This Unlikely Entrepreneur Describes How She Became a Wildly Successful Restaurateur

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on December 5, 2016

Successful entrepreneurs are driven by a passion. Nicole Marquis, a restaurateur who has a burning desire to affect positive change, is one such entrepreneur.

Marquis is the founder and CEO of Marquis and Co., a restaurant holding firm. HipCityVeg is Marquis’s signature fast-casual restaurant concept, which serves 100 percent plant-based food. She opened her first restaurant more than four years ago.

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I met Marquis last month at the annual Startup Day event of the Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University. At the event, she delivered an inspiring keynote address to more than 450 students in attendance. I was impressed by the story of her journey as an entrepreneur, so I asked if I could interview her.

Marquis operates three HipCityVeg restaurants — two in Philadelphia and one in Washington, D.C. She is scheduled to open her fourth this month in Philadelphia. Her company also operates Charlie Was a Sinner and Bar Bombón restaurants, also in Philadelphia. Marquis’s Washington, D. C. HipCityVeg is her first geographic expansion — but she is not stopping there. She plans on opening as many as nine restaurants over the next 18 months.

One would think that Marquis would be an unlikely entrepreneur. After studying communications and theater and receiving a BA degree from Temple University, she studied classical drama at the California Institute of the Arts. She told the Close School Startup Day audience about her teenage experiences running a birthday party business and the great feeling of making a $30 profit after paying expenses. She told the audience, “This is for me!”

Entrepreneurs come from all different types of backgrounds. Marquis, as all entrepreneurs, has a passion and the ability to overcome obstacles to successfully fulfill her mission, important traits for anyone starting up a business.

Marquis said, “The mission of HipCityVeg is to make delicious plant food convenient and accessible to people everywhere. The vast majority of our customers are meat eaters, but they love HipCityVeg because the food is delicious and healthy. This is how HipCityVeg differentiates itself from other fast-casual restaurants. I have a burning passion to affect change, which keeps me going. I want to get people to eat plant-based food because of the adverse effect that animal agriculture has on our health, on the planet and on the animals.”

She said that she focuses on “the three Ps — people, planet and profit.”

I asked Marquis that in addition to passion, what are some of the other traits of successful entrepreneurs? She said, “An ability to operate outside of your comfort zone, the ability to take a risk, knowing how to de-risk your decisions, and the willingness to take advice from others. It’s also a mindset. With the proper mindset, you can conquer anything. To stay positive and clear-headed, in the most uncomfortable conditions. If you can do that, you can conquer any mountain.”

Marquis added that she is thankful for the faith her investors have in her and for their support.

When planning their business, what do some entrepreneurs fail to consider? Marquis said the need to reinvest in their business. In restaurants, kitchen equipment wears out over time and needs to be replaced, and periodically restaurant décor needs to be updated. A business needs to generate sufficient cash flow to fund these reinvestments.

Every entrepreneur makes mistakes, and Marquis acknowledges that she has made her share of them.

She said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I have had to swallow my pride, and there was always, there’s still always, someone ready to tell me that I don’t know what I am doing. I am learning every day.”

Choosing the wrong people in a small, early stage startup can have a huge negative impact on the success of the business.

I asked Marquis how she chose her early hires. She said that in addition to reference checking, she relied on her intuition and good critical judgment to assess the attitude and people skills of those she hired, and whether she could trust them. She wanted to hire people whose great attitude would rub off on others, and who had the skills to hire and lead others.

Marquis told the story of sending a team from Philadelphia to train the newly hired staff of her Washington, D.C. HipCityVeg restaurant. The trainers returned to Philadelphia proud of their accomplishment. The training they provided the Washington staff would help that restaurant be successful.

Marquis said that when you trust employees and share your expectations of them, they develop a sense of ownership in what they do, feel valued as employees and are motivated to continue to improve the operation of the business.

On Dec. 1, I had lunch at the HipCityVeg adjacent to Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to get a first-hand look at the restaurant’s operation. The staff gave this patron a great customer experience. The food was delicious.

By 12:20 p.m., the restaurant was packed with customers wanting to purchase their 100 percent plant-based lunch. Marquis has differentiated HipCityVeg from its competitors and has become a preferred provider of fast-casual food.

Differentiate and become the preferred provider — a lesson for all entrepreneurs.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” This describes entrepreneurs who make a difference in this world. This is Nicole Marquis.

Stan Silverman is the former president and CEO of PQ Corp. He also is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and is vice chairman of the board of trustees of Drexel University. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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