Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “A woman is like a tea bag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
This quote popped into my head as I listened to Stephanie Vitori, owner of Miami Beach-based Cheeseburger Baby, accept the Small Business Administration’s National Phoenix Award during Small Business Week in Washington, D.C. The Phoenix is awarded to those who’ve “displayed selflessness, ingenuity and tenacity in the aftermath of a disaster, while contributing to the rebuilding of their communities.”
Vitori started her career at Cheeseburger Baby as a delivery driver, but she didn’t stop there. After learning the ins and outs of every position at the company, she bought the place. She set out to transform the “dive” by adding food trucks (which turned out to be a lifesaver) so she could “grow beyond South Beach and reach more customers.”
No stranger to transformations, Vitori had to rebuild her iconic burger business after it was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Irma. She’s the perfect embodiment of both the Phoenix—rising from devastation—and the tea bag—gaining strength as she went.
Rieva Lesonsky: You bought Cheeseburger Baby in 2004. What made you think you could go from delivering burgers to running the place?
Stephanie Vitori: I’ve always loved food—I grew up in the kitchen with my family. I was a foodie before being a foodie was a thing. I also saw the connection Cheeseburger Baby had with its customers and employees and I believed in it. So, I saw an opportunity and went for it. No risk, no reward.
Lesonsky: You’ve said you “transformed” Cheeseburger Babyfrom a dive into a South Beach hot spot. How did you do that?
Vitori:I transformed it with hard work, offering great food, ambience and customer service. Word got out we were the place to go for the best burger in town. I also make sure I am present and involved as an owner from cooking burgers to doing the dishes. It’s important to lead by example.
Lesonsky: So things were going great and then Hurricane Irma hit in 2017. Did you prepare for the coming storm?
Vitori: I prepared for the worst but was hoping for the best. About 48 hours before [the storm hit] I decided to put everything in freezers, board up the stores, park the trucks in a safe area, pack up and tarp our house. We got in a U-Haul with our five dogs and went on what seemed like one of the longest road trips ever. It was the hardest decision in my life.
Lesonsky: And yet, despite your preparations, Irma devastated Cheeseburger Baby. What were the damages?
Vitori: Hurricane Irma was by far the biggest challenge the business and I faced in the last 19 years. Water backed up into the restaurant, damaging food and essential equipment. There was also major damage to the air conditioning unit, freezer, hood ventilation system, and our marquee sign. A tree fell on our food truck damaging the roof and awning. Power was out at the restaurant for two weeks.
Lesonsky: You experienced about $150,000 in losses and property damage. Recovery was slow. Were you worried you were going to lose it all?
Vitori: Yes, I was worried about losing it all. I learned about the Small Business Development Center and went to them for help. I had only 24 hours to get our bridge loan application together. It was a challenge but prepared me for filling out the SBA Disaster Loan Application (we were approved).
We did whatever we could. We relied more on the food trucks as we recovered. My wife and I worked endlessly, picking up more truck events everywhere we saw an opportunity, and we marketed on social media.
Lesonsky: During your acceptance speech for the Phoenix Award, you made a pretty staid audience cry and got a resounding standing ovation. How did that make you feel?
Vitori: It truly is hard to put into words what I felt—I’ve never felt anything like it before. It was the first speech I’ve ever given in my life. I was obviously nervous, but I felt blessed and appreciated. The audience made me feel validated—20 years ago I went down the wrong path, quickly realizing it wasn’t for me. Then I was outed in high school which pushed me to graduate a year ahead of my class.
I moved to Miami not knowing my future. I worked extremely hard, buying Cheeseburger Baby and paying it off in two years instead of five. I was honored to [receive] the National Phoenix Award for resiliency, tenacity and strength. I feel the award was for everything I have been through in life, and I think the audience felt the same.
Lesonsky: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever gotten?
Vitori: Always make time for you.
Lesonsky: In your acceptance speech you said, “There are two kinds of people in the world—problem identifiers and problem solvers. Small business owners need to be both.” Was that the lesson this taught you?
Vitori: I’ve always been that way, but in business you learn a lot of time gets wasted when you just have identifiers. Identify, find a solution, solve it and move on.
Lesonsky: What’s next?
Vitori: We want to continue to be the best burger people have ever had in the world.
About Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com. A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.
Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.
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