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This column salutes REAP businesses that are finding ways to increase their success.

Aunt Mary's Business Catches On in Beatrice

They say it takes a bunch to start and maintain a successful business. How about thousands invested in a “brand” name? Maybe it’s twice the capital you originally planned on. Maybe it’s having to compete with two additional restaurants in close proximity within the first couple years of existence.

Just ask Darrell and Mary Johnsen of Virginia, Nebraska what it takes. The couple opened Aunt Mary’s Café and Ice Cream Parlor in Beatrice, Nebraska in May 2004. The Aunt Mary’s name caught on, and Mary and Darrell are known now by hundreds of customers they didn’t know before taking on the new venture.

The Johnsens were dairy farmers and decided it was time for a change. They sold the cows and started in the restaurant business, which had been a dream of Mary’s for some time. They knew they wanted to operate a business together because they’ve always tried to work side by side.

Together with their three children they’ve invested a huge amount of time to get Aunt Mary’s café in Beatrice off to a solid start, and later had the opportunity to lease the retail part of the truck-stop operation north of town along Highway 77. So already there are two Aunt Mary’s locations, the café in Beatrice and Aunt Mary’s Plaza Truck Stop, convenience store, and 24-hour restaurant.

REAP worked with Darrell and Mary to help prepare their initial business plan to take to their bank to gain support for the new venture. The Johnsens knew they needed to work quickly to develop an image and a recognizable brand in the Beatrice market. Most of the major fast food chains exist in town, so they had to be creative and get the name out to attract customers to their door.

One of their methods was to partner with other local businesses across town and sell some of their products in their locations. Another was to offer catering services and sell sandwiches and soups on-site at one of the largest factories in town daily. They have found radio offers the best return for their advertising dollar for their type of business. They’ve definitely learned along the away and have made changes as needed.

The Johnsens feel they’ve been able to offer a place and provide services to help make a difference in the lives of many patrons thus far. They’ve enjoyed getting to know so many people through the business. Challenges include competing with the new businesses that come along, creating the brand, and hiring or keeping the dependable, quality employees that are needed.

Their son Ryan completed his college degree in 2004 and has joined them as business manager. Valerie lives in Lincoln but helps however she can, including work on the business’s website. Heather is finishing high school this year and has helped out as a waitress and with cooking.

Darrell says they really don’t have time for hobbies. They have always believed that to be successful you have to truly enjoy what you are doing, like what a hobby might provide. Their work is their hobby and passion, and it shows in their quick growth and success!

Mary and Darrell Johnsen now have aunt Mary's locations for their cafe/catering business in Beatrice, Nebraska.
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