As Frank Coombs entered the ChalleNGe Academy Auditorium on Tuesday September 24, 2013, the students were so silent it was possible to hear a pin drop in the assembly. To witness the order and decorum in the room one would have been hard pressed to believe these were District of Columbia Public School students or for that matter students of any public high school system in America. The students’ behavior was perfect.
Coombs, a former National Guardsman and a graduate of the District of Columbia Public Schools, stood before the students after he was asked to give the keynote speech because the originally planned speaker, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, was unable to attend the event due to the budget crisis facing the nation. Coombs is a successful small business owner and a graduate of Dunbar High School in the District.
The students sat in total silence as Head Counselor McKinley Hayes, who served as host of the assembly, called the program to order and Coombs was introduced to the students. The behavior of the students in the assembly at the ChalleNGe Academy was remarkable.
Coombs gave a speech to the students about investing in the stock market. As he talked about small business ownership, the value of investing in stocks, creating a portfolio, and understanding shares and percentages the students sat silently acknowledging his every word. “I own stock in every company that I do business with. I drive a Ford vehicle. I have stock in the company. I have stock in Walgreens, I have stock in Nike. You wear the tennis shoes, own a piece of the company,” Coombs said.
Having started out at age 17 as an employee of a small business owner in the IHOP chain, Coombs became a stock holder in his own right. “I purchased stock in companies. I received small dividend checks at first, but I realized that I was getting a return on my investments. When I went to my first stockholders meeting for Walgreens in Chicago I thought it was a retirement community meeting because there were so many seniors there,” Coombs said.
Giving a lecture to District of Columbia Public School students on the stock market, financial literacy, and the importance of investing in small business could have put college students to sleep. Yet the students of the ChalleNGe Academy sat quietly and respectfully taking in every word the guest speaker said.
Coombs gave a speech that talked about the rewards of hard work, listening to parents, going to high school, and college and making the right decisions. “I started working at a young age under my father’s guidance. I cut grass for my neighbors. A friend told me that the International House of Pancakes was hiring. I took the Metro bus to the IHOP and applied for a job. I was hired.” Coombs spent 33 years at IHOP going from an entry level position and raising to being a general manger and eventually being an owner. “I had planned to spend the rest of my career at IHOP when I decided to own my own small business,” Coombs said.
On August 4, 2011, Coombs opened J’Ollie’s Restaurant in Lanham, Maryland. The beautiful restaurant is directly across the street from Darcars Ford in Lanham and is a well decorated and visually attractive eating establishment. “I key the key to a successful business was customer service. I used my 33 years of experience in serving customers at the International House of Pancakes to create a small business where customer service was my top priority. I go to each table to ask my customers, “How is your steak, how are your eggs? I talk to my customers to let them know I want them to be happy. I want the food service to be excellent,” Coombs said.
Coombs leads by example. He works side by side with his employees. He hires from the community. “I support the community where my small business is located. I give back to the community, Coombs said. He also hires workers with disabilities and gives them the opportunity to work in an environment that is supportive.
J’Ollie’s Restaurant also offers a place where a family can enjoy a mother and father night out that fits into a family budget. “I wanted to create a restaurant where a family could eat out without a huge bill. A family can have a great meal at an economical price,” Coombs said.
Having survived two years into his 10 year lease Coombs has already beaten the odds that dictate many small business owners will fail in the first year of their venture. August 4, 2014 will mark his third anniversary at the Lanham location. “I know the rules of small business. Location, location, location, and customer service,” Coombs said. He also knows that it takes long hours and hard work to make a small business successful.
J’Ollie’s Restaurant is easy to locate. Customers can take the 495 beltway to the Lanham exit and just cross the street. The area that Coombs selected for his small business is a restaurant haven. There is plenty of parking and the large marquee beneath the giant Day’s Inn sign is hard to miss. “I run a family small business. I am teaching my 17- year old to learn the business and he runs a sandwich shop in Bowie that I established and he cooks side by side with me at J’Ollie’s.
The name of the small business is a composite of his name and his father’s name. “Some people think that I run a Jamaican restaurant because of the name and the symbol on the door that I took from my dad,” Coombs said. Yet the former National Guardsman is an American success story that proves you can start from the bottom of a small business and rise to the top.