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Nice and smooth, from drinks to service, for entrepreneur

Dina Mitchell didn’t know much about running a business when she purchased the Las Vegas area franchise rights for Tropical Smoothie Cafe 10 years ago.

What she did know was that smoothies were immensely popular in California and that the quality of the fruit-based, milkshake-like drink she was finding in Las Vegas fell far below her standards.

Having worked at a smoothie shop as a teenager, Mitchell knew the process and ingredients used to make a quality product.

“Without getting technical, we produce a better-tasting smoothie,” Mitchell said at Tropical Smoothie’s new drive-through store on Blue Diamond Road. “I leave it to the customer. The best way is go head-to-head. Ours is a healthier smoothie. It’s not ice cream or sherbet or nonfat frozen yogurt. Those are shakes. Ours are real fruit, ice and turbinado.”

Mitchell, a tall, athletic woman who dabbled in acting and singing and boxed professionally, decided she wanted to stay in Las Vegas after the relationship that brought her here soured.

That’s kind of ironic for the former Moscow radio talk show host who took calls from people with love-life problems.

Mitchell said she found the Tropical Smoothie franchise on the Internet, searching for key words such as “coffee” and “franchise.”

“I had an idea, a concept of coffee or tapas, something you could have fun doing in Las Vegas without drinking alcohol,” she said. “I felt having a load of money and free time in Vegas is not a good thing.”

Mitchell started with her first store at Eastern Avenue and Horizon Ridge Parkway and has overseen development of 20 Tropical Smoothie cafes around the valley, including one near Nellis Air Force Base and four casino locations. She was recognized as the Destin, Fla.-based company’s national area developer of the year in 2009.

The Las Vegas market led the entire Tropical Smoothie system with a 6.1 percent increase in same-store sales in 2009. Las Vegas also had the No. 1 store in sales, a 24-hour drive-through location at the Las Vegas Beltway and Flamingo Road.

Mitchell said she works closely with franchisees to ensure that sales are strong and that operations run efficiently. They met as a group and developed a six-month marketing plan to combat the effects of the poor economy.

Mitchell plans to expand into Los Angeles and Ventura County, Calif. Tropical Smoothie has more than 285 locations in 34 states since it started in 1997 and was ranked among the 500 fastest-growing franchises by Entrepreneur magazine.

Question: How much does it cost to open a Tropical Smoothie franchise?

Answer: It varies. We might get an opportunity to take over a closed Dunkin’ Donuts or something. It also depends on tenant improvements from the landlord, what they’ll give us to go in there. It’s between $250,000 and $400,000. I hate to say that in Vegas because of all the variables. This store was fast-tracked around $200,000.

Question: Where did you get your financing?

Answer: From all of my allocations from the long eclectic list of things I’ve done. For the most part, it was just me hoarding away this money. I’d just purchased a house. It was refinancing my equity. I refinanced my home five times. All these sacrifices I made … I didn’t buy clothing, I didn’t take trips. It was all about this business. I just kept putting money back in.

Question: What does an average Tropical Smoothie franchise generate in annual revenue?

Answer: I have to be careful of how I answer that. I can tell you here locally we are above the national average. Six of my stores are in the top 10 and two of them bring in more than $1 million in revenue. I fully disclose to franchisees the variables, location being No. 1. Is it owner-operated or all employees? What kind of advertising are they doing? Because of all these variables … again, is it a 24-hour drive-through? Sales increase 30 percent with a drive-through and if they go 24 hours, it’s equal to that and it reduces labor by 1 (percent) to 3 percent.

Question: What makes the Flamingo Road-Las Vegas Beltway store No. 1?

Answer: It’s a 24-hour drive-through, it has a great location, it’s visible. It’s a great franchisee who understands the importance of customer service and unparalleled hospitality, understanding that if you don’t have the basics of keeping you customer happy with food on time, at the right temperature, it doesn’t matter where your advertising is, it’s like throwing money in a bucket with a big hole.

Question: How did you increase year-over-year sales in this economy?

Answer: Hard work. Now my focus is on advertising and focusing on the increase of same-store sales. It’s almost better than opening a new store, or equal to opening a new store, plus I have happier franchisees because sales increased. Also with having franchisees who focus on tweaking all elements of a store to make it the best. I can’t say it’s one thing. It’s never getting comfortable. I always feel the competition is ready to pounce on any opportunity I give them. I never want to be behind.

Question: What advice do you give to your franchisees?

Answer: I give tons of advice, unsolicited or not. It’s just the way I am. I love to help. Some might say I’m a busybody. If it’s controlling labor, food costs, advertising … so many variables. It depends on the questions they have. I can identify things quickly and I have the eye of the customer.

Question: Why did you stay in Las Vegas after you split with your boyfriend?

Answer: I just got wrapped up in the whole thing, made friends, bought a home. What I noticed about Las Vegas is there’s so many opportunities here. There seemed to be a lot of Californians, so I thought what made it in L.A. can make it here. Tanning salons … already done. Nobody had done smoothies with food. It just made sense.

Question: Did you ever have doubts about opening Tropical Smoothie?

Answer: This made sense and the company was receptive to my ideas. There were only 20 stores across the nation at the time, nothing west of Alabama. I’d really made up my mind before I went to Destin. This was vibrant and colorful. I tasted the food and was sold. It was two weeks there and I used every minute of those two weeks to make the decision. I stayed up in my hotel making a business plan for five stores. I am definitely a little obsessive-compulsive and I have so much energy, once I direct it. No matter how much I put in, it’s rewarded me three times, better than any relationship I ever had.

Question: Were there any surprises in starting the business?

Answer: I didn’t realize how much work it would be. It actually worked to my benefit. If anyone had told me how much work and sacrifices it would take, I wouldn’t have done it. I worked 100 hours a week, sometimes 120. I lost count after 100. I went to the store at 6 a.m. and worked until the store closed and then go home and look at Excel sheets. It was like that for a long time. At this point, I get to be the cheerleader and work on marketing.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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