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SBA Loan Success - The Tijuana Joe's Mexican Cantina Story

Low-cost loan part of cantina's recipe for success
By Lori Johnston

A Small Business Administration loan was an important ingredient in two Atlanta sisters' success in the restaurant industry.

Nellie Janeira and Amanda Listur obtained their SBA loan in 1998 to open Tijuana Joe's Mexican Cantina, a full-service restaurant, in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. The sisters used a $434,402 loan from Regions Bank, with a term of 20 years, to buy the building for their eatery.

Now, they own and operate seven restaurants in metro Atlanta - five Tijuana Joe's; a new quick-service venture, Tijuana Joe's Express, and Rancho Grande, a predecessor to Tijuana Joe's.

Janeira estimates the restaurants - minus the original Tijuana Joe's - brought in $800,000 each in revenue last year, with the Marietta Tijuana Joe's topping $1.4 million.

"Everything I think is about restaurants," she said, "how to improve, how to get better, different recipes."

Before opening the original Tijuana Joe's, the sisters sought to put down only 10 percent for a loan to buy the real estate. They found their answer with an SBA 7(a) loan, the most popular funding option the SBA provides.

"It makes a big difference between 10 percent down and 30 percent down," Janeira said.

With a 7(a) loan, the lender and the SBA share the risk but the loan is actually made by the financial institution. The program has a maximum loan amount of $2 million and an SBA maximum guarantee of $1.5 million.

With the SBA backing these loans, lenders can finance ventures that may not qualify for traditional commercial loans, said Sherry Kinard, Regions Bank's SBA lender for metro Atlanta.

"It helps you help those small-business customers without having to give them outrageous interest rates or terms," Kinard said.

For non-real estate loans, the terms can stretch from five years with a conventional loan to seven or even 10 years. For real estate loans, the terms can be 20 or 25 years.

"You have less of a payment," Kinard said. "So cash flow is better, which helps with underwriting."

Janeira and other siblings already were operating two restaurants, Mexico Lindo, which they opened 18 years ago and now is owned by another sister, and Rancho Grande. But the Tijuana Joe's eatery fueled expansion efforts.

"The business has been so great because it's a nice location," said Janeira, general manager and partner of Tijuana Joe's. "Day one, it's been a very great business place."

"If you've got a great location and good food and service, there's no way for you to lose."

While Janeira credits the location, another reason for their success has come from staffing decisions. Finding qualified employees is one of their biggest challenges, but of their 110 employees, at least a fourth of them are family members, from the siblings to their children.

That family-oriented environment has drawn repeat customers, some of whom have dined at Tijuana Joe's since the day it opened, and others who frequent the restaurant at least four times a week.

"I think they like the relationship and the friendly atmosphere," she said.

Nuby Fowler, southeast regional administrator for the SBA, said she's been impressed by the family's focus and determination.

"They have the skills of successful entrepreneurs," she said.

Janeira advises others considering starting a restaurant or another venture to create a business plan. There's a misconception that people can walk into a bank and say, "I want to open my business, and I need money," Janeira said. Instead, it's important to do the necessary research.

But don't be intimidated, Janeira said.

"You have to know what you want and you have to be very determined. You have to investigate a lot before you get into something," she said. "But if you are convinced about some type of business, you just go for it."

Janeira, who is from Colombia, encourages small-business owners, particularly Hispanics unfamiliar with the options, to look into SBA funding.

"A lot of people don't know. Especially in the Latin community and Spanish community, they don't know how they work," said Janeira, who last year served on a task force to improve delivery of SBA programs and services to Latino small businesses.

The SBA 7(a), for example, can guarantee up to 85 percent of a loan for real estate, equipment or working capital.

"It decreases the risk for the lender, particularly for those companies that are just beginning," said Fowler.

More Information
How to write a business plan
SBA loan program details
"Banks want to lend to those who have a track record, but if you're just starting this, there is none. We've kind of provided a track to run on."

As their business continues to grow, Janeira hopes to take further advantage of the loan guarantees the SBA provides.

"We're planning on using another one," she said.