How This Former Engineer Found His Appetite for Business as a Restaurant Franchisee By taking a spot behind the counter, Danny Banwait is finding a way to get ahead.
Four years ago, Danny Banwait, a mechanical engineer, and his wife, Darshana, a chemical engineer, were working in Silicon Valley. Their goal was to get out of the hectic tech world and own a business, but it wasn't until their daughter was born that they made some serious life choices.
Danny followed through on a tip that a Bay Area investor was selling two Black Bear Diner locations in Federal Way and Olympia, Wash. Although he had looked at other franchise options, none had clicked quite like Black Bear, a 70-unit brand operating in eight Western states that specializes in family-style comfort food. "The first time I walked into a Black Bear Diner I was excited," Danny says. "All the guests were happy, and all the employees were happy. Once I met the board of directors, I knew it was a concept we could grow with."
The Banwaits moved to Washington to start their business. But before making changes, they conducted some research: Danny learned the ins and outs of the business by working as an assistant manager. The approach paid off. He has since opened a third Black Bear Diner in Gresham, Ore., and is preparing a fourth in Vancouver, Wash. We stopped drooling over the dessert menu long enough to find out more.
Why did Black Bear let you buy in with no restaurant experience?
The owner of those two units lived in the Bay Area, and when I met with him, it turned out he started as a mechanical engineer, too, and jumped into restaurants when he was a little older than I was. So that was a good connection and hit a soft spot. The next hurdle was meeting the executive team at the Redding diner. We sat around and talked, and they saw something in me, and I saw something in them. It was a good relationship from the start. They care about their business and franchisees just as much as their guests.
How did you afford two restaurants?
The guy I bought the restaurants from gave me financing, which meant we didn't have to get a business loan. But my wife and I were both engineers, and we were saving up for a down payment on a house or business. Once we graduated, we still lived a frugal college lifestyle. We were able to live off of one paycheck and save the other. We did that for two and a half years.
What was it like working as manager?
I started working as assistant manager, then promoted myself to general manager, and went in and did all the paperwork and other tasks managers do. I even worked as closing manager seven days a week. I was able to really learn the system. When I took over, I didn't want to rattle the cage too much. I wanted to see what was working and what wasn't, and I wanted to get the managers onboard and to trust me.
Being younger, it was harder to earn respect from older staff and vendors in general. I wanted to learn as much as I could so when we had a meeting, I would know what I was talking about and understood what my staff was going through.
In Federal Way it took a couple of months for the staff to get excited and get onboard with my ideas. At the second location, things were very different. There was no leadership or structure. At that location, I really had to take ownership and be a leader.
Engineering is a dream job for some people. Why leave it so young?
Personally, I love the interactions at a restaurant. Guests walk in, and you shake hands and get to know them. And you have to learn a lot. You have to learn about the health department, fire codes, equipment, refrigeration, vendors … There are so many moving parts. Every day it's something different. That's what drew me to owning a franchise vs. working a 9-to-5 job.