Photo caption: Owner of Newk's Eatery Cassandra Stokes stands outside of Nacogdoches restaurant in North Village Market with her leadership team who have been with her since the day the business opened. From left are Associate Manager Michelle Burkhardt, General Manager Jessica Drahem, Stokes, and Associate Managers Molly Perkins and Marisol Madera.
(Photo by Kelly Daniel)
Feature story for The Daily Sentinel, Sept. 17, 2017
Newk's Eatery named Medium Business of the Year
by Kelly Daniel, executive vice president, Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce
Cassandra Stokes, owner of Newk's Eatery #1057, can tell an impressive personal story of establishing a successful business based on a "this feels right" experience.
After successfully opening and operating her Wingstop franchise, she had been searching for another restaurant concept that would not compete with her popular chicken wing business.
"I searched for years for something that fit my philosophy. It had to be fresh, good quality food and have an upbeat decor," she said. "We were in Longview for my daughter's soccer tournament, and we ate at a Newk's there. When we walked in, I told my husband that this is what Nacogdoches needs. This is perfect."
Stokes did her research and liked the company. She found that along with a healthy meal menu, the business would offer customers a quick meal "Grab-n-Go" selection and a flexible catering service to fit a variety of different size groups, tastes and venues.
She met and negotiated with the franchise owners in Jackson, Miss. with the idea of opening two restaurants; one in Nacogdoches and one in Lufkin. "They really wanted me to open the Lufkin store first," she said. "I believed that Nacogdoches was ready for Newk's, and we should open here first. With the help of the Nacogdoches E.D.C., we were able to convince them."
Once she secured the franchise, the search for the perfect place to open the business began. She discussed the project with several in the community, including Ed Pool with Charles Pool Real Estate.
"Cassandra Stokes and Newk's Eatery were a crucial factor in the development of North Village Market. With Newk's as an anchor tenant enough traffic flow was created in the center to allow us to lease an additional building in Phase I," Pool said. " Because of the success of Newk's in Nacogdoches, we will soon secure another anchor tenant to allow us to begin Phase II of North Village Market. We are grateful that Cassandra chose to partner with us in our development by creating a first class restaurant for all of Nacogdoches to enjoy. She is and will be a key to the success of North Village Market."
Along with building the restaurant that Stokes knew was right for the town in the location that felt right to a deep-rooted Nacogdoches family, she built her team starting with the general manager, Jessica Drahem. "Jessica was my best friend for a long time, and I had told her she would be the perfect person to run this restaurant. So I made a proposal," Stokes said. "She thought long and hard about it and accepted."
Also hired were Associate Managers Billy May and Marisol Madera, and the restaurant opened for business in October 2013. Later, veteran team members Michelle Burkhardt and Molly Perkins were promoted to associate managers, and May is now general manager of the Newk's Eatery that Stokes opened in Lufkin.
The Nacogdoches restaurant operates with approximately 40 employees, and the team works together to produce outstanding results. Stokes looks for employees that are teachable in the art of hospitality more so than previous experience in food service industry. She appreciates the robust training programs provided by the Newk's system which helps team members easily learn how to work in their positions. She and the store leadership hold quarterly meetings with fun themes where she delivers her "state of the business" report and asks for feedback from the team.
The restaurant has earned numerous "Best of Nac" awards including Best New Business in its first year. Other Best of Nac awards include Best Place to Have Lunch as well as best sandwich, soup, and low-calorie meal.
The local business has repeatedly been recognized in the Newk's Eatery system. In 2015, it earned the system's highest score for Restaurant Cleanliness Standards and the highest combined annual scores for Restaurant Operations and Sanitation Evaluations (ROSE), bringing home the prestigious quarterly ROSE traveling trophy that year and again in 2016.
The Nacogdoches Newk's gained national attention when it was awarded 2015 Franchisee of the Year. Stokes said that she accepted the award as the franchise owner, but it was made possible by "the strong leadership team along with the dedicated hourly employees, diligently working every day to earn the honor." Franchisee of the Year recognized the Nacogdoches Newk's for same store sales increasing 12.1%; highest overall ratings for guest survey responses in the system's 12-year history; catering sales increased 9.6% over the previous year; and Top 10 in the system for Food Safety Evaluations; and Top 10 in the system for the increase in guest counts and "Grab-n-Go" sales trends.
In 2017, the store earned an unprecedented score of 100% on the rigorous, bi-annual industry food safety evaluation.
For Stokes, the most notable accomplishment may be earning the 2016 top store in the system for Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance with the Nacogdoches community donations totaling $5,575. Again, she had experienced the "this is right" feeling for a fundraising fit for her business after hearing the story of the company's co-founder Lori Newcomb's cancer diagnosis in 2014. The Newk's Cares program has grown from a kitchen table idea to a national campaign and works to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and education about the symptoms.
"The employees really rallied around this fundraiser," General Manager Drahem said. "We had 'teal Sundays' where we bought all of the employees teal shirts that they could wear. That was a perk for them, and changed things up from the normal black they wear."
The fundraising was done internally with employees donating out of their paychecks as well as drawing overwhelming support from the community. "Some of the employees put teal streaks in their hair," Drahem said. "So when they are out in the community, someone might ask what does the teal represent. Then they have the chance to explain the fundraiser and inform more about ovarian cancer. It affects more than 200,000 worldwide each year, and 125,000 will not survive."
The Daily Sentinel readers have named Newk's Eatery as the "Best Place to Have Lunch" three years in a row, a special honor for Stokes, Drahem and the team. "This has become a gathering place for the community," Stokes said. "We have a relaxed atmosphere that supports socializing and a staff that gives over the top hospitality. Our service is prompt, and people have time to enjoy their meal without feeling rushed."
Stokes' future plans include opening her third Newk's Eatery at a location soon to be named, and she continues to work on a restaurant concept for the historic downtown Wettermark building and pocket park.
For its remarkable economic impact, community involvement and leadership, the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce board of directors named Newk's Eatery as 2017 Medium Business of the Year - a Gary Justice Business Excellence Award sponsored by Regions Bank.
The company will be recognized at the Chamber's 96th Annual Meeting & Awards Banquet presented by The Fredonia Hotel and Convention Center. Call the Nacogdoches County Chamber at 936-560-5533 for more information.