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Ella Avery-Smothers

Burger King Franchises
Los Angeles, California

Census Tract: multiple
Street Minority %:   n/a
Poverty %:   n/a

She Has it Her Way at Burger King
She once was a fifth-grade school teacher. Now she's owner of a string of fast-food restaurants all across South-Central Los Angeles and beyond. Meet Ella Avery-Smothers, a truly remarkable African-American businesswoman. She owns seven and a half Burger King franchises (there's a story in that half franchise), and just closed escrow on one more. She manages 12 Burger Kings in all, a few owned by her husband. And the Los Angeles LCD has been a partner in her success.

"I came into the business to assist my husband, " she said in an interview. "That was my first experience. It became the thing that I did, and I did it for a little while and became interested in it." She eventually bought a franchise of her own. And then another, and another.

"I am not a big spender personally," she said. "I have one house I bought 26 years ago. I reinvest all my money into the business and that's how I've been able to grow.
"I do a good job of management. I'm fiscally responsible. I never took a business course in my life." (She has a Master's Degree in education.)

"It's been a lot of hard work, but being an educator has helped--knowing how to study and find the answers."

Her franchises, located in some of the poorest sections of Los Angeles, contribute to the local economy. "We hire a lot of people, approximately 30 employees in each restaurant, more or less." And she has done all this against all odds, including

  • Poor neighborhoods:
    "They're mostly in South Central, one in Compton, and one in Inglewood, one in the county on Firestone."
  • The recession of the late 1980's and early 90's:
    "Nineteen ninety-eight, '89, '90 were extremely difficult years. Business was not there and we had to ask for rent relief. We were way behind on our debt. We couldn't pay it, but as the restaurant sales grew, we paid it off and we were able to expand."
  • Robberies:
    "The difficulty is that we're in four our five municipalities. So we're dealing with different law enforcement agencies. Last year was a very bad year for it. It is very frightening for the employees, and I feel virtually helpless when it comes to doing something about it. We can't afford armed security guards, and not all of these restaurants are profitable."
  • September 11:
    "That has had an effect on our business as well. Sales are down. Insurance costs are doubled or more since September 11. Some franchises have reported their insurance has tripled."

But she has done much more than simply grow a business in rocky soil. In addition to scholarships given by the Burger King Corporation, she gives her own scholarships to deserving students who work in her restaurants. She gives attendance certificates good for free meals to the schools. She sponsors local Little League baseball clubs. She writes checks to a variety of community associations.

And she gave away half of a Burger King franchise. This is not a small gift. A franchise can be worth millions.

"One is under the corporate name of Avery Lopez, because I have an employee who has been excellent through thick and thin. I rewarded her by making her the first and only Hispanic female franchisee in the system. I brought her in as my partner in my eighth restaurant. She owns 51 percent, and I own 49 percent.

"I saw a person who was deserving, and I enjoyed working with her and I wanted her to keep on keeping on."

Ms. Smothers also has praise for one of her other partners, Los Angeles LDC, which provided capital at a critical time for her business:

"They are very pleasant people to deal with, in my experience. They have been responsive and very cooperative. They have been favorable to my business and seem to have an interest in my growth and keeping my business on target. It has been a good experience dealing with them."

Hers is the kind of business Los Angeles LDC likes to nurture: "We feel like a big family, and Burger King has been impressed with my operation. There are so many more things I want to do."