Right after graduating from James Madison University, Brianna Keefe began the journey of starting her own business in Washington, D.C. Keefe, who has always had a passion for health and nutrition, wanted to create a business to help inspire others to live a healthy lifestyle. In 2018, at 24 years old, and after seeing how other parts of the world approached healthy eating, Keefe opened her restaurant Toastique in Southwest, D.C.
Today, Toastique is barely over a year old, but has already become a popular addition to the District’s restaurant scene for the fresh and seasonal ingredients it offers to customers. Keefe saw such a demand from customers that she has now opened a second Toastique location in Old Town Alexandria, Va. and has a total of 21 employees.
As part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneur Series, we spoke with Keefe to get more insight into how she started her business, her mission for Toastique, and the challenges and successes she has faced as a young business owner. Here is what she had to say.
Q: Tell us a bit about your business and why you started it.
A: Toastique is a gourmet toast and juice bar serving cold-pressed juice, smoothies, acai bowls, and delicious open-faced sandwiches. The food we serve at Toastique is how I kept myself fueled my entire life. This is how I ate and what I thought to be the perfect balance of nutrition for leading a healthy and active lifestyle. I enjoy traveling, learning about different cultures, and exploring the ways people eat. But in every city I visited, I would always search to find the best health café that aligned with my vision of what is now Toastique. After I found a few places overseas that blew my mind with the freshness, high-quality, healthy meals they offered, I soon realized what the food scene in America was lacking – specifically, I realized that D.C. was lacking this type of concept.
Q: What is Toastique’s mission?
A: Toastique’s mission is to redefine the craft of fast casual cuisine by serving fresh, seasonal, and responsibly-sourced products all made from scratch daily. We strive to make healthy eating more accessible for every day, busy city goers.
Q: When you first started this business, did you imagine it being as successful as it is today?
A: Let’s just say it exceeded every single expectation I had about the potential of Toastique… and that’s saying a lot since I have been exceptionally (and sometimes overly) optimistic from day one. I knew it wouldn’t fail because I have the passion and drive to keep pushing Toastique where it needs to be. But did I know there would be a line out the door daily, no matter rain, snow or shine? Absolutely not. It truly is such a humbling and rewarding feeling that never gets old.
Q: What are some of the barriers to entry for starting a business at a young age?
A: The number one challenge by far, that a young entrepreneur has minimal control over, is finding funding. Just because you have the passion and determination doesn’t mean the bank is going to lend you money. The second biggest challenge is the constant need to prove yourself to everyone. The brokers, developers, landlords, investors – all the people that you need to be on your side to help push for you. Everyone has to start somewhere, but it’s tough when you’re only two years out of college, never owned a business, and want to open a startup café with a unique concept that hasn’t been proven yet.
Q: How did you scale your business as you grew?
A: It has always been important to me that we grow organically. We didn’t leverage the business to receive more capital for additional locations. I waited for it to grow at a steady pace. We did not open the second Toastique until we could pay for it without a loan. We also continually look for great people to entrust with more responsibility, which enables us to scale.
Q: What impact has running your own business had on your life thus far?
A: Owning my own business has made my life do a complete 180. Previously, I had been working 15-hour days for a boss that didn’t have a work/life balance and expected the same from me. The long days are still there but the difference is, it doesn’t feel like work and it is self-satisfying. Professionally, I meet hundreds of people a day, which has opened so many more doors for myself and for Toastique.
Q: Can you recall the moment you knew your company was taking off?
A: I can’t say there was an exact moment, but it was the continuous enthusiasm and repeat business we get from our customers that gave me reassurance that this is only the beginning for Toastique. There’s always a hype when a new restaurant opens, so you really have to wait it out for a month or two to see if the hype is still there and it was. To this day, the hype never died down – instead, word continues to spread about Toastique. We’ve attracted big time food critics, celebrities, and athletes who have dined with us including Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman from the Nationals MLB team. Regardless if a customer is a celebrity or not – if they come back again because they enjoyed themselves so much, that’s when you know your business is doing something right.
Q: What are some of the biggest milestones your business has had so far?
A: The three biggest milestones in no particular order are:
- Toastique won Best New Restaurant of 2019 by Washington City Paper and Runner-up for Best Brunch. I never was one who needed validation, but winning Best New Restaurant in D.C. made me ecstatic. It was a comfort to know that all the sweat, stress, sleepless nights, and tears my team and I put into Toastique paid off.
- Annual sales are over $1000 per square foot, which is a huge feat in the industry and almost unheard of in the first year of business.
- I found an employee who I trust as much as myself to run the store. We are currently sponsoring her citizenship so she can be a part of our team for life.
Q: What advice would you give to any other young entrepreneurs who are considering starting their own business?
A: Take risks and do it as soon as you possibly can. If it’s something you are absolutely, positively passionate about, just do it. The older you get, the more excuses you will make not to do it.
Through much dedication and hard work, Keefe not only built a business, but created a thriving community and fan base around her restaurant. Young entrepreneurs like Keefe are breaking down the barriers to success for the next generation as they fight to pursue their passions through business.
The U.S. Chamber’s Young Entrepreneur Series will continue to highlight businesses, like Toastique, that are harnessing creative solutions to positively impact their communities and forging new pathways to innovate our world. Check out other young entrepreneurs in the series, here.