By Jeff Beals
When Patricia Barron first became a grandmother, she wasn’t ready to be called “grandma” or “granny.” Such labels were way too old fashioned for her. After all, she still felt young and had a lot of dreams left to pursue.
In some African-American families, the name “Big Mama” is affectionately used to describe a grandmother, but more than that, it’s a title of honor given to the family matriarch. Such was the case in Barron’s family. Once she became “Big Mama,” the name stuck, and there was no going back.
When you meet her today, it’s as if she has always been Big Mama. Everyone calls her that whether they’re related to her or not. With her charming personality, welcoming nature and motherly persona, you immediately feel comfortable using such a friendly, informal title.
After a 30-year career working for the telephone company, Big Mama retired from Ma Bell and was ready to start the next chapter of her life. It was time to pursue a lifelong dream: to be a restaurateur and owner of her own restaurant.
She developed a love of cooking as a little girl observing her grandmother prepare Sunday dinners. In her early twenties, she studied culinary arts. As her family grew, Big Mama loved preparing large meals for relatives and friends. It wasn’t uncommon for 30 or 40 people to come over for dinner. As she says, “I love to feed people.”
It only made sense that Big Mama would consider opening a restaurant upon her retirement. But she didn’t want to open just any restaurant. She wanted to bring her grandmother’s old recipes to life – oven-fried chicken, collard greens, stir-fried cabbage and sweet potato pie. What’s more, she wanted to open her business in economically challenged north Omaha, an urban, predominantly African-American quadrant of Omaha, Nebraska. Big Mama hoped her restaurant would help breathe new life into the neighborhood and provide needed jobs for workers who could use a second chance.
While it was an exciting concept and a noble idea, it was not an easy sell to reluctant lenders, who had no confidence in funding a restaurant business in north Omaha. Perhaps more surprising, lenders were hesitant, because Big Mama was 65 years old. How long would she run the business? Could they count on her staying healthy?
“I had experienced discrimination in my life, because I was black and because I was a woman,” Big Mama told me, “but I had never been discriminated against because I was old!”
Undeterred, she gathered her resources, relied on her faith and leaned on her network of friends/family to open Big Mama’s Kitchen at 3223 North 45th Street on a youth services campus that was once a state school for deaf children. It was hard work, but she did it.
Five years later, her restaurant is doing well. She is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. Her famous sweet potato ice cream is now stocked on local grocery store shelves. At age 70, Big Mama is loving life as an entrepreneur and plans to keep feeding people until she’s 100. She now makes a living doing what she loves, and at the same time, she’s doing her part to help rebuild a community that has experienced so much disappointment.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking this story feels good, but it’s actually about to get even better.
You see, Big Mama’s story is not just motivational, it’s highly instructive. Big Mama offers many lessons for those who wish to succeed in business.
Regular readers of this column know that I believe in the power of personal branding and what it can do to build businesses and strengthen organizations. When people who work inside an organization become “famous,” the whole organization benefits.
Big Mama’s Kitchen has great food and great service, but much of its success is due to the owner’s personality and the personal brand she has built.
Awhile back, she sought the counsel of a marketing firm. It turned out to be money well spent, as the consultant gave her a great piece of advice: “Big Mama, put your picture on the restaurant’s logo. Put your picture on your business card.”
At first, the modest Big Mama wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but she eventually agreed to give it a try.
The new logo is brilliant. For one thing, Big Mama believes it’s good for African-American customers to see her face. They can see that an African-American woman is running a soul food restaurant. But a very large percentage of her customers are white, and most of them drive many miles to dine in her restaurant. Her image resonates with those white customers too. She is the personification of a “Big Mama.” She is the face of her business.
Big Mama’s personal branding efforts are paying off as she has become a celebrity. She is the local queen of soul food. Her restaurant has been featured on The Food Channel, The Travel Channel and the Sundance Channel. People have been known to board an airplane, fly into town, eat at Big Mama’s and fly home the same day. Her spicy “Afro Burger” was front-and-center on the popular television show Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.
People who visit the restaurant come for the food, but you can see it on their faces when they walk in – they look around the room hoping to catch a glimpse of Big Mama, the woman who embodies the restaurant.
Granted, if the food and service weren’t great, the restaurant wouldn’t still be here. But quality alone is often not enough. There’s so much competition in this world. There are so many ways a business can fail. By building a personal brand and attaching it to your company, you benefit. Everyone benefits. People are the portals of profit. We are much more comfortable doing business with someone than something.
Like Big Mama, your widely recognized and highly respected personal brand can set you apart from your competitors.
Jeff Beals is an award-winning author, who helps professionals do more business and have a greater impact on the world through effective sales, marketing and personal branding techniques. As a professional speaker, he delivers energetic and humorous keynote speeches and workshops to audiences worldwide. To discuss booking a presentation, go to JeffBeals.com or call (402) 637-9300.
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