Finalist, Up to $2 million | 2019 revenue: $1.7 million
Howland “Howdy” Russell had a three-decade career growing restaurant chains and franchise businesses before opening Jumpin’ Jax House of Food in 2017, but he’d never built a concept from scratch.
“I needed a restaurant that I could replicate, that I could build to my initial goal which was a three-store chain,” Russell said. “Everything I was doing from June 2016 forward was built around getting to three stores within five years.”
Russell succeeded. Jumpin’ Jax opened its first location in Mandarin in June 2017, a second in January 2019 in Atlantic Beach and the third in January at 20 W. Adams St. Downtown.
His fast-casual chain specializes in burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, chicken, pizza, salads, wraps, sides, shakes and malts.
“The first store is proving the concept, the second store is duplicating the concept and the third store is when you establish the benefits of having a group of stores,” he said. “That’s the mantra we have going forward.”
An “Army brat from Texas,” Russell, 59, began managing restaurants in 1982 but ventured into selling memberships for the New England Health Racquet Sportsclub Association, a job that brought him to Orange Park in 1987.
Mike Schneider, co-founder of The Loop Pizza Grill, hired him in 1990 as a management trainee after Russell called and told Schneider: “I need to come to work with you. I just had a burger and I loved it.”
“He was the best boss I ever had,” Russell said. “He was trustworthy, smart, fun, funny, had a good concept and didn’t blow in the wind. He stayed very solid.”
Russell left The Loop as director of operations in 1994, followed by a stint in development for Larry’s Giant Subs and then the management training program at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, where he gained most of his perspective about running a restaurant chain.
When Paul Davis Restoration Inc. approached him to improve profitability, Russell left the restaurant business for nearly 20 years.
He returned in 2014, buying into Maple Street Biscuit Company, selling back in 2016 and then scouting locations for Jumpin’ Jax.
COVID-19 changed his operational model, but by June 7, he exceeded sales recorded the week before the pandemic closed nonessential businesses. He projects sales of almost $2.5 million this year, up from last year.
Russell said the restaurant has “a mentality of survival,” including exploring expansion opportunities in West Jacsksonville and Clay and St. Johns counties.