Urban Cookhouse’s David and Andrea Snyder are concept creators, not just restaurant owners

Urban Cookhouse’s David and Andrea Snyder are concept creators, not just restaurant owners
Andrea and David Snyder have built new dining concepts. (Brandon Robbins/Alabama Retailer)

In a single decade, David and Andrea Snyder will have launched two dining concepts and opened six restaurants as owners.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said David, who with his wife founded Urban Cookhouse and Farm Bowl + Juice Co.

The Snyders opened the first Urban Cookhouse, a farm-to-fire-to-table, fast-casual restaurant, in Homewood in June 2010.

“Before Urban Cookhouse was even financially comfortable, I was approached and offered The Summit location,” which opened in November 2011 at the lifestyle center off U.S. 280, David said. While the Snyders now own a licensee group that includes the Homewood, Summit, downtown Birmingham and Tuscaloosa locations, Urban Cookhouses can also be found in three other Alabama cities as well as four other states.

The Snyders’ newest concept, Farm Bowl + Juice Co., specializes in acai berry and oatmeal bowls as well as cold-pressed juices and smoothies. They launched that brand in January 2018 in the same building with their relocated and expanded Homewood Urban Cookhouse. By November 2018, the Snyders had added another Farm Bowl + Juice Co. next to their Tuscaloosa Urban Cookhouse, which they had opened two years earlier.

David and Andrea Snyder founded Urban Cookhouse and Farm Bowl + Juice Co. (Brandon Robbins/Alabama Retailer)

While the restaurants are separate businesses, “we build them together,” said Andrea. “It is just easier to manage as a dual concept from capital expenditures to the build out, to management.”

Plan for volume

From the beginning, the Snyders never thought small.

“When you get the real estate, you’ve taken the first step,” David said. “When I set up the initial business, I planned for a lot of volume. I didn’t necessarily think that it was all going to come, but I said, ‘If I’m going to serve 1,000 people a day, how am I going to lay out my kitchen to make that happen?’”

Andrea echoes her husband’s advice to entrepreneurs: “Think big. Instead of investing in one register, invest in three to move more people through the line. Invest in the things on the front end that are going to allow you to grow and do the volume.”

The buildings that house both an Urban Cookhouse and a Farm Bowl + Juice Co. have drive-thrus and outdoor spaces. The Farm Bowls also come equipped with swings and abstract murals used regularly as backgrounds for social media posts.

“First impressions are everything,” said Andrea. “It is hard to go back and brand yourself. We like to make that investment, do it right from the get-go and know we gave it our all.”

Farm inspired

David’s paternal grandfather farmed for nearly 50 years in Coker, a small community northwest of Tuscaloosa. Andrea’s grandparents and Italian immigrant great-grandparents owned a New Jersey grocery that sold fresh fruits and vegetables. That familial practice of getting food directly from the land inspired them when developing their concepts.

Growing up, David appreciated the time spent with his grandfather on the farm. “I got to taste farm-fresh vegetables and see them put together on a plate with other great food and experience the difference that it made in flavor,” he said. “My grandfather also taught me how to cook with wood and charcoal.”

Urban Cookhouse is known for its wood-fired meats cooked on Big Green Eggs and its fresh produce, much of which is provided through grower agreements with Alabama farms. Farm Bowl + Juice Co. also gets its fresh fruits straight from farms. “We like our growers to be within 60 miles” of the restaurants, said Andrea.

The Snyders opened the first Urban Cookhouse in 2010. (Brandon Robbins/Alabama Retailer)

In January, the Snyders signed agreements for the year with seven farmers to provide produce and honey for the six restaurants they own.

“We like to tell them up front before the growing season even starts how much we think we can buy from them, so they can plan and don’t have to figure out where they are going to have to sell that produce,” Andrea said. “We are going to buy it from them.”

The Snyders back their farmers in many ways, hosting farmers’ markets and even having a private chef provide the farmers with a meal at the couple’s home as a thank you and time to get feedback. “We like to take farm-to-table to not just buying from them, but supporting them in any way that we can,” Andrea said.

Dining dynamic duo

A mutual friend introduced the Snyders when they were in college at the University of Alabama, where David received a master’s in business administration and Andrea earned a marketing degree. He advanced to director of operations for a popular restaurant chain and she handled marketing for the same chain and then a second chain before they opened their own restaurant days after their fifth wedding anniversary.

In 2017 and 2018, their annual rate of restaurant openings was two – in 2017, the downtown Birmingham Urban Cookhouse in February and the relocated Homewood Urban Cookhouse in December; and in 2018, the Homewood Farm Bowl + Juice Co. in January and the Tuscaloosa FB + JC in November.

Their ventures are team efforts with David handling the business details and Andrea managing the marketing.

Fresh fruit lines the wall of Farm Bow + Juice Co. (Brandon Robbins/Alabama Retailer)

This dynamic duo juggles it all while raising two daughters under the age of 7.

How? “I set boundaries,” Andrea said. “I get off at 3 p.m. every day. I pick the kids up. If it gets to where I can’t do that anymore, we need to stop growing.”

Developing people is key

“As much as we can, we spend time developing people and not focusing on the day-to-day urgent tasks that come up and mess your day up,” Andrea said. “Any opportunity we have to pour into our people, that makes all of the difference.”

The Snyders even cross-train employees so they can work at either concept.

“The people that we have, they are capable,” Andrea said. “They don’t need us around all the time.” Purposely, the couple weren’t on hand for the Tuscaloosa Farm Bowl opening. “They are at the point they kind of don’t need us anymore,” she said.

At the end of last year, the Snyders even helped David’s brother open his own restaurant – Mark’s Joint Backyard BBQ. Mark Snyder worked with his brother and sister-in-law from the inception of Urban Cookhouse. His restaurant is in the couple’s original Homewood location. “We are supporting him, but it is totally his,” Andrea said.


SNYDER’S SUCCESS INGREDIENTS

Founded: Urban Cookhouse, June 2010; Farm Bowl + Juice Co., January 2018; both in Homewood.

Number of employees: 225.

Mentor: Joe Granger, founder of Coach LLC, a leadership coach, who taught the couple how to focus on the “first 50 percent,” which is people.

Smart move: Choosing prominent real estate.

Learning moment: When we realized our success hinged on the development of and focus on the people who work for us. A lot of restaurants have great food, but people make the difference in success or failure. By focusing on the development of our people first, the metrics and tyranny of the daily urgent falls into place.

Wisdom shared: Take risks! Get a mentor. Get in on the ground level with a small company that is going places for the most opportunity.

 

This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retail Association‘s Alabama Retailer magazine.

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