How a Love of Healthy Food Led to a Beneficial Career Change Debbie Justesen loves good food, and she wants to be healthy. With her Costa Vida franchise, she gets both.

By Carly Okyle

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Debbie Justesen

Debbie and Dave Justesen were working in commercial real estate when they decided to go in a completely different direction and open a Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill. In franchising, the couple and their friend found a way to enjoy the rewards of being a business proprietor while minimizing the risk. Now it's full-steam ahead with the Utah-based fast-casual restaurant, as Debbie says she plans to open seven stores in the next five years. What's got her so fired up? Read on to find out.

Name: Debbie Justesen

Franchise Owned: Debbie owns NorCal Restaurant Holdings with her husband Dave Justesen and their partner Manish Patel. The company owns three Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill locations in Yuba City, Roseville and Rancho Cordova, Calif.

How long have you owned a franchise? Almost a year and a half. Our first store was purchased in August of 2014.

Related: This Franchisee Takes the (Cup)Cake for Making Customers' Celebrations Sweet

Why franchising?
My husband, Manish and I wanted to pursue business ownership, and we chose franchising because of the proven business model and systems that are in place. Franchising takes out all the guess work in most aspects of the business, so it greatly reduces risks that most independent business owners may face. After careful consideration, we selected a strong brand with a healthy future that would give us the foundation and the support we would need to enter this new business opportunity.

What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
We were involved in commercial real estate; I was the broker of our company and handled the property management and accounting duties. Dave and Manish were involved in both the acquisition and disposition of real estate commercial properties and in raising monies from investors to purchase those properties in an LLC.

Why did you choose this particular franchise?
Dave and I spent about six years living in Utah where Costa Vida is based, so we were already familiar with the franchise. When we moved back to California, we wanted to bring the brand with us. While we did explore other concepts and do our research, Costa Vida's healthy menu options proved to be right opportunity for us.

How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
Our situation was unique because we began by purchasing an existing restaurant. The restaurant did very well, so corporate approached us at NorCal Restaurant Holdings and proposed that we takeover two other locations within the area that were not doing as well. These factors made our experience and initial cost to invest in the franchise much different than new franchisees; however a ballpark estimation would be $200,000 cash and a $500,000 SBA loan ($340,000 on construction, $325,000 on FF&E, $65,000 toward soft costs and $10,000 toward marketing efforts).

Related: This Man Shifted His Focus from Foreclosures to Run a Real Estate Franchise

Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
Prior to choosing Costa Vida, we spoke with many franchisees in various businesses. We chose the food/ restaurant industry because it supplies a basic need, so there is always a demand. We talked to a lot of franchisees in the fast-casual restaurant business to learn about their experiences and get their opinions. We also did extensive reading and carefully researched the strength of various franchises and also looked at potential for strong growth.

What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
There have been several labor issues that were unexpected. Finding competent employees who are hard-working, honest and enthusiastic is always a challenge. We have also struggled with city government agencies and some bureaucratic delays within those agencies.

What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
The best advice would be to prepare to work hard, market your business with passion and don't become overwhelmed by unexpected challenges and frustrations.

What's next for you and your business?
Because we chose to purchase the two additional stores as corporate had requested, we took on an additional territory and Area Development Agreement. This means we will aggressively be building and running Costa Vida's over the next five years. By the end of 2015 we will have four stores. We have already signed the lease for another store opening next spring, and over the next five years we plan to build at least an additional seven stores.

Related: Meet the Franchisee Who's Bringing New York-Style Pizza to Texas

Carly Okyle

Assistant Editor, Contributed Content

Carly Okyle is an assistant editor for contributed content at

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