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Pioneer Program

A Ponderosa Steakhouse franchisee partners with nonprofit organizations to bring family dining to her neighborhood.

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Stella Love is ready to celebrate. For the past three-and-a-half years, Love and her husband, Henry, have been working, planning, organizing and negotiating to open their Ponderosa Steakhouse franchise. Finally, opening day approaches.

First, Love will invite the families of her more than 125 newly hired employees to be the first diners at her new restaurant. The next night, on the eve of the grand opening, Love will serve dinner to the politicians, financiers, contractors, community workers, family and friends who helped bring Ponderosa to Milwaukee.

This month, Love's ribbon-cutting ceremony will be attended by local politicians, including the governor of Wisconsin, leading up to the opening of her doors. "Then I'm open for business to make money," says Love, "lots of money."

The opening of a family restaurant usually doesn't involve such fanfare, but Love's Ponderosa franchise isn't an ordinary family restaurant. Since 1996, the city of Milwaukee has worked with several nonprofit and civic organizations to revitalize Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Bringing a sit-down chain restaurant to the community was one goal of the plan.

The Loves, who have more than 20 years' experience operating businesses, including several liquor stores in their Milwaukee community, were approached by representatives from the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit organization seeking a franchisee to bring Ponderosa to Milwaukee. The Loves agreed and, in 1999, started their journey toward franchise ownership.

Love was almost instantly attracted to the opportunity. "I looked around in my community and saw the need. It's something that was never here," she says of the family-friendly, sit-down restaurant. "The closest sit-down restaurant from here is eight miles away. We had fast food, very upscale restaurants and sports bars, but not a family-style restaurant."

A study done by the city of Milwaukee found residents of that particular area were spending about $8 million at sit-down restaurants outside of their community. "I saw nothing but a great opportunity to have a successful business," says Love.

But first Love had to secure the financing to get her franchise going. Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. put up 19 percent of the money needed to set up and open the restaurant. The remainder came from the Loves' personal savings, Legacy Bank, the city of Milwaukee, Local Initiative Support Corp. and other government and nonprofit organizations.

The Loves will receive the 19 percent stake in their franchise currently held by Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. in five years.

Because so many different organizations were involved, the financing process for the Loves took longer than it would with a typical franchise. "Ponderosa said [to me], 'It'll take about three-and-a-half years, because it's not like getting your bank to finance this. It's a process.' And they were absolutely right," Love says.

Even though the process was more involved, Love does recommend franchisees partner with nonprofit organizations. These partnerships open the door to "a lot of opportunities and a lot of start-up money," she says. "They'll help you develop your business and your dream."

Love considers the wait worthwhile, not only because her Milwaukee neighborhood can now boast a sit-down restaurant, but also because she's confident her efforts will benefit other franchisees down the road. "It'll be easier for the next person or for my next [restaurant]," she says. "A lot of patience and a lot of frustration comes with [being first], and I just thank God that He chose me for this project. I helped make something easier for others, as well as myself."

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