John "Pops" Capers, the owner of Pop's Family Kitchen, knows his way around a restaurant. He started working at his uncle’s barbecue in Tennessee when he was only 8 years old.
“I had to work my way up by starting on chopping wood for the smoker,” he remembers. He then learned to build fires, cut meat, mix rubs, and, eventually cook. Meanwhile, he was helping prepare weekly Sunday dinners for 25 family members alongside other his mom, grannies, aunties, and other masters of the culinary arts. “It was tons of food,” he laughs. “Like Thanksgiving dinner every week.”
When it came time to open his own restaurant, he hit the ground running. He invested his life savings in remodeling an old Domino’s restaurant, relying on his landlord to get the rest of the building up to code.
The landlord didn’t.
After only three months in business, with his savings depleted, Capers was forced to close the first iteration of Pop’s Family Kitchen.
“It broke us down,” he says. “I had saved and saved, invested everything. We struggled for the next two to three years. We were almost homeless.”
Years later, Capers is ready to dip his toes back into business but knows he has to do things differently. He started by talking to John Hart, Development Director for the City of Battle Creek’s Small Business Development Office who introduced him to Justin Andert, a business coach at Northern Initiatives. Capers enrolled in their FastTrac Business Planning course offered for free, thanks to support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The classes are designed for entrepreneurs in the idea stage of forming a business.
"We want to make sure people are not only successful, but maybe, if they have an idea that won’t work, they won’t have to go through any hardships of attempting a business that isn’t viable,” said Andert.
The course is open to any entrepreneur in the Battle Creek area and Northern Initiatives hopes to offer similar courses in other cities soon. There’s also a four-week Business Bootcamp for early-stage entrepreneurs.
"It builds confidence in people, teaches them what they should and shouldn’t do, including common mistakes we can help people avoid,” said Andert.
Cohort members learn about market research, pricing strategies, distribution and sales, and financial management, and finish the course with a pitch presentation – and most importantly, a business plan.
“As they say,” says Capers, “the waters are deeper than they look.”
He was astounded by what he learned, lessons he continually refers to now that he’s getting his business up and running.
“The profit sheet! I still go back and review that. And guess what? I’m never not making a profit now.”
Andert worked with Capers to get a $5,000 startup grant that helped him buy jars, shrink wrap, a heat gun, kitchen supplies, and food inventory. “It’s getting me ahead so I can jump ahead and stay ahead,” Capers says of the grant.
Andert also helped Capers get into a commercial kitchen at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, and get started building a brand name for Pop’s Family Kitchen – operating as a Ghost Kitchen to start. Capers is bottling BBQ sauce and blending rubs that he’ll sell at events and on his website, as well as catering meals for tailgate picnics and other events. He’s working with the MSU Product Center on the shelf stability of his product and has a science teacher helping him scale up recipes. Plus, he’s the assistant varsity football coach for Comstock High School. His players from his earlier football teams call him Pop because he's seen as a father-like figure to his players, henceforth the name for his business was born.
And cooking is still a family endeavor, Capers says. He and his wife are always working, plus six of their kids who live in the area are always helping, and bringing their kids.
Northern Initiatives lends money, but that’s only part of their mission. Capers exemplifies the other half of the CDFI’s tagline, “Money and Know-How.”
“This isn’t a job. It’s what I was born to do,” he says.