Business Graduate Becomes Successful Restaurateur
Alumna Genefer Thornton got an early start in entrepreneurship while attending the College of Business and Economics
Genefer Thornton’s career as a restaurateur began when she wanted to go out for breakfast.
As she and a friend searched their Denver, Colorado, neighborhood, they struggled to find a family-friendly offering.
“We realized there’s not a lot of places to eat breakfast,” she said.
Thornton ‘00, her husband, Tim, and neighbors Kurt and Sarah Pletcher laughed about the idea of launching their own restaurant. But then Thornton wondered — what if?
This wasn’t the first time the Burley, Idaho native embraced entrepreneurship. As an undergraduate in the University of Idaho’s College of Business and Economics (CBE), Thornton worked with marketing Professor Mike McCollough to create a prototype project for Highlights, an early version of the Vandal Solutions program.
Vandal Solutions is a nonprofit, student-run business that CBE students participate in as an upper-division class. It allows students to apply the skills and concepts learned in class to a real business. For her project, Thornton created a secret shopper program she tested on Moscow businesses.
“I had a standard set of forms and went around to local businesses so they could see how their employees were treating their customers,” she said. “I put the whole thing together, went out, got about six different businesses and I did multiple visits and the write-ups.”
A New Adventure
After graduating from U of I in 2000, Thornton worked at the Johnson Space Center, received her MBA from Rice University and started a career as a finance and cost analyst for the Air Force and the Navy.
She met her husband, Tim, in business school. They were living in Washington, D.C. when they wanted to start a family, but didn’t want to raise children in the district. The two ended up in Denver — halfway between Burley and Tim’s hometown of Kansas City.
Opening a restaurant was a new challenge for the two couples, but as the daughter of entrepreneurs and small-business owners, Thornton felt up to it.
“I learned from my mom and dad and grandpa and grandma, you can’t expect anyone else to do something if you won’t do it yourself,” she said. “I washed dishes, I scrubbed the floors; you have to be able to do anything you ask someone to do.”
After putting together a business plan, it was a two-year process to buy land, build a building, hire a staff and create a menu.
The restaurant, Four Friends Kitchen, opened in the Stapleton area of Denver in March 2015, serving Southern-style breakfast, chosen because Thornton’s grandmother is from Georgia.
“I grew up on grits and fried chicken, that’s what breakfast is to me,” she said. “Breakfast is Southern to me. The other partners liked that too.”
Denver is a hard market, Thornton said, but the business partners persevered and opened a second location in Denver’s University neighborhood in September 2017.
“People brunch like nobody else,” she said. “It can’t just be good food — it has to be a great atmosphere.”
Thornton said there were plenty of challenges during the soft opening of the first Four Friends location — computers weren’t programmed correctly and they ran out of paper for receipts.
“It was one thing after another,” she said. “It was awful. When the last person left, I literally almost broke down. But we regrouped, bought paper and opened two days later.”
Teaching Real-World Skills
Vandal Solutions, and its predecessor programs, helps students like Thornton the skills they need to succeed in the business world.
“Students learn in Vandal Solutions that nothing but their very best will do,” McCollough said. “We’ve got to deliver to these shops exactly how we said we were going to. They learn to set goals and to achieve those goals, and that when you have a setback, you have to overcome that.”
Thornton also used elements of her secret shopper program from school.
“I had people in our community come in and do a similar secret shopper. I’d give them a certain day and say, ‘Just go in and see if they tell you what the special is,’” she said.
She said this program helped her ensure customers were getting a quality experience, whether she was in the restaurant or not. That type of attention to detail is critical to success, McCollough said.
“Retail is detail,” McCollough said. “They force students to pay attention to things they wouldn’t notice. Most people would not walk into a restaurant and notice that all the tables are clean, the front doors are clean. You would only notice those things in absence. You need to notice those things before they fail. It teaches my students to have a sharp eye.”
Article by Tess Fox, University Communications & Marketing