Value Added: Building businesses, young entrepreneur gets an education

Workers at the Foggy Bottom Grocery's sandwich counter fill orders during a recent busy evening. Former George Washington University student Kris Hart opened the new "FoBoGro" in March; it's his third business venture.
Workers at the Foggy Bottom Grocery's sandwich counter fill orders during a recent busy evening. Former George Washington University student Kris Hart opened the new "FoBoGro" in March; it's his third business venture. (James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)

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By Thomas Heath
Monday, June 14, 2010

Most entrepreneurs I write about move at very high speed and have a talent for recognizing moneymaking opportunities. Some are big thinkers who see strategic possibilities in places like the online world. Some are nuts-and-bolts small-business types who can spot or create a good little moneymaker.

I knew Kris Hart, 27, was one of the nuts-and-bolts guys when he told me about his search to find a home for his first business, a Foggy Bottom tanning salon.

Hart and his then business partner would leave George Washington University and walk down F Street, then across 17th Street, back up Connecticut, and across K Street. They charted the neighborhood, systematically covering every street and corner.

"Every single place where we saw some space for lease, we would take down the information, call them up and see if they would talk to us," said Hart.

Thirty-five locations turned him down. The 36th -- at 2112 F St. NW -- didn't.

The property was owned by King Street Properties. Hart called the principal and made an appointment to visit him at his restaurant on Duke Street in Alexandria.

"He looked at us and said, 'When I was 22 and started my own business, I wanted a shot.' And he said he would give us a shot. He believed in us when no one else did."

Hart and his partner signed the lease, renting 1,334 square feet for $3,600 a month, and a business was born. More than four years later, he is owner and chief executive of Hart Strategic Enterprises, a 54-employee holding company that includes Relaxed Spa & Tans and Foggy Bottom Grocery, a 64-year-old landmark he reopened March 27 after buying it for $250,000.

He expects the three businesses to gross more than $2 million this year, expecting -- or at least hoping for -- a 17 percent profit margin.

Hart is a shoe-leather entrepreneur. He keeps what he calls a "concept" file of businesses he dreams of starting, which currently include a pizzeria, cafeteria and bar. Then he has his "opportunities" list of possible locations for these businesses.

"I always have three business ideas on the back burner," he said.

Hart, the son of a FedEx deliveryman from Philadelphia, came to Washington a decade ago to study political science at GWU. He quit in 2005 and started writing business plans. He wrote 19 plans, including for a consulting firm, a party bus and a sports bar.


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