Abby is the founder and owner of Cheddar Box, a Waco-based gourmet grilled cheese food truck and Magnolia Market staple. More recently, Abby and her husband also launched Drink, a specialty beverage stand. Abby began experimenting with the idea of Cheddar Box a few years ago. She had no business experience, but with an excited heart and open mind she set to work, and asked Cedar Gandy to assist with the visual branding. Now, two years later, with a second business in tow, I wanted to share with you about Abby’s experiences as a small business owner. Luckily, she was eager to share!
Abby, you are a speech therapist turned small business owner. How did that happen?
I know! So I was a speech therapist for ten years when I started to feel restless. I loved my patients, but I wanted to do something where I had more freedom to choose and make decisions. Speech pathology was a safe option, and I had good job security and there were elements that I loved, like communication and people, but ever since I was a little girl I dreamt of being a business owner. I played shop owner all the time!
One day I was driving though Waco and the word cheddar box popped into my mind. I immediately thought, that sounds like a grilled cheese sandwich! Over the next couple of months I thought a lot about it and someone told me about a grilled cheese truck in Nashville, which sounded pretty cool. So I did a little bit of market research in Waco and opened a farmer’s market stand in 2014.
In 2015, a friend of mine was on the HGTV show Fixer Upper and he coordinated to have us come and cater for them on their last day of filming. We fed the team, including Chip and Jo, and they loved the food and asked if we were interested in being a part of the culinary options at Magnolia Market. At that point I still had a full-time job, but everything aligned, and within a month I quit my job, purchased a food truck with cash, and we opened for business at Silobration!
What part of owning your own business has surprised you the most?
We have such excellent employees. I’ve worked in food service before, primarily during college, and I never encountered the type of people who work for me. Everyone is so invested in the product, the business, and our customers, and they are all so supportive.
It seems like your team has a lot of fun! What is your favorite part about running a small business? Have there been challenges along the way?
The most challenging part of running any business that’s your own is the constant neediness of the business. There is never a week of calm, there’s always something to do! My brain can never turn off because I am constantly thinking through what we need to do differently or better. As for my favorite part, I think it will always be my employees! We really do have so much fun, and I’m grateful to have a team I can really lean into and trust to keep the businesses running excellently. And, of course, our food is a favorite. We’ve been open for two years and I’m still not tired of our food. I crave the macaroni and cheese all the time!
How important is visual branding to the success of a small business?
When we first started one thing always came to mind. I wanted people to walk up to a big ball of sunshine. Cedar Gandy perfectly created what I was envisioning, but then I had second thoughts about the concept. I began to think, what if our employees are the big balls of sunshine instead of the design? And instead customers could approach something more streamlined, clear and clean? So we decided to keep the fonts and colors Haley had come up with, and she created what we have now.
How has the visual branding created by Cedar Gandy impacted or supported your business?
It has made Cheddar Box visually professional and I think people tend to trust businesses that look professional, and as humans we are more drawn to things that are visually inviting. The branding she created is clean and clear, and I think it shows people that we value more than just quality food, but that we value their entire experience.
The menu is full of local favorites as well as specialty items. How do you go about creating menu items?
The majority of our menu items just sort of pop into our heads so we’ll try them out in our test kitchen, and if it tastes good and we are confident, first we let our team try it, then we’ll add it to the menu. Our kitchen manager is also our chef, and he’s amazing! I didn’t have him when we first opened, but now I run all of my ideas by him first to get initial feedback.
Generally, if we have one solid idea we will try it with similar varieties in case we want to switch out items during experimentation. We always ask ourselves: Will customers actually buy this? We have learned that grilled cheese sandwiches are an approachable food, and people are willing to branch out, but not too much! We’ve certainly offered a few that were a little too far out there, but usually our customers like our unique combinations.
You must have a favorite menu item! What is it?
I do! Our grilled macaroni and cheese options, aka Mac Daddies, are amazing. We have three alternating varieties. My current go-to is the Uncle Rico
What is it about Cheddar Box and your role that is continuously gratifying?
Just having a business and being able to put into action the thoughts that are in my head is always gratifying. Plus, I love hospitality and I love people, and I love putting a smile on people’s faces because of the food we’ve provided to them. It’s also powerful to see the promise of God fulfilled through my business. Five years ago I felt called to make money in order to give money. We pay our employees more than they would make at a different food service job and to see the fulfillment of that promise is really awesome!
In addition to Cheddar Box, you recently opened “Drink,” a specialty beverage stand. What sparked this new venture?
Yes! We just launched a second business, which came from a need at Magnolia Market. It’s essentially a drink stand where tokens from Cheddar Box can be redeemed next door at Drink. It offers customers a greater variety of beverages while at the Magnolia Market.
With two businesses and a recent marriage (congrats, by the way!), how do you manage a work-life balance?
Thank you! Honestly, it’s a week-by-week situation. My husband and I both are extremely hard workers. We love to work. Now that we’re setting into life together we are working on how to be better at a work-life balance, and I think it will always be in ebbs and flows, but I always try to take at least one full day off once a week. And our team works hard to make sure our staff does that too.
You’ve said that your employees are your favorite part of owning a business. With 13 employees at Cheddar Box and 8 at Drink, what is the work culture like?
I have learned that whatever I demonstrate to my employees is what they will emulate. Just treating every employee with the respect and honor that they deserve and being committed to conflict resolution and clear and considerate communication is really important to the culture. Every team meeting we will encourage our staff, which we believe will then inspire them to encourage each other. Intentionality is a really big part of what we do. I also believe that there is a time to work and a time to play, and we encourage both!
How would you describe your experience working with Cedar Gandy?
Excellent is the word that comes to mind. Not only does Haley create an excellent product, she’s also excellent at communication, asking clarifying questions and follow-up questions
Would you advise other small business owners to hire out their visual branding?
Yes, absolutely! Don’t try to make your own logos unless you’re a skilled graphic designer. Be willing to spend the money so you can build a brand that can withstand the changes of business. Visual consistency will go a long way for your customers and for you, too. You feel proud of something when it looks cohesive, so be willing to spend the money on visual branding, and if you have to save money in other areas to make it happen, do it!
What general advice do you have for other small business owners?
Surround yourself with good people. If you have a red flag about hiring anyone, don’t hire them. That red flag will come back. Be OK with delegating tasks to other people because if you try to do everything yourself, you may knock a few out of the park, but others will stink. It’s best to identify people’s strengths and delegate tasks to them based on their strengths. It will help keep your business running.