Heart of the Entrepreneur: The Stratmans & Qdoba
David Vincent | Photographer
THE STRATMANS came to Topeka when Chuck was stationed here as a member of the 190th Air Refueling Group in the Kansas Air National Guard. Chuck moved into commercial work as a pilot for American Airlines; Joy was a CPA. In 2005, the airline business seemed to be changing, and the couple started thinking about opening up their own business.
“Quite a few airlines were going bankrupt, and pilots were losing their pensions,” Chuck said. “My wife and I looked at each other and said, I think it’s time for plan “B” in case our company ends up going bankrupt.”
The couple had bounced around the idea of being in the restaurant business for a number of years. They had both worked in food service when they were younger. In fact, when Chuck met Joy, she was a waitress in a bar.
As they investigated potential restaurant options, one of their four sons, who lived in Illinois, suggested the relatively new fresh food, casual quick service restaurant business, QDOBA. The Stratmans liked the company’s corporate culture, and the company was looking for franchisees that were not traditionally from the restaurant business.
"For us personally, the fact that everything was fresh was very important,” Chuck said. “The company was transparent, and unlike some other brands, one-third of the system is owned by the corporation. They have a lot invested in their own brand. That was a big deal to us.”
The Stratmans also felt Topeka was ripe for the fast casual concept QDOBA offers.
“With fast casual becoming a major segment of the restaurant space, we brought that to Topeka and Northeast Kansas, and our guests have come out and enjoyed the concept,” Chuck said.
The couple opted to bring their third son into the business. Danny Stratman was just 20-years-old and had actually already signed up to go to boot camp and join the Air Force when his parents decided to open the QDOBA franchise.
“They came in and asked if I wanted to run their store,” Danny said. “We called the recruiter and cancelled before I went any further with the Air Force, and I told them I would give it a shot.”
The start of the business went well, but during the first few years, there was a learning curve to get over.
Then Joy got sick.
She was diagnosed with pleomorphic sarcoma, a rare cancer. A year into her treatment, doctors discovered she had a tumor wrapped around her spine. Joy and Chuck decided to move to Houston to seek treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Danny took over the store.
“He pretty much single handedly ran that business by himself,” Chuck said.
The business started booming, but at the same time, Joy lost her battle to cancer. She died in May of 2012. The family had been considering expanding into new locations at that point. Joy and Chuck had already made several field trips to Manhattan to see potential sites.
Now, the family had to decide what was next.
“Mom's death hit us hard, and we had to figure out what we wanted to do, if we wanted to do more stores,” Danny explained.
The family decided to continue forward. They opened a second store in Junction City in 2013, a Manhattan location in 2014 and a K-State Union store in 2016. They are currently looking at expanding to a second store location in Topeka.
“At first, it was a little rough adjusting,” Danny said. “Mom was the rock of the family, for sure. She kept everyone together. Losing her was a real hardship. My dad and I had to figure out how to run the business without having to worry about father-son stuff, but we did that really well, and I think it really brought us close together.”
They have also grown the “family” part of their family operation. Chuck is the owner/operator. Danny serves as Operations Partner. Danny’s younger brother, Drew, has come into the business as the Regional Manager. Danny’s wife, Katie, works on marketing and payroll and Drew’s wife, Liz, is the office manager.
The family has become really close by working together, but they have to work to keep family and business separate.
“We’ve had to have this really concerted effort that we do not bring the father-son dynamic into our business discussions. That is probably where family businesses can get into trouble,” Chuck said.
Danny says he thinks being a familyowned business makes all the difference in the quality they offer to customers, even if customers do not always realize QDOBA is locally owned.
“We run the business as local. That is a big pride maker for me, as well as going to the corporate events and being an above average operation,” Danny said. “We own four stores, so we can’t be in every store all the time, but I think it makes a world of difference to be locally owned because we can help our managers and staff in little ways. Our customers love seeing the owners in the store, too.”
Overall, the family experience of owning a string of QDOBA restaurants has been hard work, but Danny says it is worth it—even the long hours.
“We work hard. I never thought I would be doing this, rolling burritos and being an owner on top of that,” Danny said. “There’s always work to be done, but I’m very fortunate for what my parents set us up with. When you like what you’re doing, those long hours don’t seem quite so long.”