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On Sexy Salad caterers' plate? Documentation

John and Lisa Robertson, co-owners of the Sexy

John and Lisa Robertson, co-owners of the Sexy Salad Catering Co., have started to formalize policy and procedures in an effort to grow their Hauppauge business. (Oct. 11, 2013) Credit: Heather Walsh

Last year was a wake-up call for John Robertson, president of the Sexy Salad Catering Co. in Hauppauge.

When Robertson had the business appraised, the valuation came in lower than he anticipated. Part of the problem: The appraiser felt the business couldn't run without him.

"He said 'It's all you,'" recalled Robertson, 50, who had to prove otherwise.

For the past decade, John and his wife, Lisa, who is also co-owner, have been busy growing the business, but along the way they hadn't formally documented many of the processes and procedures integral to its daily operations. They didn't have written job descriptions, training manuals, or even many of their recipes in written form.

Lacking this kind of structure can inhibit the future growth of a business, but for many smaller entrepreneurs it's not uncommon, said experts.

Step back from day-to-day

"I think small-business owners, particularly in this economy, really get pulled into the day-to-day operations," said Christine Ippolito, a principal at Compass Workforce Solutions LLC, a Melville-based human resources consulting firm that's been working with the Robertsons. "Instead of running the business . . . oftentimes they become a worker."

To add value to a business, "you really need to have the internal operations documented," noted Ippolito. Documentation helps if you're seeking financing, and it also creates more value if you're looking to sell because buyers want to see that the business can thrive without you, she said. It also makes it easier to expand with added locations, because it helps ensure consistent quality.

So at the beginning of this year, the Robertsons set out to create that documentation.

Their first order of business was bringing on a team of advisers that included Ippolito, as well as a new accounting firm and law firm to provide the added guidance they need to get to the next level.

Over the past six months they've invested more than $75,000 to formalize policies and procedures, including updating their employee handbook and job application form, and creating written job descriptions, training videos, a new-hire checklist and a formal "onboarding" process for new hires.

This summer they also documented all their recipes on laminated sheets that include a breakdown of costs and profits. They're in the midst of trying to get their bestselling, signature salad, "The Earth Angel," trademarked. And they're installing new point-of-purchase terminals that will automate each order. Previously, employees hand wrote orders.

"We hope to get people in and out much faster," said Lisa Robertson, who also serves as vice president. "We'll be able to serve that many more customers."

Also, they may want to open another location, and documenting the processes and procedures will make it that much easier, she said.

Investing for growth

"We're investing for the future," added John, who said the changes have also given them more free time outside of the business.

Going forward, they'll reconfigure the store's layout to allow for better flow at busy times and also will be offering pre-order forms for custom salads and online ordering. The Robertsons do both walk-in business as well as catering from their menu of soups, salads and panini.

"I want to be able to go from 350 salads a day to 700, because it's that much more efficient," said John, who hopes to increase revenues by $300,000 next year.

Ippolito said they're taking the right steps to put that in motion, noting, "John and Lisa have very much embraced the whole process."

The changes will be mostly "back end," or behind the scenes and not visible to customers, many of whom are longtime regulars.

"I get my breakfast here and lunch," said Lou Fuoco, managing partner of Fuoco Group, a Hauppauge-based accounting firm, who travels to Long Island one week every month from the firm's Florida office. "If it was open for dinner, I'd be here for dinner."

The Robertsons hope to one day mirror the Hauppauge location's success.

"We hope to have 10 stores within 10 years," said John.

At a glance

Name: Sexy Salad Catering Co., Hauppauge

Co-owners: John and Lisa Robertson

Employees: 17

Annual revenues: About $1.5 million

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