Lauren Little, a former U.S. Marine, bought her first franchise of Edible Arrangements in Jacksonville six years ago and soon bought a second.
Her growth earned her the U.S. Small Business Administration distinction as the 2013 Veteran Owned Small Business Person of the Year for the North Florida District and for the state of Florida.
Edible Arrangements creates fruit arrangements and chocolate-dipped fruit. Little's Avondale and Mandarin locations generate about $1 million in annual revenue and employ about 20 people full and part time.
Little, 49, and her husband also have another new venture – Zoey, who is turning 7 months old.
Your father served in the Navy and was stationed here for several tours. Did you always want to be a business owner? What did you want to be when you were a child or when you were graduating from Fletcher High School?
If you asked my mother, she would tell you that I've always wanted to own a business, but I think I've always had a dream of owning a Hallmark store. I enjoy reading cards and looking at all the gifts, so I knew it would be something in the retail-gifting business, but I was always kind of a bossy child.
I always wanted to be in charge. I have one older sister and one younger brother and, being the middle child, I don't know if I just wanted attention, but I wanted to make sure that I was in charge.
Talk about your decision to join the Marines.
I come from a family with a strong background of veterans and I enjoyed the Marine Corps. My dad's retired, Navy-enlisted. I didn't necessarily want to follow in his footsteps, plus he thought I could not handle the Marine Corps. So, being the person that I am, I said, "Once you tell me that I can't, I'll prove to you that I can." There are very few women in the military, especially in the Marine Corps, so I had something to prove.
How was that?
I grew up in a structured environment, so it really wasn't a cultural change for me. I was accustomed to waking up early and being on time. It was being able to be proud to say I was a U.S. Marine.
Where and when did you serve?
I joined the Marine Corps in 1982 and I was fortunate to be stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for about four years. After that I did four more years on recruiting duty up the road in Raleigh, North Carolina. I got out in October of 1989.
What did you do between then and buying Edible Arrangements?
I worked at a variety of different businesses. Immediately upon exiting the military, I worked at the University of North Florida in the office of public relations. There, I gained so much experience on press releases, reading newspapers. I had to do all the research for the P.R. department. I worked there for a while and then worked at the Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless. That gave me a real strong perspective of what it's like to be homeless and helping the community. From there I went to work at a physical therapy company, where I was the executive assistant to the president. He traveled and it was a two-person office, so I gained a lot of independence and strength and confidence so that I could run his business.
How did you take the step from working in an organization to owning your own business?
The transition actually wasn't difficult. At the end, I was working for Fidelity National Financial and I was attending school and knew that I wanted to do something different. I wasn't real strong in the mortgage industry, so I thought one day they'd realize "she's not supposed to be here." I always took on responsibilities in organizations to help out and learn what I could learn and stepped out on faith.
What degree did you earn?
A bachelor's degree in business administration.
How did you determine Edible Arrangements was the franchise to buy?
I believe, wholeheartedly, that Edible Arrangements found me. I was invited to a networking event. There were three Laurens in the sales department at Fidelity and there was an invitation to a networking event and it was written out to Lauren, so I didn't think it would be me. But the other two couldn't attend, so I went. The owner at that time was the Bartram Park store owner, who brought in six Edible Arrangement bouquets for an African-American student scholarship program that they were offering and they were the prizes. At that time, I was purchasing the client gifts for the CEO of Fidelity, so I thought what a perfect gift.
We have a winery, wine and fruit go perfect, so I brought the brochure back and by the end of the next day, more than five people said, "Are you going to buy this franchise?" Including the CEO of Fidelity National Financial. Bill Foley.
Bill Foley owns wineries in California and elsewhere. Is he a client?
He is. Absolutely.
How did you go about setting up the business? You started about the time the recession was setting in.
I did not realize we were going into a recession. Edible Arrangements has a sales department development team and they help you select an area. I was pretty stubborn and determined that I wanted to be in the Avondale area for personal reasons. I felt like I was going to have all this free time to have lunch with my friends from Fidelity. Well, that didn't really happen.
In Avondale, the businesses have been there for years, so there really wasn't a space for me, but there was a coffee shop where I used to go and I would always tell that owner things that she should do to grow her business. She decided to become a schoolteacher. She called me and said, "I'm going to go out of business. Do you want my space?" That's how I ended up in Avondale.
How about Mandarin?
Mandarin was a different scenario. It was a year and a half after I opened up my first store and that owner was the first owner I saw in Edible Arrangements. She decided it was a lot of work for her and wanted to go back into corporate America. She sold her business back to the corporate office and the CEO personally called and said, "I want you to run this store." I truthfully didn't want to. I had selfish reasons again. I didn't want to cross the Buckman Bridge.
You have to think as a business owner. This is an enterprise. You have to think about long-term. So I took his word as an entrepreneur and leader of our company and said I'll do it.
Do you think that starting a business while the economy was going into a recession gave you an advantage?
I do think that because it did not allow me to rest on my laurels. It made me fight for the business, and I think it gained respect in the business community because it is a lot of work to own and operate a business. I didn't come in when it was easy.
You also were the Women Business Owners of North Florida Franchisee of the Year in 2010. What were some of the questions that you were asked during that process that you didn't expect?
One very important and enlightening question was why I should be selected as the franchise business leader of the year. I didn't nominate myself, so I addressed the committee and I said I think you should ask the people who nominated me. However, some of the strong attributes I have are that I'm from Jacksonville, I graduated from Duval County, from Fletcher High School, I'm an African-American woman business owner, and I'm also a veteran. This is a veteran town, this is a military town. I felt like that was a good representation as a business owner.
How do you use your military training in running a business?
Well, ask my staff. They would say I'm very structured and I'm firm, but fair. I get in there with them; I'm in there with my troops. They know I work just as hard. I've done every job that they've done and that's something you learn in the military. I make sure they're taken care of before I'm taken care of. I meet their needs, something you learn in the military. The thing about being in the military is they teach you early in life, and even though you're 18-19 years old, you're responsible for a lot of people, and a lot of equipment and so you have mentorship early on. I brought that with me into my business.
How extensive is your work? You work every day don't you?
I do. It is an everyday, seven-day-a-week job. But it doesn't feel like work when you enjoy what you're doing. You're always learning. I'm always growing.
Your business sounds like fun because you're dealing with food, you're dealing with fruit, you're dealing with candy, you're creating. Do you make the creations?
I've kind of stepped away from the design side now that I have managers in both of my locations and a strong team, but there are days that I come in and I'm the Bobby Flay, we do the throwdown, we want to see who can beat Lauren in designing.
But I do. I come in and inspect the stores. I spend most of my days reading and researching and marketing and ordering the inventory and doing the payroll, the back-office things. But I'm also at the table if they need me, especially during the holidays, I'm there. I do deliver. I'm in the truck, too.
You delivered one Christmas day?
That was Christmas of 2009. We had so many orders, people wanting our product, so my husband and I decided we'll be open Christmas Day and we brought two trucks to the Mandarin location and we delivered from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a rainy Christmas Day. It was exciting because people were excited to see us. They weren't expecting an Edible Arrangement to come to the door, let alone the owners of the store showing up. We got offered cookies and people wanted to bring us in for lunch. It was just a fun day.
What is the most challenging part of running a small business?
One of the most challenging is finding a balance. I recently adopted a baby girl, but prior to that, I didn't have any children, so I didn't turn it off, I didn't have a reason. You know, I was this "I'm motivated, working the stores." A lot of people say, "Well you don't have children so this should be easy for you to run the business." It can be, but when you have a family, it also gives you a reason to stop and be with family. That was a wake-up call when I had Zoey.
People assume it's a fun place to work, and it can be very fun. I try to make it fun for my staff. We have costumes that we wear, and we show up at the races, we do the health fairs, but it is work.
We have to know the city, we have to be logistically smart, knowing where our trucks are at all times and trying to make the right choices for the customer because a lot of the time with our customers, this is their first time purchasing and it's only what they've seen on the commercial.
That's a challenge, keeping people motivated and understanding that this is a business. It's a small business, but it's a business.
And the most fun?
I think the most fun is to work with the staff. They're really motivated and they enjoy the costumes. My favorite customers are my senior citizens and they just adore you. They are the grandmas that want to make sure you've eaten that day. They've had food delivered to the store because they knew I didn't eat lunch. They call and check on me. They have so much wisdom and a lot of them have businesses. They want to tell you about the business and I make the time to listen because some of the basics of businesses are still business. It hasn't changed much. Technology has changed a lot, but the basics of business are still there, the foundation.
What are those basics?
You have to work hard. You have to believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, then no one else will believe in you.
You have to be honest; you have to have integrity; you have to admit to your mistakes, everyone makes them; and then you should also praise yourself. That's probably the hardest thing, to be proud of what you've accomplished.
Is there a third franchise in the future here?
I would hope so. I've spoken with our corporate office and I would love to do a third location and love to have at least five in Jacksonville, probably within the next two to three years. Jacksonville's growing. It's all about placement. Some of the stores' contracts are about to expire, and (I'm) looking at whether or not they are going to renew their contracts. Maybe (I'll) buy an existing store.
Is the economy a lot better than when you started?
The consumer confidence is there. We're always going to be a little cautious about where we spend our money, but people will always give gifts and it doesn't have to be an elaborate gift. Edible Arrangements has different price points. With the growth of Jacksonville, things are popping up everywhere, people are coming here. There's business here.
What are some of the efforts that you make within the community?
From the onset, we decided that we would never throw away our excess fruit. We donate our excess to the Clara White Mission. I just felt like it wasn't my place to throw it away if somebody was hungry. Studies show that we're about one paycheck shy of being homeless. When I go to the center, it keeps me very grounded.
Edible Arrangements, as a whole, we donate 10 percent of our proceeds to breast cancer research during October.
I always have my staff out when we have races — the Gate River Run, the Marty 5K run — we're out there in costume, donating fruit, passing out oranges to the runners, just cheering the community on.
What's your costume?
I'm known as the chocolate-dipped strawberry, but I've worn them all. You've got to lead by example. When we first got our costumes, a lot of the staff didn't want to wear them. I said I want to wear it! Now they fight for who gets to wear the costume.
Talk about Zoey.
She's the light of my life. My husband and I decided last year that we would adopt a baby, and she came into our world right at Mother's Day this year. We just finished a photo shoot. This time she's a chocolate-dipped strawberry.
I'm not sure if she's going to be the legacy of Edible Arrangements, but I like to think she's kind of like Jacksonville's baby. She's brought me more joy and I think I needed her more than she needs me right now. She's given me the balance that I need.
What else would you like to share?
This has been an amazing six years in the business community in Jacksonville. They didn't know a whole lot about Edible Arrangements and we got the word out about eating healthier.
I like to also think that, in Jacksonville, we have so many resources that help you start your business and continue and grow your business.
You're not alone. You have so many existing business owners and previous business owners and the chamber, the Small Business Development Center, the Small Business Network. You can't say you can't run a business in Jacksonville. You have to try.