Meet Young Entrepreneur Chris LaCoe of Hwy 55
After finding great success with Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries, Chris LaCoe gives back to Brunswick County in many ways. Meet the young entrepreneur who’s sponsoring this year’s CIS Gala.
Chris LaCoe dreamed of going into business while growing up in the Warsaw/Kenansville/Mount Olive area of North Carolina. As he worked on hog farms, cropped tobacco, baled hay and picked vegetables in the fields, he knew it wasn’t the kind of work he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“Try doing 80 hours per week of farm labor,” he says. “It doesn’t get any tougher than that.”
College was the logical place to get training in business management, so LaCoe entered Mount Olive College but spent as much time as possible associating with successful businessmen. He read the same magazines they did and discussed the same topics. After 18 months at Mount Olive, he transferred to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, but his professors weren’t telling him what the business community said. One semester later, he left and came back home, ready to establish his career.
LaCoe decided to take a direct route and ask Kenny Moore for a job. In 1991 Moore founded Andy’s Burgers, Shakes & Fries, the ’50s-themed restaurant chain now based in Mount Olive. At the time there were 13 restaurants and the chain was continuing to grow. Moore listened to LaCoe’s request and hired him.
“I started out on the fries,” LaCoe says. “I loved it.”
He worked in the Clinton Andy’s and became the manager after nine months. After a year and a half, he worked in the corporate office and then was offered an opportunity to buy the proposed Richlands Andy’s.
LaCoe discussed the investment with his parents, Don and Marian, and they agreed to be partners in the business. Marian quit her teaching position at North Duplin Elementary School and came to work in the restaurant while Don continued to work at the hog operations of what is now Murphy-Brown LLC, the world’s largest producer of pork products.
At 24 years old, LaCoe poured all of his efforts into making the Richlands Andy’s successful and learned that the restaurant business is all-consuming. With the restaurant open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, he says he had to put his social life on hold. He couldn’t attend family gatherings, go to parties and concerts or relax with friends.
“The restaurant is your life,” he says. “You are to work it 24/7.”
It took six years of 70 to 80 hour weeks to reap the benefits, but he liked the business so much that during that time he opened nine more Andy’s restaurants. At different points through the years, his older brother and younger sister have also been part of the business. Over the course of the 19 years, LaCoe has been associated with the chain and owned 14 restaurants. He has sold all but three; the ones in Shallotte, Leland and Surf City.
“Whenever I’ve had good people work for me, I sold a store to them,” he says. “If you want to be a manager, it’s 60 to 80 hours a week for two to three years. Nobody else is selling businesses to 23 year olds.”
LaCoe says that he assists the buyer with financing his or her first restaurant.
“I’ve been blessed,” he says. “I found good kids who worked hard and stayed out of trouble. You have to adhere to the standards we had in place.”
His goal is to teach the new owners the process of making the business successful without going through as much work as he did.
“I’m trying to teach them to work smarter,” he says.
About two years ago, when Moore decided to expand the Andy’s Burgers, Shakes & Fries franchise outside of North Carolina, he had to obtain a federal trademark. It turns out another Andy’s name was already trademarked, so rather than deal with the legal battle, Moore changed the name of the Andy’s franchise to Hwy 55. The name came from a North Carolina state highway that connects Durham to the coast and winds through several small towns.
“Hwy 55 is the road that goes in front of the corporate office,” LaCoe says. “There are 13 or 14 restaurants on it.”
LaCoe, 38, became a Master Franchisee when he and a business partner bought the rights to build 100 restaurants in South Carolina. Myrtle Beach, Murrells Inlet, Lexington and Irmo have Hwy 55 restaurants. LaCoe’s longer term goal is to buy the Master Franchisee rights to Colorado and do the same thing there. Leland native Bridget Brodie, Hwy 55 supervisor of N.C. operations, will partially own the Colorado rights.
“She has worked hard and deserves the right to be part of that,” says LaCoe.
With a keen business sense, LaCoe is always looking for ways to expand his ventures. An avid surfer and beach lover, he and a partner founded Odysea Surf and Kiteboarding School in Carolina Beach. When he was asked to help at-risk children learn to surf, he didn’t hesitate.
“Most had never been in a pool or been to the ocean,” he says.
Seeing the children’s excitement about the sport and the lessons made LaCoe want to do more, so he co-founded the local nonprofit organization Ocean Cure, a 501(c)3.
He also works with the Wounded Warrior Project, Little Pink Houses of Hope and Communities In Schools (CIS) of Brunswick County. He has been on the CIS board for three years and is presenting sponsor for the 12th annual Gala on October 24, 2013 a “Taste of Brunswick County Hollywood Charity Night,” at the Dinah E. Gore Fitness and Aquatics Center at Brunswick Community College.
“Chris is a quiet, hard worker,” says Joan Madsen, past president of the CIS board. “He doesn’t profess to be all-knowing and he is very loyal to Communities In Schools.”
“Isn’t he amazing?” says Cynthia Tart, executive director of CIS. “When he walks in a room, his presence lights it up. He is modest about what he does. He is a genuine philanthropist. You know you’re going to be a better person by knowing him. You feel good that you met him.”
Tart explains that no matter what she asks LaCoe to do for CIS, he is available to discuss her concerns and help in any way he can.
“He is a wealth of leadership walking around,” she says. “He is a phenomenal businessman.”
And LaCoe has finally found time to pursue his personal interests. He plays golf as often as possible, goes to the beach and participates in triathlons.
“That’s kind of my new hobby,” he says.
He has made other changes in his life as well. He married Kristen Brahosky on November 3, 2012, and she will have their baby in March 2014. He met Kristen, a Jacksonville, N.C., native, 10 years ago when she was an employee at one of his restaurants. He and Kristen will be greeting people at the CIS Gala on October 24.
“He is going to do so many good things in his life. He is a very giving person,” Tart says.
Attend the Communities in Schools Gala
What: Brunswick County Communities in Schools’ 12th annual Benefit Gala for Children “Taste of Brunswick County” and Hollywood Charity Night
When: October 24, 2013 from 6 to 10 p.m.
Where: Dinah E. Gore Fitness and Aquatics Center at Brunswick Community College
Tickets and info: cisbrunswick.org/events