Shari Saldivar Of Smokey Mo’s BBQ: Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Opening a Franchise

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Never bring your home problems to work and vice versa.

The world of franchising offers a unique blend of entrepreneurship and established business models. However, navigating the franchise landscape can be daunting, especially for those embarking on this journey for the first time. There are lessons to be learned, pitfalls to avoid, and success stories to be inspired by. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shari Saldivar.

Shari Saldivar is a seasoned expert in the franchise world. With nearly 25 years of experience in the barbecue industry, she and her husband have grown their Smokey Mo’s BBQ franchise location from the ground up. Shari believes that everyone holds the power to make a difference as she breaks barriers in the male-dominated barbecue industry. With an immense wealth of knowledge and experience to share, Shari preaches that adaptation is key in the dynamic restaurant industry. Embracing change is not always an easy hurdle, but it is always an opportunity for growth. As a franchisee, Shari understands the balance with personal values and aligning with the franchisor’s vision. Collaboration with the franchisor and with her team is what creates the ideal support system from challenges like budgeting to operations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about succession, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I started working at restaurants in college as an additional source of income and continued to do so after I graduated. My career in BBQ began while working at Rudy’s during this time. It was an incredible experience with a friendly environment, and I decided to pursue a full-time career in the food industry. I worked my way up the ranks into the corporate side with K&N Management, where I met my future husband and brother-in-law. We got an opportunity to own a franchise in San Antonio and decided to open the first location at Stone Oak. We have since expanded to multiple locations and have plans to keep growing Smokey Mo’s BBQ throughout Texas.

The food industry was not the career path I had originally intended or envisioned, but I naturally found my way to it and recognized the friendly environment and growth opportunities. I enjoyed getting to know and work with good people around me. When the opportunity to own a restaurant with my husband and family came about, we had extensive conversations about the possible challenges that could interfere with a professional environment. The clear divide between home and work was a necessary barrier.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Starting my career as a cashier in a BBQ restaurant at the age of 21 and getting to where we are now as a franchisee, over half of my life’s memories have been created in this industry. The most interesting part of my story is how our family came to be and how much of a blessing this has been for us. First, my husband and I met through the BBQ restaurant. We both had very different roles, but like many people in their early 20s, co-workers became friends, and eventually, we were married. After marrying, the journey to become parents was not an easy one for us. We struggled for a few years before finally welcoming our oldest son and then, a couple of years later, a daughter. When the kids were little (3 and 1 year old), we took a giant leap of faith by making the decision to join the Smokey Mo’s BBQ franchise. We sold our home in Austin, TX, and both quit our jobs, which we had almost 20 years of employment in and moved our family to San Antonio, TX. We sacrificed the very comfortable lifestyle we had created to give 100% of ourselves to being successful business owners. At the time, we had no idea that our family would be changing in a way we had not prepared for. After being open for two weeks, we received the surprising and exciting news that we were not only going to welcome one more baby to our family, but we were going to have twins. As you can imagine, we were extremely thrilled and terrified at the same time. We both wanted a big family but had accepted that it was probably not in the cards for us. God had other plans that were much bigger than our own. I had a very difficult, high-risk, and pre-term pregnancy that resulted in me being admitted to the hospital on bed rest while our family ran our very new restaurant. As difficult as this was, looking back, we were so blessed to have the opportunity to work for ourselves during this time. The support we had from our family was essential to us not only surviving but thriving in this very difficult time. We welcomed two babies eight weeks early. At the time of delivery, we were surprised with more news. One of our twins was diagnosed with Down Syndrome and a rare disease called Hirschsprung’s disease. These diagnoses changed the trajectory of what we thought our lives would look like. Now, we were navigating being a new restaurant owner with four very little children, one of which had special needs. Being able to adapt to change became the biggest asset to our growth as a family and business moving forward. I don’t think that we would be successful today if we didn’t have that mindset moving forward. The one thing that didn’t change was our determination to be successful. I guess you could say the rest is history. We are now ten years into this journey of restaurant ownership and building another location to add to our success story.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“If you can do it, do it” is a phrase we constantly use at Smokey Mo’s restaurants, and I introduce it to my personal life. Throughout my time in the BBQ and food industry, I’ve been motivated to do whatever needs to be done. Some jobs and tasks have come up throughout the years that I might not have necessarily pictured myself doing, but if somebody needs to barbecue, cut meat, or whatever is needed to finish the job, then I will do it. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you can get a job that needs to be done, you’re not only welcome but encouraged to do so.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Morris Melchor started Smokey Mo’s BBQ with his wife with the mission to give their customers good BBQ, pure and simple. He combined his 30 years of experience with original recipes and methods used in all locations. Each Smokey Mo’s restaurant gets involved with the local community and smokes all locally sourced meat in-house for 10 to 14 hours a day. Every location feels like a neighborhood spot and adds a personalized touch to everyone around. We have built an environment that provides support and growth opportunities for anyone willing to put in the work for it. Now, every achievement we have reached feels as exciting as the first one.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What factors did you consider when selecting your franchise, and how did you determine it was the right fit for you?

When choosing a franchise, we really focused on finding one that matched our personal and professional goals. We started by considering our existing connections. My husband and brother-in-law had worked with Morris, the founder of Smokey Mo’s, and our group had been collaborating for over 20 years. This trust and familiarity were incredibly important to us. We also appreciated the strong family and community values Morris infused into the Smokey Mo’s brand, which aligned perfectly with our own values.

We wanted a franchise that would let us achieve our dream of becoming business owners while still having the flexibility to spend time with our family and friends. Smokey Mo’s stood out because it offered the chance to build a lasting legacy and had great growth potential. With our background in the BBQ industry, we felt confident we could bring valuable experience and a fresh perspective to the table.

Smokey Mo’s already had a strong identity, a beloved menu, and recipes that customers loved, plus the potential to grow. These qualities made it clear that this was the right choice for us. Now, with 19 locations open, we’ve been able to maintain the same high quality of food and customer service that originally drew us to Smokey Mo’s.

Can you share a significant challenge you faced while establishing your franchise? How did you overcome this obstacle, and what did this experience teach you about running a successful franchise?

Change is inevitable, but we must learn to embrace it and look forward instead of back. Through constant change, franchises need to maintain the original culture while adapting and reinventing themselves to match evolution. During the pandemic, many restaurants had to shut down, but we sat down and had conversations about what our internal and external guests needed and how to provide that. These conversations and the ability to change led to Smokey Mo’s BBQ growth. Solutions like curbside service and group packaging came from questioning what needed to be done.

Looking back to when you first started your franchise, what was one aspect that completely took you by surprise? This could be related to the franchising process, customer interactions, or day-to-day management that you hadn’t anticipated.

The constant growth that comes from starting a franchise. Ten years ago, we started the first small franchise restaurant and have since seen Smokey Mo’s grow into the culture you see today. Being able to be a part of the process that brings about this change and having my input become a tangible part of the brand. I have been lucky to work with family and friends I’ve known for the past 20 years. Our success in building the Smokey Mo’s franchise constantly impresses me, and it’s an evolution I had no idea would happen. It’s exciting to be a part of the beginning and watch the restaurant grow because of your decisions and opinions. There are always more ways to grow; as soon as one goal is met, there is more to do.

In hindsight, what advice would you give to potential franchisees about selecting a franchise that aligns with their personal and professional goals?

My main piece of advice to prospective franchisees is to make sure your goals are in line with the franchise you select by clearly defining them. Our family’s goals were to start our own successful businesses, get along well with one another, travel, spend time with loved ones, and leave a lasting legacy. We already had experience working in the BBQ industry and had a talented group of people surrounding us. We personally met Morris Melchor, the original Smokey Mo’s, and saw the local neighborhood BBQ restaurant he built with his family. Our conversation allowed us to talk through the values and future we each saw for Smokey Mo’s BBQ.

Choosing a franchise organization that can assist you in achieving your goals and guide you through this process is essential. You need to make sure you have the appropriate support system, do some extensive research, and keep a focused mentality. Clearly define your goals and persistently pursue them. Even if there may be hard days, your success is driven by having a strong strategy and the right people on board. Everyone can reach their franchise goals with the correct planning and commitment.

How do you balance adhering to the established systems of your franchise with the need to innovate and adapt to your local market? Can you provide an example of a successful adaptation or innovation you implemented in your franchise?

Like many other restaurants, learning to adapt to the local market as well as the current industry is essential to growth. I think for us, adapting to our guests’ needs during COVID was the most important change we could have made to ensure we would make it when so many were closing their doors. We didn’t want to be a restaurant that laid off our amazing team to survive the pandemic, so we listened to what the needs of our guests were and did everything in our power to meet those needs. This included changing our group packaging to individual plates (even knowing this would impact our profit margin greatly), utilizing 3rd party delivery services as well as a curbside pick-up service. We made home deliveries ourselves for some of our guests who couldn’t get out of the house. Those guests became not only raving fans of Smokey Mo’s BBQ but also very loyal customers and people we consider to be our neighborhood family.

What are your “Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Opening a Franchise”?

  1. Never bring your home problems to work and vice versa.
  2. It is important to find the right people who love their job to help guide you as you do yours.
  3. When challenges come up, know that you’re not always going to “win” the discussion, but it’s important to take a step back and find a solution that works for everyone.
  4. In the beginning, you must be willing to do anything that needs to be done, but as time goes on, it’s important to find your role.
  5. You must fully understand the franchise’s culture and embrace it to succeed.

As your franchise has grown, what have been the key drivers of its success? Looking forward, what strategies do you plan to implement to ensure continued growth and sustainability in an ever-evolving market?

Our success has really come down to a few key things. First, we’ve always stayed true to the Smokey Mo’s brand. Keeping the core elements has helped maintain the authenticity and quality that our customers love. Another key factor has been our commitment to community involvement. At each new location, we make a point to connect with the local community. For example, at our Hutto, Texas opening, we had the Hutto High School band perform and donated up to $1,000 of the day’s proceeds to the school. This kind of engagement helps build strong relationships and loyalty among our customers.

Looking ahead, we have several strategies to ensure continued growth and sustainability. We’ll keep focusing on community engagement and supporting local initiatives, as this has been a cornerstone of our approach. We’re also planning to innovate our menu by adding new items that cater to changing tastes while staying true to our BBQ roots. We’ve already begun introducing limited-time sides and desserts that have received glowing reviews from our customers.

Lastly, we believe in investing in our team. By providing training and development opportunities, we make sure our staff remains motivated and equipped to deliver exceptional service. By staying true to our values, building strong community ties, embracing innovation, and investing in our team, we’re confident that Smokey Mo’s will continue to thrive in an ever-evolving market.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

Honestly, creating a team that loves their job and feels appreciated is probably one of my most crucial goals as a leader. When you have the right team that loves their job and aligns with our company culture, delighting our guests will be an easy product.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I used to think you had to be a celebrity or a very prominent person to influence people. Looking back, most of my biggest influencers were everyday people who not only believed in me but encouraged me to push beyond what I thought I could do. Finding ways to make a difference in someone else’s life and encouraging them to be that for someone else would be my greatest achievement.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Honestly, most of my online presence is with my family and friends. My biggest goal at this point in my life is to create memories that my children can look back on and cherish. Our time is so limited that prioritizing family life will always be my greatest goal. Being able to be a part of our local community and build relationships through our restaurants is just icing on the cake.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.