Former Waitress, Tells How Becoming Credit Savvy Helped Her Build Chain

By Donna Gehrke-White
Sun Sentinel.

Toula Amanna started as a waitress in 1979 at the Hallandale Beach restaurant she now owns.

After noticing that diners tended to succeed while trendy restaurants often failed, Amanna bought the restaurant where she had started as a teenage immigrant from Greece.

She relied first on credit cards and loans from her family to begin transforming the business into the Flashback Diner. After that, she graduated into a loan from her landlord. Then she obtained Small Business Administration loans and applied to cities for Community Reinvestment Act loans and grants.

As CEO, she now has two other Flashback Diners in Davie and Boca Raton. In 2012, the city of Deerfield Beach chose Amanna to operate what became the Deerfield Beach Café at the city’s remodeled pier.

Amanna is scheduled to speak at the invitation-only Chase Bank’s Women Business Symposia on Tuesday at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood. She plans to talk about a range of subjects, including entrepreneurship, obtaining loans and managing staffs.

Amanna recently answered five questions from the Sun Sentinel:

Q: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

A: I was always intrigued with purchasing land and building, inventing a concept with all the creative work that thrills me and the people-oriented/job-creation aspect and materializing a viable business based on the least amount of financial risk. At the time, I was enrolled in Florida International University, working towards a Computer Science degree, but my interests took me into the Restaurant/Real Estate Development business when I tried to reinvent the restaurant I worked at initially as a server. I was hooked after when I saw the immediate measurable financial results that a solid business plan can bring. It was fun.

Q: Looking back, what would you do differently? What went better than expected?

A: What I would do differently now is to build a team that compliments each other and each member does not think like the rest. Now I seek the different element that a newcomer brings in the management team that we do not currently have. For example, a younger manager would have the Social Media aspect mastered and the older manager knows the rules, laws and regulations better.

What went better than expected was the surprise that financing is readily available for trusted entrepreneurs. Once I proved that I was creditworthy, investors and financial institutions were offering me funds to expand.

Q: What do you look for in an employee?

A: The requirements are the big THREE: Ability to evolve, good character and self accountability.
The phrases that I like to hear from the management team are:
1. “Yes, I can change that and try something new”
2. “Circumstances are within my power always and I will correct the situation.”
3. “My staff did a great job and I finished early. Does anyone else need help?”

Q:. How have loans helped you in your business?

A: I started with $20,000 in borrowed money from my credit cards and family to use as working capital. I ended up borrowing more from the same sources when things did not go well in the beginning. I thought I could do better under a different concept so I approached the landlord and asked for a loan to renovate the building. Leon Brauser, the landlord at our Hallandale location, took a gamble on me. He also gave me valuable advice on how to handle my debt. It paid off for both of us as sales increased 400 percent over what we had before! It was through him that I learned the value of having a business mentor.

Then I wanted to buy the building. I obtained a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration that finances the land, construction and/or renovation of the building and equipment for an owner-operator with only 10 percent down.

Every city has Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) loan and grant programs. I have used the programs in both Davie and Hallandale Beach with remarkable results — not only for the beautification of the neighborhood but also in our profit statements.

Q: What are challenges that came up you never expected? What did you do? What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?

A: In spite of all the research I do when I enter a new market, I still have some components that I miss — even after I check the demographics and commission studies on the market, the menu and the fashion trends. Even after, I study the community and become thoroughly involved with it. But the competition has also made the same studies and moves — and is ready to do the same across the street. But you do not know about each other’s plans. You must visit and talk to people that are in the same business as you and be friendly.

I believe in COOPETITION (competition and cooperation). I never forget that the person who helps other worthy people get what they want is the real winner in business.

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