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When Sarah Lookingbill, now-owner of the Leland, North Carolina Shuckin’ Shack restaurant, began working for the seafood franchise, it was a one-location concept. She would joke with the team that if they ever began franchising, she would love to be a corporate trainer, but in 2008, this wasn’t necessarily on the minds of the leadership team. Nearly a decade later, when the brand began franchising, she did indeed become a corporate trainer, and a few years after that, she opened her own location.

“I would make that joke about franchising because the original location, in my mind, was such a mini goldmine,” said Lookingbill. “Then, about eight or nine years later, they approached me and said, ‘Remember that conversation? We’ve been approached by someone about franchising. Would you want to be the front-of-house trainer?’ I said ‘Let’s do this,’ and I was the trainer for the first 10 stores opened.”

As Lookingbill navigated this journey, her husband Mike was working in the technology space. He began to feel that the industry was not going in a direction he wanted to be a part of, and he proposed that the duo open their own Shuckin’ Shack.

“At first, I was like, ‘No! That’s crazy!’” recalled Lookingbill. “I had been in the restaurant business forever, and I knew what all goes into it. But, long story short, we talked about it some more, and I realized that I definitely knew what I was doing after having opened 10 Shacks. So we decided to take the leap of faith.”

Once Lookingbill made the decision to become a Franchise Owner, she began transitioning out of her role as corporate trainer. She and the team agreed that they wanted everyone to be set up for success, and it would not be feasible for her to launch a new restaurant and continue working full-time on the corporate team while giving her all to both ventures. 

A New Mom Launches a Restaurant, Builds Community and Navigates Pandemic

After making the decision to pursue ownership, Lookingbill and her husband got right to work. She explained that she was pregnant for the majority of the planning process, which included building the Shack from the ground up. 

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” she remembered.

But, after a careful preparation process and successful launch, Lookingbill said things were running smoothly. Having been involved in the industry for years, she knew that the first few years of ownership would be demanding, and the team had just begun feeling very solid in the business when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“Let me tell you: opening a restaurant with a baby — that was easy. We missed her because we were at work a lot, but she was a baby, she slept all the time,” she explained. “Owning and managing a restaurant through COVID with a toddler was not so easy.”

After braving two hurricanes and a pandemic in their first few years of operation, Lookingbill said that they managed to keep the restaurant afloat by taking advantage of business-related support options available to them and continuing to connect with the community.

From the very beginning, the Lookingbills were present at the restaurant every day, and this allowed them to see and connect with their growing customer base from day one. Community members saw the pair working hard in the Shack, were able to spend time getting to know them and even teamed up to sponsor charitable efforts together.

“We have one guest who lost her son to pediatric cancer, and we started a fundraiser with her,” said Lookingbill. “This was right after we opened the doors, so we didn’t really have the funds, but we started the first year with a cornhole tournament. Maybe 20 people showed up. The last event we had with her hosted almost 100 people. It’s about starting something, following through and being present with the community.”

Lookingbill recognizes the connections made through these types of guest relationships and respect gained from other community members who take note of their involvement as key drivers for the restaurant’s continued success alongside her “can’t fail” attitude.

Entering Her Seventh Year of Business and a Lifetime of Freedom and Flexibility

Now, going into year seven of operating her Shuckin’ Shack, Lookingbill said she’s proud to have built the business to a place that allows her to take a step back and celebrate her achievements. Because of business ownership, she is able to be present for her now-early-elementary aged daughter, taking her to and from school and being there for any extracurriculars.

“We’re now at a point where we can watch the fruits of our hard labor. Restaurant businesses aren’t simple, so people need to realize that there are a lot of moving parts,” she explained. “But the opposite end is that if you do your hard work, get involved in your community and find managers you can trust, you can be successful and have more freedom in terms of when, where and how much you work.”

Reflecting on her years of ownership with Shuckin’ Shack, Lookingbill said that the support of the corporate team has been instrumental throughout the entire process. Whether it’s help with marketing strategy, social media awareness or product sourcing, she can count on the team to provide support and expertise when she needs it.

“There are certain things that I can say, ‘Okay, I don’t have to worry about that.’ There’s always a team member cheering me on and making sure that I’m doing the right thing,” she explained. “If X, Y and Z are working, they’re going to encourage me to keep it up, and if something isn’t working for some reason, they’ll propose something else to try. Having someone in your corner who knows exactly what needs to happen to make sure that you’re successful is priceless.”

By Morgan Wood

1851 Franchise Contributor | Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar PR Partner

Learn more about franchise opportunities here: https://shuckinshackfranchise.com/