When Tonya Brigham opened her Smoothie King franchise in the Bowie Town Center two years ago, the corporate parent told her it would be a slog just to sell $360,000 worth of the juice drinks the first year.
She finished $19 shy of $700,000.
“We did well,” said the 46-year-old mother of two, who opened the store as a way to control her schedule after working 80-hour weeks as a meeting planner.
Brigham’s store is the No. 1 Smoothie King in greater Washington and the Northeast. Its sales are among the top 15 of the 743 Smoothie Kings in the United States, which makes her a member of the company’s elite “King’s Club.”
You might call her the queen of Smoothie King.
“During the summer months, we have done up to 300 guests per day,” she said. She has already served more than 100,000 guests in 2016.
Brigham’s company isn’t big, but it delivers a healthy paycheck (she won’t say how much, but it’s six figures), requires no travel and affords her the flexibility to spend time with her husband and children.
It’s the classic case of a career parent who wanted to rekindle the connection with family while preserving a paycheck.
Brigham said she owes it all to soccer moms.
“This is soccer mom heaven,” Brigham said of her Bowie store. “The number one guest of Smoothie King is a soccer mom, the mother who has 100 balls up in the air at the same time. She is tired, stretched, but cares what she puts in her kids’ bodies and cares about what she puts in her body.”
Part of the reason for the success is location and promotion. Across the parking lot is an L.A. Fitness gym.
“These folks are my 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. crowd,” Brigham said. “We really see them in the evening after their workout when they are not interested in going home to cook but grabbing a meal-replacement smoothie for dinner.”
Smoothies are not a panacea for losing weight. Many nutritionists will tell you that eating whole fresh fruit or vegetables is better for you than the blended version. But it is better than a banana split or that Philly cheesesteak covered with melted cheese.
“It doesn’t have to be fried or greasy” is Brigham’s motto.
Her drinks range from $3.50 for a kid-size smoothie to $8.99 for an adult portion made with fresh vegetables. Prices in between vary, depending on ingredients. Those may include strawberries, bananas, blueberries, Greek yogurt, apples, kiwi or kale. There is also a vegan smoothie.
With the sprawling parking lot surrounded by a Safeway, sandwich stores and services, the spillover effect goes beyond the gym crowd. Brigham also has a budding catering business and sells to nonprofits for fundraisers.
Brigham is an ambassador of smoothies, promoting her product to all corners of her community. She routinely sells at health fairs and schools. Pharmaceutical salesmen stop in to buy a dozen smoothies to distribute on their sales rounds. (Brigham is planning a second store near a hospital.) She gives out gift certificates to schools and honor roll students. The kids bring a parent or another child, which usually means more smoothie sales.
One key source of patrons is the 10,000-plus congregants of First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, Md.
After the pastor mentioned her by name in a sermon one Sunday, 300 people showed up at her Smoothie King. When they replayed his sermon on the radio, even more streamed in.
“It helps to know folks who are influential,” she said.
During the summer, Brigham pays it back when she blends a cooler full of smoothies and delivers them to the church parking lot attendants on Sunday mornings.
She said the key is keeping the store spotless, treating customers with respect and making suggestions when customers need assistance with flavors.
Most of her 15 or so employees work part time and hourly. There are no benefits; anyone older than 18 earns at least $10.75 per hour, the minimum wage in Prince George’s County. Workers also keep tips.
Brigham has mentored several of her employees. The lessons cut both ways. “I have given second and third chances to some who should have been let go long before situations got bad. I had to learn to cut the apron strings and hold my team accountable for the high standard set in our store.”
Brigham, who grew up in rural North Carolina, was raised by her grandparents.
“It was small-town people, church every Sunday, work, go to school, and do what’s right. Being raised in that environment has had a big influence on my life,” she said.
She majored in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She enjoyed working with hospitalized psychiatric patients, including Alzheimer’s patients and teenagers who had been abused.
She moved to Washington, where she worked at Children’s National Medical Center. She enjoyed it but eventually needed a break, so she became a flight attendant with US Airways, traveling between Philadelphia and European cities such as Rome, Paris and Madrid.
She later got married, tried graduate school and settled back in Washington, where she worked as a meeting planner while she and her husband built a family.
“I traveled a lot. It was very painful to hear my children say, ‘Mommy, don’t go,’ and I’m heading out for eight days. It became very difficult.”
She quit to become a stay-at-home mom for three years while she pondered her next move.
“I thought, ‘How do I stay here and take care of my children and make money?’ ”
She discovered Smoothie King, which began in New Orleans in 1973, on the Internet.
“I felt God put a spotlight on it,” she said. “The more I read about this company . . . the more enthusiastic I became.”
Brigham persuaded her husband to take the risk, and after several turndowns, they received a bank loan and had a location already picked out.
They paid $15,000 for the rights to the store. She found a builder in Atlanta who saved her thousands building it out. She spent about $250,000 and opened just before Thanksgiving in 2014.
By January, she was the sales leader in the D.C. market.
“Prince George’s is the most underserved county. Folks were tired of going to Anne Arundel, tired of going to Alexandria, tired of going to D.C. Folks were tired of traveling and saw me as an African American business owner.”
Brigham said she expects to gross almost $900,000 this year.
She runs operations at her store. Her husband handles the books. “I hired and fire. He can tell you the numbers.”
She pays 9 percent of her gross sales to the corporate office for advertising and royalties. The rest she keeps. She won the 2016 Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year award.
The best part is the time she has for her two teenage children and her husband.
“I am here for dinner. I drop the kids off at school, and I work from home. But I still work from morning to night.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report had an incorrect last name for Tonya Brigham.