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Hidden Gems: Meet Mike Kelton

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mike Kelton.

Hi Mike, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today.
I’m retired from a 32-year career in the wine & spirits industry. My wife, Mary, still works full-time for ExxonMobil & retires in 2025. I needed something to do & we also wanted to invest in a business that would generate income thru retirement. I love to cook & have always wanted to open a restaurant. Mary surprisingly asked, “You want to retire & open a restaurant?” We opened our first restaurant in 2018, Sweet Paris Creperie & Café in The Woodlands. Sweet Paris is a small Houston-based chain. We were the first franchisees. We opened a second Sweet Paris in Austin in 2020, purchased Treehouse Café in Magnolia in the summer of 2021 & opened Hunger Crush Café on Lake Conroe in the summer of 2022. Hunger Crush Café is a concept we built from the ground up.

So to answer Mary’s question – yes, I want to open restaurants & I am having a blast. I held national positions during the latter half of my wine career & traveled on average 175K miles a year. The wine business was a great career for me & I learned a ton. It prepared me for running my own organization, but I certainly do not miss the travel. I think the things that I enjoy the most now running these restaurants are interacting with our customers & becoming a contributing part of our community. I love making new friends every day. I love having developed what I think is a very positive family culture in my company. I try to take very good care of my staff. I also feel that if I am going to accept money from the community by way of business, I also need to give back & support that community. We support several great organizations at all our restaurants. Most notable is Hunger Crush Café. We have an ongoing partnership with the Montgomery County Food Bank & a portion of our sales goes to support that great organization. I love our community. Being on the road so much prior, I really didn’t get a feel for how great of a community we live in. Doing business here has really made me feel at home & I am completely humbled by the support of our community.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Not a smooth road at all. I had a great relationship with my father, but he passed away when I was 10. Facing the struggles of raising 5 kids, my mother became an alcoholic. My childhood went from very good to very bad in a short time. I started working at 13. I left home at 17 with very little & started to make my way. I found my way to the wine business really by chance. I was a young husband & father and needed a good-paying job. I had no idea it would turn into such a great career & training ground. Looking back I recognize & am thankful for all the positive influences & mentors I had in my life. Actually, I am also thankful for the negative as well because it taught me what I didn’t want or want to be. I learned so much that prepared me for building & running my own organization. Of course, the restaurant business also came with struggles. We fell on our faces badly starting out & it showed initially in our reviews. Eventually, we found our groove & it started to get better & easier. I have to credit great staff for a lot of that.

Then Covid 19 hit & which was very scary. Our business went from 100MPH to 0MPH overnight, so we shifted a bit. We opened our 2nd location mid the pandemic & we lost a lot of money the rest of that year. What was great was the community started to shift with us & helped lift us out of those tough times. That is one reason why I am so grateful for our community. I have no regrets about my life. The challenges I faced at a young age prepared me. There are always going to be struggles, but very few are insurmountable. This reminds me of a story I tell a lot. When I was in 1st grade, I had a homework assignment that I struggled with. I brought it to my dad. He looked at it & saw that I had not even attempted it. He refused to help me. He told me to go give it a try & if I was still struggling, then he would help. I stormed off crying, but eventually started working on it. Lo & behold, I was able to finish it all by myself. I showed my dad. He told me you can do anything if you really want to. That lesson has driven me all my life.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
The short & simple of it, I own & operate restaurants. I want to believe there are a few things that set my company apart. First is the culture I have created. I was a hard study of organizational development, culture development, training & mentorship. I strive to create a safe home for my staff. It is important to me that they know I care about their well-being. We help out any staff member who falls on hard times – whether that’s financially or time off or whatever their needs are. I had one employee who needed to have minor surgery. He would be out of work for about 2 weeks. He wanted us to fire him, so he could collect unemployment for those 2 weeks. I knew it wasn’t that easy. Instead, I paid him 2 weeks of PTO, so he could make it thru. I believe if my staff is happy, then they will take good care of my customers. Second, I want all my guests to have a great experience at our restaurants. I believe that if they are paying to dine at my restaurant, they need to feel like they got at least what they paid for. I constantly stress to my staff the importance of taking good care of our customers. I empower them all to be able to correct any situation on the spot – whether making something else, comping the check, giving a free entrée next time in, etc. We want to create a positive environment, serving great food & making people feel very much at home. It is very important to me to hear customers say our service is great. Finally & probably most important, it is very important to me to support my community. I cannot just take it. I must give back. We support Montgomery County Food Bank, Folds of Honor & many local youth organizations.

As for my restaurants, all are unique. Treehouse Cafe is very rustic, down-home comfort food. Hunger Crush Cafe has a more quaint/elegant look & feel. It is bright & vibrant. We commissioned a local artist to do work for us. We have a patio with beautiful views of Lake Conroe. The food provides a slightly eclectic twist on American classics. Sweet Paris Creperie & Cafe transports you to France. We have an elegant bistro look & feel. We make all kinds of crepes from breakfast to savory to sweet. All formats are open for breakfast, lunch & dinner.

Are there any important lessons you’ve learned that you can share with us?
Probably finding, being true to & operating out of my internal compass. It is very easy, especially at a young age, to be swayed in directions that you are not comfortable with. I went down some roads that made me very uncomfortable. It became very important to me to maintain my personal integrity because, at the end of the day, that is all you have left. I think perhaps this is what I love the most about running my own operation now. I feel I have created a culture that projects my personal integrity & it draws people who seem to want the same. I mentor young men at my local high school.

As they struggle to find their identity in this world, I tell them (as I told my kids) to just be themselves – be true to who they really are. If you do that, you will draw like-minded people and build real friendships. Similarly, I tell young business colleagues to chase culture, not money or titles, in their career development. Figure out who you are & find a company with similar core beliefs & you will be much happier.

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