We here at GOBankingRates want to help get our nation’s small businesses back on their feet after the COVID-19 pandemic. To do that, we’re highlighting readers’ favorite small businesses around the country, and shining a spotlight on what makes them special to their customers and their towns.
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In this edition of our Small Business Spotlight series, we’re featuring The Coyote Store in Gail, Texas. Owner Leslie Justice transformed the 32-seat cafe, located in one of the least-populated counties in the United States, into a popular 1,600-seat music venue and travel destination that has captured the heart of country music lovers and visitors from across the nation. Here, we chat with Justice about how she went from having a criminal justice career to owning a music venue, the sacrifices she made to stay open during the pandemic and why your best lessons as a business owner will come from listening to others.
Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to start your business?
I never really planned for my career to bring me back home to the Coyote Store. My grandmother, newly widowed at an early age, purchased it back in 1992. She ran it for years. I was raised working in the store — my sister and I started working there at the ages of 9 and 12. After leaving home, I started my family, worked through grad school and had a career in the criminal justice system. I found myself feeling unfulfilled. I didn’t particularly enjoy my work.
God’s timing is impeccable. When my grandmother abruptly announced that she was closing the family business, a long-time café and general grocery in my hometown community, I felt compelled to come home. I wanted to take care of my family, [return to] the community I had grown up loving and leave the stress of my current life behind. Being of independent nature, the concept of working for myself was exciting. I liked the idea of having control over my own destiny and my own schedule. I never could have dreamed where my decision to purchase the store from my grandmother would end up taking me.
What did you take from past experiences or jobs that you knew you wanted to be a part of your new business?
My work experiences included working in the federal prison system, community outreach programs, juvenile detention, education institutions and on state investigations. Years of experience in strict work environments crafted my self-discipline to work harder for myself. The idea that working for oneself is “easier” is a myth. One must work harder and be completely committed to his or her work in order to be successful as an independent business owner.
Nearly 20 years of working with diverse populations helped me to develop social skills and the ability to see the world from different perspectives. That aided my customer service skills. Also, my work history is one of working in environments and with situations that were sometimes unpleasant at best. I feel like that seasoned me to withstand hard times. I guess you could say it helped me to develop a thick skin.
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What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner?
Serving the people of our community that have loved and watched over me since I was a child, and seeing them celebrate the success and the phenomenal story that is the legendary Coyote Store. Their loyalty and support are not something we see as much of these days: customers that faithfully support their local small businesses. That happens here. Celebrating the traditions of yesteryears and watching those traditions propel my business is exciting. The customer base and that loyalty to tradition are what has propelled The Coyote Store in evolving from a 32-seat café, located in the 43rd least populated county in the nation, to a 1,600-seat music venue that people from across the nation visit. That is special and means the most to me.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
It nearly killed it; however, we made as many provisions as we could to keep the lights on. We used pallets to enclose our patio so that we could continue trying to serve customers outside during the winter. We reduced our hours and our menus. I took a part-time job and used those funds to preserve the store. Ours was a business that received no government funding or aid during the pandemic. That makes us even more proud of having survived it.
How can people continue to support your business during this time?
Now that the state of Texas is open, and because we are an outdoor venue in wide-open spaces, we encourage friends to visit our partner at outhousetickets.com and get tickets to see the country music legends we all know and love. Stop by during business hours and take the grand tour, hear the story of Coyote Country and get one of our old-fashioned West Texas hamburgers.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
Be prepared to sacrifice. To be successful will require that you sacrifice your time, your mind and resources to make it. Expect rainy days — they will happen, but they will pass. Love people — no great thing is accomplished alone. Don’t be too proud to accept help and measured advice. Talk to people, listen to people and appreciate them. The most valuable knowledge you will acquire will come from the lessons you learn in dealing with others.
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This interview has been edited for clarity.