For Matt Strickland, it was love at first sight. His wife, Tara, sees things just a bit differently. But, first sight or not, he won her over and true love grew! As did their family and a successful business enterprise, both based on foundations of love and respect. And fishing. There’s definitely a love of fishing. In fact, Matt says that he and Tara got into the restaurant business to buy a fishing boat!
It was over 20 years ago that Matt and his then-business partner applied for a Zaxby’s franchise, were approved for two, and were off and running. Tara was totally onboard, and laughs when she says, “We got married in April 2000 and Matt left to go to ‘chicken school’ the week we got back from our honeymoon. We opened the first Zaxby’s in November 2000 and the second in February 2001.”
But wait. Chicken school? “It’s a management program” says Matt, “but we weren’t worried about the management part. Our belief system is that management is just how you treat people. If you show people respect and dignity, you can manage any situation properly. What we really needed to know were the recipes.” They must have learned their lessons well – the Stricklands currently have a total of four Zaxby’s (three in Florida and one in Georgia) and one Mellow Mushroom (here in St. Augustine), with a fifth St. Augustine Zaxby’s slated to open soon.
Like all businesses, franchise operations have specific challenges and rewards. The formulaic aspect can be a plus as far as daily operations go – but the misconception that franchise establishments are somehow not quite ‘local’ can be frustrating. “We don’t always go by the book,” says Matt. “And we live here, work here, and contribute to our local economy. We’re raising our family here. We provide jobs here, hire from within our area, and fully participate in community life. We love living here.”
Fishing boats, franchises, and chicken school aside, for Matt and Tara, it really is all about the people. “Any success we have is because we know how to work hard and we have great employees,” says Matt. “We don’t ask anyone to do anything we haven’t done, and we are firm believers in giving people the tools they need to do their jobs properly.” Matt handles much of the day-to-day operation of the restaurants while Tara spends most of her time behind the scenes.
They appreciate the support they receive from the local community and feel a strong connection with their St. Johns County neighbors, through both their business and personal lives. “We love what we do here and we love being a part of this community,” Tara explains. “It’s our family.” Matt and Tara have two children, ages 10 and 13, and are very active in their church and in their kids’ school. Tara is especially passionate about supporting local organizations that focus on meeting the needs of children in St. Johns County.
What have they learned from living and working in St. Augustine? Their response is immediate – “The biggest thing we’ve learned is that this is a very special place full of welcoming and caring people – finding ways to give back is important to us.” And when they get to have just a little fun, he fishes (and fishes!); she loves the beach. And while they don’t diss the Gators, they are both Georgia Bulldog fans.
Oh…and did they ever get that boat? “Yes,” says Tara, “…but it was a long time coming!”
Mellow Mushroom is located at 410 Anastasia Boulevard. Visit them online at www.mellowmushroom.com.