand on South Street near Interstate 30 in Benton. Co-owner Holly Burris is a business major, certified teacher and mom; husband/business partner Jeff is a hunting guide by trade. These days, you’ll find them in a small space, serving up finely shaved ice topped with one of 50 Hobo Joe’s flavors – favorites include Tiger’s Blood, Wedding Cake and Sugar-Free Strawberry.

In addition to operating from South Street, the couple uses a trailer to take their product mobile. A big investment, the trailer is paying off by allowing Hobo Joe’s to serve regional businesses, ball tournaments, festivals, and schools and charitable organizations. Recent stops have included Riser Nissan in Hot Springs and Civitan in Benton, where they recently served 220 smalls in two hours.

Customers include school kids, area business people, ball-team parents and anyone within about a 30-mile radius who has a sweet tooth. Prices range from 50 cents to $3 a “cone,” though what Hobo Joe’s serves is not a snow cone. “It’s normal for people to call it a snow cone, but it is shaved ice. With a snow cone, you’re eating chunks of ice and syrup at the bottom. Shaved ice is much finer. The flavor sticks better,” says Holly Burris, who believes that quality products and low prices are the company’s key customer incentives.

“We don’t skimp on thick, sweet syrup, and we pride ourselves on low prices,” adds Burris. “Business-wise, Hobo Joe’s 50-cent small probably isn’t our best decision, but it’s a service to families who have four or five kids if they can come to us and, for two dollars, get their kids – all of them – a treat. We would rather sell a bunch at a low price than to stand around hoping people will spend $4 on a shaved ice. We’re actually a quarter higher than Hobo Joe’s of Malvern, which we refer to as our ‘mother ship.’”

Burris smiles as she speaks of the separate business owned by her aunt and uncle, Vickie and Kelly Hodges. Kelly Hodges bought a Hobo Joe’s 32 years ago, and the business has since remained in the family. “He sold it to my grandma, who later sold it back to him. Vickie runs it now, and serves as a good example for us to follow.”

Vickie Hodges serves primarily from a stationary building on Moline Street in Malvern. She also has a small trailer that she uses for local events. “We’ve been here so long. Kids that worked for my husband 30 years ago bring their kids now. I hate to raise prices, because we have such a loyal customer base,” says Hodges, noting nearby competitors who charge three times as much. “I have a couple who drive from Hot Springs because, even with gas, it’s cheaper to buy here than to buy in Hot Springs.”

Burris worked at Malvern’s Hobo Joe’s as a senior in high school – an experience that went into her family’s choosing to go into the business. “I learned to operate this business from familiarity. It’s not rocket science, and there’s a lot of work to it. You’re carrying ice, loading and unloading. It’s not glamourous, but customers usually wear a smile. They stand in line for it, and kids think it’s just magic. They watch you make it and they enjoy it,” says Burris. Her husband, too, decided it was the right business for the family. “My husband had a guide service in the winter, and this fit well in the summer time, when it’s hard to find a job that lets you off three months out of the year. He recently sold his duck lodge. With us having two kids, his being gone for 60 days was not fun anymore. Instead, we’ve gone full time with Hobo Joe’s here in Benton.”

Burris used her business knowledge to avoid common pitfalls of starting a business. “I knew that when it comes to getting started, people often don’t borrow enough money or don’t go big enough,” she said. With that in mind, the couple decided early on to establish one stand and wait until demand called for a second one. Their initial loan investment paid for an ice machine, a trailer, flavors and equipment while leaving them a little extra capital. Now in their second season, they’re closing in on the initial loan payoff, seeing plenty of demand, and thinking on the future.

“Purchasing a truck would give us two windows and allow us to pull up, plug in, serve and get out of the way,” says Burris. “Challenges include funds and manpower. Trucks are expensive, and you have to find people you can trust to run them, who can go out on a whim. We want to go bigger, but it’s an uncertainty right now.”

Burris encourages fellow-minded entrepreneurs to do their homework before starting a business. Know city licensing and ordinances and request help on the front end from small business centers such as the Small Business Development Center at Henderson State University.

Check out Hobo Joe’s, which has officially started its second season in Benton. Plans also include extending the selling season, which went into October last year. Meanwhile, a different, but equally sweet food-based business has been growing, fresh-from-the-vine, in the Heights area of Little Rock.

Young entrepreneur Hunter Harris took quite a leap of faith during his sophomore year of high school. To be more specific, the young 16-year-old took a three-hour drive that led to Cave City and, ultimately, to a thriving retail sales business centered on watermelons.

“I can’t tell you how frightened I was to spend $700 on fruit,” says Harris, who, along with buddy Dillon Bond capitalized on an idea by bringing a handful of the state’s most famous watermelons (and cantaloupes) to Little Rock with which to set up shop. “When you double your money selling melons on the roadside, it feels good.”

A graduate of Pulaski Tech Culinary School, Bond is now a chef at Arthur’s Steakhouse.

Started that simply, Melon Boyz is still going strong in Central Arkansas, and Harris has graduated from Pulaski Academy and is now a part-time student at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the owner and operator of not one, but two businesses – the second being a production company centered on a television show called Spartan Outdoors on the Sportsmans Channel. The show, since this past January, has been airing on Sunday nights at 5:30 internationally (Canada, U.S., Africa and Europe).

“I had the dream to start Spartan Outdoors even before the watermelons,” shared Harris, who saved his annual profits from the melons – it has more than doubled every year – to buy production equipment and hire a producer. “We went on television for the first time just 10 days before my 19th birthday. Since then it’s paying for itself. It’s my main gig and what I do for a living, but I do the watermelons every summer. It’s something not a lot of young people have done, and it’s fun and rewarding.”

And profitable. Melon Boyz has grown substantially each year, and now employs seven full-time sellers during the week and up to 15 most weekends.

“We operate stands in Little Rock – look for us out on Rahling and Pebble Beach and in front of Steinmart on Cantrell road,” Harris said. “We currently have extended to Hot Springs and Conway on the weekend, and we are growing. We’re looking to move into the Benton/Bryant area this season.”

Daily operation, for Harris, begins with an almost daily drive to Cave City every weekday morning – as in, middle of the night. Harris gets up around 3 a.m. to start the drive, and is usually back to his crew by 9 to 10 each morning. “I’ll sell on the weekends, but during the week, my job is to go get the melons. After I divvy up melons, I’ll take a short nap and spend the rest of the day checking on the stands, taking care of everybody.”

“Taking care” of his stands, which sell from 9:30 a.m. to dark or sold out, whichever comes first, includes things like bringing workers water and lunch, supplying someone with a long break now and again, interacting with customers, and making sure the melons are sold when fresh. “We sell them in one day, and if some are left, we’ll sell them the next day. We keep them shaded and stored overnight. If they go longer than that, we’ll take them to the Little Rock Zoo and feed them to the monkeys.”

No joke. The monkeys benefit from Melon Boyz’ quality control. “We pride ourselves on being the best, and that’s why we ask $10 per watermelon because they’re big, sweet and fresh. And it works out well because I usually end up with season passes to the zoo.”

Customer interaction is paramount, too. “We treat customers right,” says Harris, adding that 90% of his business is from repeat customers. Another 5% is new customers, and the last 5% is made up of area restaurants like Arthur’s and Chenal Country Club.

In finding a supplier for Melon Boyz, Harris and buddies began by visiting every melon stand in Cave City. They ate a lot of watermelon (oh, the sacrifice!) until they found the sweetest melon. Once found, they sought out John Patterson, who is now their exclusive wholesale supplier.

Harris talks about the challenges of starting such a business while in high school. “I started as a sophomore, the first year I could drive. It started out with just me selling from a trailer in front of Trinity Assembly of God Church (we’re no longer selling from there). It was challenging. I was a football player. You get two weeks off all year long. We practice in the heat of the day. It meant many early mornings, super tired.”

Still, he did it thanks to a supportive family and an entrepreneurial spirit. “Everybody has their gifts. I can’t spell,” he said. “That’s something I’m really bad at. But I think I’m pretty good at problem solving. I love the experience.”

Harris comes from a long line of entrepreneurs – a father in construction, a grandfather with a used car lot, a mother who owns Pout, a cosmetics store next to Bonefish Grill. “I believe I was born with an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “It’s watermelons, so it’s fun and it tastes good, but more than anything else, I love the business side – the managing of it. I feel the same about Spartan Outdoors. I love to hunt. I have a passion for it, but more than anything, the business is the rewarding part for me.”

To others looking to turn their passion into a business, Harris advises thankfulness, determination and willingness to work. “I don’t take credit for what I’ve done. I think God used me as a vessel. I’m blessed to be given opportunities and to capitalize on them,” he says. “I think of David. He was young, yet he was called to do something great. He made mistakes, but he was still anointed by God. Don’t let people tell you that limitations in your life – your age, your lack of degree, etc. – are going to set you back from doing something amazing. I know that with hard work – and with God – anything is possible.”

Harris, who is in his fourth melon-selling season, backs up the statement by many Arkansans that Cave City melons really are the “the world’s sweetest melons,” as opposed to Hope’s melons. “That is true,” he assures. “Hope argues that it has the world’s largest watermelons. Cave City says they have the sweetest watermelons. The inside makes the melon. If you want a big melon, go to Hope. If you want a sweet watermelon, go to Cave City. It’s like candy.”