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Destination wedding in Maui leads to second careers

Released: Thursday, February 16, 2017

How a Hawaii celebration led to a $40,000 franchise agreement

Two years ago, Wes and Mendee Thomas couldn’t have imagined their careers today.
The newlyweds and Crane natives became entranced with the idea of opening their own Hawaiian-themed business after their July 2014 destination wedding in Maui sparked a franchise interest.


Mendee and Wes Thomas, franchisees for Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees and Smoothies, cover games and special events at JQH Arena.
“Everyone has the aloha spirit. Everyone is just very nice and friendly,” Mendee Thomas said of the Hawaiian attitude the couple discovered.
“I decided I wasn’t coming home ... but that wasn’t realistic for us. So when we came home, we started looking at Hawaiian-themed businesses.”
Research led them to pursue a franchise with Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees and Smoothies, which has 450 franchise operations in 48 states and six countries. The brand works with brick and mortar stores and mobile Polynesian-style carts operated by franchisees.
The Thomases represent a large group of entrepreneurs injecting life into second careers through a franchise venture.
According to the International Franchise Association, nearly 800,000 franchises operate in the United States, up 1.7 percent in 2015 compared to 2014.
IFA estimates franchise employment increased 3 percent last year, and franchise output grew 5.6 percent to $892 billion. The IFA projects the same growth trends in 2016.
John Reynolds, president of the Franchise Education & Research Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the Washington, D.C.-based IFA, said franchisees are from all ages and backgrounds, but they typically have one goal in mind.
“In a word: independence,” he said. “One of the things that is appealing and exciting about going into business for yourself, you are taking that independent step. You’re not relying on your employer anymore for that paycheck. You’re not answering to anyone but yourself, and what you put into the business, you get out of it.”
Mendee Thomas, a former 13-year veteran at AT&T in Springfield, originally planned to lead the effort, and Wes would keep his six-year position in financing at Gary Wood Chrysler Dodge Jeep Inc. in Aurora. But there was much to plan, and it was a physical job – the carts weigh about 700 pounds – so their vision didn’t come together in the immediate shadow of the honeymoon.
“The timing wasn’t right. We weren’t ready to make a leap,” she said.
But corporate burnout was nagging them.
“We just kind of felt like we had hit the ceiling, and we had too much drive to be satisfied being employees,” said Mendee Thomas, who worked as a U-verse sales executive at the time.
The couple kept going back to Maui Wowi – to the idea they could run a business together.
“We liked the fact there were different business models, so it wasn’t just that you’d have to go out and open a storefront. It was more flexible,” she said. “It didn’t cost a whole lot to get started.
“We could get started with just one mobile unit.”
The Thomases signed a roughly $40,000 franchise agreement in April and bought one mobile unit – a tiki bar cart with a surfboard sign and equipment to make drinks on the fly for around $30,000.
In June, they started working events, and by summer, they’d purchased their second cart – a refurbished one this time for about $10,000. Their franchise agreement permits up to three mobile units.
The company, they said, doesn’t collect fees from their revenue but takes a 12 percent marketing fee off of product purchases from its select vendors.
“We got a contract with JQH Arena, and so we wanted to leave one there and take another one to events,” Mendee Thomas said of the first cart. “We do all the women’s basketball games; we do all the concerts. Basically, if the doors are open there, we are  there.”
The next contract was signed with Branson Landing, Wes Thomas said. The couple worked four weekends in Branson last year, and now expect to set up all summer near Waxy O’Shea’s Irish Pub.
“We don’t want the overhead. We’re just keeping it simple,” he said of their event- based model.
For example, with the Thomases’ exclusive rights to JQH, no one else could start a Maui Wowi franchise and work a cart in the arena unless JQH officials wanted a second cart. In that case, if the Thomases couldn’t meet the demand, another franchisee would have the option. Currently, they’re the only Maui Wowi franchisees in Missouri.
“The closest ones are in Kansas City, Kan., and Little Rock, Ark.,” Wes Thomas said.
The couple plans to cover events up to three hours away, depending on the earnings potential. They declined to disclose revenues but said 2016 sales are expected to easily pass $100,000.
“We don’t starve,” she said, before her husband added, “It could always be more, but the bills are paid, and we’re having fun.”
The couple met in high school but hadn’t talked for 20 years before discovering a few years ago they lived down the block from each other.
Now, they’re learning what works in the franchise model – sports and concerts over festivals and fairs – and also all the communication aspects of being marital and business partners.
“From loading things up together, to talking about bills and finances, to trying to decide how much product to buy or what events we’re going to be at, we’ve really had to learn how to communicate better with each other,” she said.
Some days are 12-14 hours, especially when traveling. And even days off can be long. “We can spend all day long on the phone looking for events, calling planners, calling schools, talking to wrestling clubs and trying to find gymnastics tournaments and figuring out what happens at what time of year,” Mendee Thomas said.
Franchise expert Reynolds said that’s the norm.
“I said independent; I didn’t say easy,” he said with a laugh.


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