Food’s always been a part of Sadaya “Daisy” Lewis’ life, but it wasn’t until dropping out of pre-med that she set her sights on a culinary career. Soon after committing to this path, she got a life-changing call from the Food Network! And not only was she featured on the competition show Food Court Wars, she won!
Since this early success, she’s been building her business with the hopes of eventually having her own restaurant group. But the past two years haven’t been easy. From higher wage demands to vendor cost increases, Daisy continues to find a way through the struggle. Read about how she stays positive in the face of adversity, why we should talk to our elders, and some of her favorite business books.
Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
Modern Southern Table is a southern fast-casual restaurant located in the Budd Dairy Food Hall. We specialize in authentic southern dishes developed from family recipes and ingredients all sourced from below the Mason-Dixon line. Some of our dishes are regional classics like Geechee Red Rice, Alabama Fried Chicken, Louisiana Chicken, sausage gumbo, and more.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. I remember playing Mcdonald’s and Red Lobster as a kid in the backyard with my friends. I used to cater events in college for my classmates and then as a side hustle when I got older. Food was always a part of my life.
My first real food business was called Little Daisy Cakes selling cakes and pies, and then I moved up and started selling meals. The restaurant was kind of the next step.
When did you decide to take food seriously as a career?
I started taking food seriously around 2003 after meeting my then-boyfriend (now husband) and starting to cook for him. I started to be more creative with cooking, which reminded me how much I loved cooking. I cooked all through college, but I thought I was going to be a doctor or do something in business. I was a pre-med major with a finance minor at OSU, so cooking was never even an option.
Well, I took one trip to the morgue and quickly withdrew from pre-med. At that point, I knew I only had two options left: business and food. Food was the road I followed.
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
The moment I knew I had something special was the moment I got a call from the Food Network! I knew my food was good, but when the Food Network backed it by asking me to compete for a real restaurant based on my food, I realized my food was really good.
We competed on a show called Food Court Wars with Tyler Florence for a week against another local restaurant in Zanesville, Ohio. It was an amazing experience and we were able to beat the other restaurant and won!
What was it like before your Food Network moment of success? Did you have any Plan B’s if it didn’t work out?
Honestly, I was just starting my business when Food Network found me. I had literally just started building the concept, creating the brand, and developing recipes. So everything was so new. I’d just found a wonderful team of mentors at the WSBA. So I didn’t need a Plan B, just yet.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
It means everything to me! It means I get to create a life for my family. I get to be the role model I want my family to see and become the person I want to be.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
Columbus means opportunity and home. Having had my business in another city before, I knew Columbus was where Modern Southern Table (MST) needed to be. I knew my people were here and nowhere else. I proved that to be true. The city of Columbus has proved that they love MST and the restaurant was finally home.
What was special about Columbus compared to the other city you had your business in?
Columbus is a foodie town — the people love the food and they are more willing to try new restaurants, especially small businesses. Whereas Zanesville residents were more into chain restaurants.
Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you here and ultimately what made you stay.
I am actually from Cleveland. I was born in Cleveland and raised between Cleveland and Mobile, Alabama. I came to Columbus in 1995 for college and never left. Now I have lived in Columbus longer than I have lived anywhere else.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
Read, read, get a mentor, and read some more. Learn as much as you can from wherever you can, from books, Google, wherever, just learn.
And stop being afraid to talk to your elders. We are here to help you and guide you to the next steps. Y’all need us, just like we needed our elders. Mentors matter.
Any good recommendations for budding entrepreneurs?
I absolutely love reading business books! A few of my favorite books:
Who are some of the elders that have offered guidance? Any pieces of advice that have stuck with you?
My grandparents are the most important elders in my life, all but one have passed away. My dad and stepmother help me along the way as well. One piece of advice that has changed me forever came from dad: You are what you think and speak about! So always speak and think positive!!!
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
I wish I knew how hard it is to manage employees. That is the hardest thing I have ever done as an entrepreneur.
Is there anything that’s made managing employees easier over the years?
Honestly, it got a little harder with the wage increase that happened with Covid, because now employees are expecting higher wages for the same work just because everyone else is getting higher wages. Times are rough, but it’s getting to be the norm.
What’s the most challenging part of your business (i.e, what keeps you up at night)?
Right now managing these rising costs in the time of Covid. Every day my vendors are hitting me with new cost increases. But I can’t hit my customers with those cost increases. This has been really tough to sleep with every night.
Are there people or sources of inspiration that keep you going no matter what?
Times have been really hard, but honestly, we have been really blessed. With the support of the Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group, we have been blessed with great mentors, marketers, and cheerleaders. As we struggle and fight with issues, we have a big brother that can help us get over our struggle with ease.
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
I hate conflict, so I do not address issues right away, which can tend to turn into bigger issues. I have to do better at immediately calling an issue out, not letting it slide.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
I feel a lot of owners don’t have a good grasp on their business. They may not have a good understanding of the numbers or their business’s needs. They are just coasting by. They have poor management skills and are not on top of things. I’m different because I’m working on improving those things. I’m not saying I’m perfect at anything, I’m trying to get better at all of those items as well.
What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
Not having a good accountant and bookkeeper was my biggest mistake in business in the last 8 years. I wasn’t able to get a good handle on my finances, and it cost me a lot of money.
What tool has helped you the most for your business?
Bookkeeping services, understanding my numbers.
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
I know it’s time to expand the restaurant now because customers are ready for more. They are asking for more food options, but the space doesn’t allow for more. So, now we have to start looking and planning for expanding soon.
What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out?
Some of the recipes I spent months on were straight flops. Some I made in one night are top-sellers.
What is something that your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
The quality of our ingredients. We spend a lot of money on the quality of our ingredients and it shows in the integrity of our food. The customers say all the time that our food tastes so fresh and homemade. Well, it’s because our food is fresh and made with the best products.
What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
New menu development, and redeveloping our catering division. We are looking to create a new separate catering division that expands the brand. Allowing MST Catering to become a separate individual brand that can stand alone.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
Social media, right now. We are exploring new avenues to see what works best for our restaurant.
Who is your best Columbus resource?
Mary McCarthy of the WSBA Ohio — she is a small business coach and mentor.
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
Two people: my business mentor Mary McCarthy with the WSBA and my cousin Jovita Lark with Lark Residential Services. They both can give me advice from years and years of experience and knowledge.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
I see Modern Southern Table with two locations doing extremely well. I also see the Lewis Restaurant Group with two to three other restaurants or food concepts.
What was the single worst decision you made regarding your business and how’d you recover?
Putting the wrong management in place. I thought I was doing the best thing based on the person’s talent and it ended up costing me a lot of good loyal employees. Employees were dropping like flies and I didn’t understand why. Finally, an employee spoke up and said it was management.
I reached out to past employees that had suddenly quit without notice and they said the same things. I knew at that moment things had to change. New management roles were created and employees were treated much better and we created a much stronger team.
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
Breathing, meditating, journaling, and practicing gratitude. These all work absolute wonders when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
The hours!!! It’s literally 80 hours a day! I said that right, 80 hours a day, and there are only 24 hours in a day. I need to somehow find the other 56 hours because I’m extremely behind on paperwork and emails because I’m working nonstop since there is no staff at this current time.
Has this led to you having to pick up the slack?
Spending more time in the kitchen, doing prep, serving customers, etc… It has in the past, but it’s finally leveling out, and we are finally finding a balance where I can get out of the restaurant and start working on the business instead of in the business.
What’s your end goal with the business? Is this something you want to pass down to your kids or would you like to eventually sell?
Yes, I would love to pass this down to my daughter, but I think broadway is more her style, LOL. You know, I’m not sure of the end game for MST. No exit strategy yet.
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
My husband will tell you that I manifested my Budd Dairy relationship with Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group back in 2005. I definitely look up to Cameron Mitchell, he is my ultimate role model. He’s on my vision board in my office.