“As an entrepreneur, you realize, it doesn’t stop. You’re always thinking about how things can be optimized or improved,” Meisel said. (Courtesy Lee Meisel)
Nearly four years ago, Lee Meisel opened Leeway Franks, a beloved sausage shop and restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas. Meisel and his “tight-knit crew” of employees make the all-natural, locally sourced frankfurters, bratwursts and sausages in-house — a skill Meisel garnered as a teen, working at a butcher shop in rural North Dakota.
And in December 2018, Meisel opened his second operation, a door down from Leeway Franks. Leeway Butcher, a full-service, whole-animal butcher shop and retail store, offers “a variety of locally-sourced, humanely-raised meats from small family farms in the surrounding area,” Meisel said. Mesiel secured funding for the expansion project when Leeway Franks won a Minority Business Award from the Kansas Department of Commerce in October 2018 for the second year in a row.
Meisel shared his indirect path to entrepreneurship with Native Business Magazine, and the knowledge he’s gained along the way.
Native Business: What inspired you to launch a restaurant business?
Meisel: My first year in college was a stereotypical disaster, unfortunately. After that, I was constantly trying to make a living through the food business, getting jobs in restaurants. My path to Haskell Indian Nations University was one of trial and error. I moved to Kansas to attend Haskell, which made more sense to me; the teaching process is much more holistic.
At Haskell, I realized that more work you put in, the more you get back. You get that two-fold in return. I decided to change the direction I was going in academia. After working tough kitchen and butchering jobs, I realized that I love this line of work—but that I didn’t want to do this work forever and not have something to show for it. I could create better recipes. I could use better meat than these guys. I could build my own business. I was really inspired by business courses at Haskell, including two semesters of accounting coursework.
I graduated with a business degree in 2008—a rough time for the economy. So, I got a job in food service at Kansas University, feeding hundreds of student athletes three meals a day and leading retail operations. From there, I transitioned to run a restaurant in Kansas City, and then moved on to work as a butcher for a restaurant. The owners and I worked on a plan for two years to open a butcher shop together. Right when we were at the cusp of making a move, ready to sign the lease, the ownership group split up. I felt very defeated when that happened. I’d had a few setbacks already, throughout the course of my career, despite how hard I had tried.
I realized I had to take on the responsibility and do it myself. I found this tiny little place in a strip mall, wrote a business plan and had a meeting at City Hall to go over my building plans. I got a Small Business Administration loan. I didn’t have all the funds that I needed at that point. A small business facilitator for the city happened to be at that City Hall meeting, and she said, ‘You’re a minority, you qualify for The Kansas Capital Multiplier Fund. Through that connection, I was able to secure funding to open Leeway Franks. If I didn’t have that, it never would have happened. I felt super grateful that there was a program like that.
Native Business: You’re approaching the four-year mark at Leeway Franks, and in December 2019, you’ll hit the one-year anniversary of Leeway Butcher one door away. What do you know now about opening a business that you didn’t know before?
Meisel: We’re located in a small college town. When you open the doors, when something’s new, everyone comes flooding through. There are people you’ll see that first week or two that you’re never going to see again. People who don’t like it, people who leave nasty Yelp reviews. I had to keep reminding myself: This isn’t the first time I’ve faced adversity. I had to remember that the vision that I had for this place is achievable. We can make it work.
Leeway Franks is a small operation. With Leeway Butcher, I’ll be able to double production almost overnight, and the capacity to store meat and different products will open opportunity for us. [Meisel spoke to Native Business in November 2018.] I’m already trying to find ways to sell deli sandwiches and meat bundles, you name it.
I take responsible steps. I’m a sole proprietor. My whole life is tied up in the restaurant, and my intellectual property in the brand. When you think of it in those terms, decision-making becomes more real. You know you can’t take big gambles. I think having some restriction on funds, it makes you more responsible.
I have the most incredible staff; they do everything better than me. I give them credit for the success. It would be impossible to do without them. I’m so grateful for them. We’re tight; we’re like a small family. I have three full-time employees, and I’m currently looking to hire a couple part-timers to open the butcher shop, and hopefully move them to full-time.
When I open up the butcher shop, I’d like to take on an apprentice, if someone’s interested in that line of work [he told Native Business in November]. I’ve always wanted to teach, and butchering is a skill, a kind of dying skill. There’s been a resurgence in the higher-end foodie cities and boutique butcher shops. They’ve become trendy. I’m hoping to recreate the kind of butcher shop where I grew up working in as a teenager, and make it a little more community, neighborhood, family-oriented.
Native Business: How does your Lakota cultural heritage influence your trade and business?
Meisel: There’s a parallel between indigenous values and resourcefulness — not wasting anything, and making sure that you are doing the best job that you can. Because a life has been taken, and you need to honor that. By honoring that, you honor your family, you honor your Tribe. Having a connection to something like that is really important.
I grew up pretty poor. Not being wasteful, it applies to more than not throwing away food. It applies to treating things with respect, and keeping things clean. It’s part of our philosophy to be responsible for our actions.
I do business with people who care about how they raise their animals and humane treatment. A big part of Leeway Franks is strengthening relationships for people — helping them to understand where their food comes from, having that connection to the Earth, and to those who harvest their food.
A version of this article first appeared in the November 2018 “Entrepreneurship” issue of Native Business Magazine.