from Guest Blogger Paula Claunch:
A few years ago, my oldest son and I spent a few hours meandering up the Appalachian Trail in Maine. It was fantastic – glorious, even. We stumbled upon this gorgeous waterfall where thru-hikers (people that actually hike the complete 2,190-mile trail from Georgia to Maine) had tossed aside their packs and were swimming in the falls. My son had such a serious look on his face: a mix of wanderlust and wonder. I thought, ‘I bet he’s thinking about what a great day we are having, and how far all these thru-hikers have come.’ Before I had a chance to ask him, he looked over at me and said ‘man, I sure could go for a Stanlieo’s Sub right now.’ Record Scratch…I mean, number one: teenagers; but also, Stanlieo’s is just that good.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so, because as of May 1st, 2021, Stanlieo’s has been in business in Huntsville for FIFTY years. Y’all, that’s a whole thing. I don’t know if you’re into statistics, but, man, the failure rates of restaurants are absolutely astronomical. Sixty percent don’t even make it a year; eighty percent are gone within five years. So, a mere twenty percent survive. I don’t like those odds, so when you think about a place actually lasting fifty years, they must be doing something right.
I sat down with Stanlieo’s co-owner Connie Ward this week to ask her why she thinks Stanlieo’s has stood the test of time. Connie owns Stanlieo’s with her mother Alice Watson.
Q: You are the fourth oldest restaurant in Huntsville. Only Big Spring Cafe, Gibson’s, and Big Ed’s are older. Why did y’all succeed when others didn’t?
A: Well, my assumption as to Stanlieo’s success through the hard times is that mom and dad were always smart in their debt management. Keeping debt to an absolute minimum is so important to restaurants, because during the slow times (for us that’s January-March) we can keep costs low while maintaining quality products. Over the years, we’ve been able to keep great employees that are loyal and hard working. For a small family business, that is so important.
Q: What makes for a good day at Stanlieo’s?
A: A good day is when everyone shows up in a good mood, and we don’t run out of anything. When we’re busy, but no one has to wait too long.
Q: What makes a bad day?
A: A bad day is when it’s slow and it’s raining. Also, anytime we lose power due to weather.
Q: What do you do in the morning to make sure everything runs smoothly?
A: I go in early and make sure we have everything we need. I slice all the meats and cheeses and get ahead so that when the employees show up they are ready to begin prep work and we’re ready to serve our customers.
Q: What do you do at night to make sure everything runs smoothly?
A: If I’m on the closing crew, the first thing we do is disinfect and clean everything, then make sure everything is set up for success in the morning.
Q: What is your biggest challenge in running your own business?
A: I would think every single business owner might have a different answer to that. The most important thing to me is to stay logical. I have to keep my emotions out of the business. I can’t get my feelings hurt if an employee or a customer is having a bad day. When we make a mistake we just have to stay logical and learn from it and move on.
Q: What makes a great customer?
A: Oh man, we were just talking about this the other day. 99.9% of our customers are great. It’s on me to serve them a quality product and they appreciate it. My favorite thing is to see new customers come in with friends who have told them about us – to watch them take the first bite and see that it lived up to the hype. Love to see that! That is the coolest.
Q: On the flip side, how do you handle complaints?
A: People just want to be heard. When we make a mistake, I listen to the customer and do everything in my power to make it right. I understand that all they wanted was what they ordered and when we drop the ball I just try to fix it and earn a second chance.
Q: On bad days, what keeps you from locking the door and saying ‘I’ve had it – I can’t do this anymore.’
A: Absolutely nothing could make me close up shop. I’d run it as a one woman show if I had to. It’s my livelihood. One great thing about the job is that I get closure every single day. We open, we serve people, we pay bills, we get ready to do it again the next day, repeat to infinity. Even when we have catering events we still get closure – just in a different time frame and it still results in another happy customer.
Q: What would surprise the average person to know about Stanlieo’s?
A: We love catering to vegetarians! We have a variety of veggie meats like vegan turkey, veggie corned beef, veggie steak etc.
Q: Alright, tough question time! Do you feel really competitive with other local restaurants or is there an ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe?
A: Definitely ‘we’re all in this together.’ When Mom and Dad opened Stanlieo’s in 1971 it was a one horse town. No Subway, no quiznos, chain restaurants didn’t exist in the capacity they do today. As far as I’m concerned though, if Huntsville is doing well there are plenty of customers to go around. And the other sub shops keep me on my toes so that’s a good thing.
Q: If you had to get another job what would you do?
A: Well, I went to college to be an office manager, and I did enjoy that, but there is a real freedom to working for yourself. And I think there is a freedom to the long term employees who work for a family business. When something isn’t working right we can just change the procedure *snap* just like that. We don’t have to call corporate. Employees like that. I do think it takes a special personality to work in the restaurant world long term. In the end though, you just treat your employees and your customers like you want to be treated. Give respect to everyone you work with.
Q: Since I’m writing this for Geek Out Huntsville, I just have to ask – what is the geekiest thing you do?
A: Well, when I get home from work, I play an app called Hay Day. My sister and cousins are all on a team with me and we all take it way too seriously and we have for years now. And, since you asked, I do have the highest level on our team. So, yeah, I’m kind of a big deal.
Q: And what is the geekiest thing about Stanlieo’s?
A: Ha! That one is easy! We were the first restaurant in Huntsville to accept orders by fax machine!
Q: Tell me, what you are doing for the anniversary?
A: May 1st we are celebrating by giving 50% off on all of our subs, while supplies last, at the Jordan Lane location. The entire Watson family will be there to serve you.
Q: When new customers come in, what sub do you recommend?
A: Well, we’re famous for our Kitchen Sink so that’s always a hit.
Q: One last question, what is YOUR order at Stanlieo’s?
A: My favorite is the pizza sub. It’s got sliced beef of round, genoa ham, pepperoni, swiss and provolone cheeses, grilled onions, bell peppers, pickles and tomatoes. To make it even better, I add our hot pepper blend. Perfection!
Man, I can’t stop thinking about that ‘only twenty percent of restaurants make it’ statistic. You know what else has an eighty percent failure rate? Thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. Maybe if the hikers all had subs to eat that failure rate wouldn’t be quite so bad. Make sure to join Connie, Alice, the whole family, and the crew on May 1st to celebrate fifty years!
Wow, that is a great post. I’m so proud yall chose to interview us. Funny too
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Connie: I was a student at Riverton Elementary in 1970-71 and have a vague memory of a Coach Watson leaving teaching to start Stanlieo’s. He stuck in my memory because he rode a Kawasaki motorcycle and was a cool guy.. Is there any accuracy to my recollection?