Skip to main content

The Expertise Of 3 Franchise Generations With Jonathan Ellis

LUNL Jonathan Ellis | Franchise Generation

Jonathan Ellis grew up in a family of franchisees, with more than 80 McDonald’s stores. Franchising is in his DNA and is part of who he is. Fast forward through all the chaos of the last 3+ years, we operate 4 locations and are now actively and successfully selling “Honest Lash” franchises in Texas (first franchisees in El Paso and San Antonio, Texas, opening this Fall 2023). Join us in this incredible episode to understand more about the main mindset of success in the franchise business. Jonathan shares his expertise from having grown up in a successful family in the franchise business and his teachings based on all his knowledge of different franchises.

Watch the episode here

Listen to the podcast here

Powered by Podetize

The Expertise Of 3 Franchise Generations With Jonathan Ellis

Find Out More About The Main Mindset Of Success In The Franchise Business

Our guest for this episode is an exciting one. He is the Founder and CEO of Honest Lash. I am so excited to get into his story and who he is as an individual but more importantly, share his vision. By the end, you’re going to understand why this is an individual to admire. Jonathan Ellis, welcome to the show.

Nick, that’s a very warm and welcoming opening. I’m very excited to be here and dive into the weeds of franchising, business, and all the things that we’re going to be talking about. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

It’s about being qualified and you are doing the work to be qualified. That is most certain but I feel like you were born to do what you are doing, which is so neat. We’ll get into your story. A lot of folks don’t understand what franchising is. They think it’s McDonald’s or Burger King. Those are the more common examples of franchising. As long as it’s moral and legal and makes money, it can be franchised.

That means more traditional methods like McDonald’s or Burger King, the less conventional ones like a painting brand like LIME Painting, or the beauty space like Honest Lash. All different things can be franchised. One thing is common though. Nobody raises their hand and says, “I’m going to get into the franchising space,” not until I learned about you. Franchising has a way of finding you. Jonathan, share your story. How did franchising find you?

It’s a great and long story. It’s one of my favorite stories to tell because I get to talk about my family. Also, who I am, where I come from, and what I believe in. I’m very much a product of my environment being born into a great situation. My grandfather in 1969 opened up one of the first McDonald’s in Texas as a franchisee. He was a lifelong salesman and did a bunch of jobs all through his 20s, 30s, and 40s.

LUNL Jonathan Ellis | Franchise Generation

He was raised as a chicken farmer in Missouri and had a blue-collar job. He ground out, did what he had to do, woke up early, worked late, anything, and everything to provide not only himself but for his family. It’s cool to talk about the origin story of myself. Essentially, Papa opened up his first McDonald’s in Beaumont, Texas, which is about 100 miles East of Houston on Interstate 10. He opened that in 1969.

At the time, McDonald’s wasn’t McDonald’s. McDonald’s was still very much an emerging brand. Texas for one case or another was the last state that Ray Kroc decided to enter. It was already a national brand. It was still finding its sea legs in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. At that point, a lot of locations opened but McDonald’s in Texas was still not an established brand name.

1 year or 2 years into it, in late ‘70 or ‘71, he went belly up and lost everything. He lost his money and was struggling. It was his first time doing business. He opened at the age of 40 in that first location. He was heavily in debt with a lot of overhead. When you first open your business, you don’t know what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you franchise or not. You’re still finding your way, stubbing your toe, and making all good mistakes and the ultimate pursuit to be your boss and be in the business yourself.

McDonald’s at the time was growing and emerging. I remember Papa always saying that the closest McDonald’s was in New Orleans, which was over 300 miles away. There were no regional suppliers or established systems like the global McDonald’s. He took his old job back with the NCR or National Cash Register why he came across McDonald’s in the first place.

He had worked a deal with McDonald’s to live part-time in Texas and be able to move to Florida, which is where his position was for NCR. He could split time in both Florida and Texas. That worked for a minute. He was paying bills and helping grow the business a bit. McDonald’s essentially said a year into it, “You’re going to have this business or restaurant. Get back to Beaumont.” From the way my dad tells it, there was a big family vote at the dinner table between him, his brother, and my grandparents, even though they knew it was going to be a significant risk and they had already gone belly up once.

When I say belly up, they didn’t have enough money to pay the bills for their lifestyle. They put all their savings and everything into that restaurant. Papa needed an income. He took his old job back, split time, and still had a great GM in Beaumont to run it but McDonald’s was like, “If you’re going to be the guy, you got to be back in Texas.” It was a big family vote and went the way like, “We’re entrepreneurs. We believe in this. We got to put love into it.”

At the time, my dad and uncle were teenagers, ready to pull up their sleeves and get into the business. That’s exactly what they did. Luckily, in 1972, national advertising was introduced. The rising tide lifts all ships. From 1972 to 1982, they opened six restaurants in Beaumont, Texas, won every couple of years, and continued to grow.

Once Dad and my uncle officially entered the business, they were adults. They were young, ambitious., and aggressive. We had a good growth market in Texas. Brian Ellis, my dad, and Russ, my uncle, expanded over the course of 40-plus years at our peak up to 82 restaurants. They rode that McDonald’s wave up from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s with every part of that McDonald’s story and legacy. No matter what your opinion of McDonald’s, good, bad, or ugly, everybody knows and is familiar with McDonald’s. It’s a globally recognized brand. It’s one of the biggest brands.

Being able to grow up in an environment where I was old enough to be aware of what Dad did, there was a significant amount of restaurants at that time. I came along the third generation watching that growth and Dad go from a GM to a supervisor and owner-operator, essentially, and then to the point where they needed to expand beyond Beaumont. Uncle Russ bought the Corpus Christi market in the late ‘90s. They partnered up and bought the Rio Grande Valley, which had a lot of restaurants down there, which is on the Mexico border.

It’s been a very good business for us. My grandfather was in it for 52 years before he passed away. It’s been our lifeblood, family crest, who we are, our education, and real-life experience. Being able to grow up in an entrepreneurial environment that was also bolted on to this extremely strong system of what could be considered the best franchise in the world, I’m in awe of it. I respect it.

Ultimately, we sold out and have gone in different directions but it’s very much part of who I am and what I believe in. It connects all the dots for almost every major life decision that’s occurred in my upbringing. I’m very appreciative of it. It’s also very humbling because that was Papa’s success. When you come in that environment, you learn from it but you’re also like, “You all did an awesome job. What am I going to do? How can I help grow this? How can I make decisions that benefit my children and grandchildren down the line?”

That’s what McDonald’s is to me. As far as who I am and the family legacy of franchising, I could talk about it all day. I could talk ketchup and mustard, French fries, and drive-throughs until the cows come home. It’s such a strong system, playbook, and brand. I can’t help but respect it. It’s cool being a part of that. I’m very excited to talk about it.

Do you know what number your grandfather was?

That’s a great question for my dad. We had an I-10 and 11th Street location, which was the original. The earliest number that I worked with was 3325, which was one of our Beaumont locations but we had shut down some locations and there had been some store numbers that had been moved. I want to say it was in the early thousands. On top of my head, I couldn’t tell you. My dad would know because he worked in it his entire life.

Do you know how many locations they have in 2024?

Back in 2017 and 2018, Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast. I don’t know if you recall that storm but it was the storm that the entire state was underwater. J.J. Watt raised a significant amount of money. I don’t know if you remember that headline. We had hurricanes in the past but that one impacted us significantly. When that time came around, Papa was in his 90s and Dad was in his 60s. I was in my mid-30s.

It’s not just like Dad will hand you the keys and it’s your market to run. It’s very much a system. There’s very much an approval process not only from our family planning but also business planning on the McDonald’s side. I looked at what was on the horizon for McDonald’s, which is everything you see, the double drive-throughs, digital menu boards, and kiosk in the lobby. It’s all cool. Every one of those is an amazing and beautiful restaurant. Those are expensive restaurants to build, operate, and maintain.

What I was looking at, as far as me coming on at an ownership level, was a significant amount of debt in my future as far as rebuilding and installing this restaurant of the future. I believe in reinvestment and being the shiniest guy on the block. I believe in main and main and all of those top-line things you have to do to continue to be relevant and grow revenue.

The only issue I had with it coming into my chapter of being able to run with McDonald’s was we were reinvesting millions of dollars into these restaurants but still selling cheeseburgers for $1. With our market data, we were more of a value menu market than an extra value meal market. It’s hard to pay for all that shiny stuff when you’re still selling very low-value, margin, and return types of products. It was a pivot. In ‘17, Dad sold his nineteen restaurants in Beaumont, Texas. Uncle Russ sold his seventeen restaurants in Corpus Christi.

Uncle Russ and my cousin still own locations down in the Rio Grande Valley. I believe they have 27 or 28 down there but as far as my affiliation and Dad’s relationship with the business, we’re out of McDonald’s entirely. We went from growing to selling in an eighteen-month window and that’s a big shift. It took a minute to do it. Here we are years later and we’re in these new business models. Some of them have worked. Some of them haven’t. We don’t have the cash cow of McDonald’s anymore. It’s like anything. I love franchising, business, systems, and entrepreneurship. There’s a little bit of McDonald’s baked into everything we do.

It’s in your DNA that you grew up. What is the name of the university? Is it Hamburger University?

That’s a great training program. As far as franchising, internal training, and leadership training, they had a lot of good things that were ahead of their time back in the ‘70s. Grandpa, Dad, and Mom had a degree from HU. I’m the only one of my siblings that have one. Regardless of that, it’s a great experience. It’s a training experience. When you’re trying to grow up the corporate ladder, it’s one of those things you can set a goal for. The ones that make it to Hamburger University are the best and brightest in the system. It’s got a silly name but on the same note, what it stands for is incredible.

I’ve got the HU degree listed on my LinkedIn profile. It’s one of those things when you grow up in it and you finally get it. There were a few other awards in the system that you’re all reaching for but they knew what they’re doing. They still know what they’re doing. McDonald’s has had their ups and downs like any business. It’s always cyclical and seasonal. What I admire about McDonald’s is many years into it, it’s still hacking away at it like it’s their first day on the job.

If there’s a will, there’s a way. As a system, it’s a very aggressive business mindset. We not only want to be in the game but we want to be the best in the game, be on main and main, and establish new economies by us opening up on this exit. It’s a great system to be a part of. It teaches you the 101, the X’s and O’s, and almost how to operate any business from a baseline level. I wouldn’t say it’s an expert on every business. It gives you a good baseline to build all of your systems as far as all the different departments on what you need to do to be successful.

I still have a stack of McDonald’s binders sitting here that I still refer to. When I’m thinking of a policy, an employee thing, a product promotion, a marketing calendar, or whatever it is we’ve got to build to support internally but also to support franchisees in the system, it’s easy to rely on the arches. It helps lay the ground for whatever it is we’re doing.

I love the mentality of, “We’re going to be at the best intersection and make the best business opportunity out of the real estate, the product, the brand equity, the simplicity of a few, and the whole thing.” Hamburger University is awesome.

It’s Business 101. It’s a lot of leadership training. There’s a lot of philosophies along the way. A lot of Ray Kroc’s quotes are blood of that curriculum. You also go up there and it’s like a museum or an archive. It shows you the entire history of where they come from and all the stories. It hasn’t always been a movie to tell the story. You go see it and watch it. You think of it. It’s easy for us to jump on a podcast, social media, SEO, or all the things we have to do to market.

Being able to grow in that environment through my brain and lens was an incredible wave that they were able to not only catch but continue to grow. I read an article stating that they’ve got a goal by the end of the decade that they’re going to hit 50,000 restaurants. I’m like, “That’s a lot of restaurants.” At the first national convention I went to, Dad said, “There are over 30,000 operators here.” The system is it’s operators, corporate, suppliers, and all the verticals in between those relationships.

It’s like you leave Beaumont, Texas where you’re big fish, and then visit the national convention where there are 30,000 people who are doing the same thing you’re doing. That’s very powerful. It’s like a pep rally. You’d leave out of those things. You’re ready to pull out your checkbook and buy the new shiny toy that they’re slinging and all the new promotions that they’re coming up with not just 6 months but they would lay out 5-year plans. “Do this.” The fact that you all can project that far out of what we’re going to be doing as a system is mind-blowing. It’s fun to be a part of it. It was a very cool experience.

With that strategy piece of the evolution of a franchise system, you said McDonald’s might be number one. I’m pretty sure they are.

There are different ways of looking at it, like number of units, number of revenue, fastest growing, and most profitable. Chick-fil-A is the big dog. Decades ago, Subway was the one opening stores on every corner to their detriment. Everybody has their moment in the sun and Chick-fil-A seems like the king of the mountain, in my opinion, but I always have a bias towards the arches.

I still drive by exits on the peripheral here in Fort Worth, Texas. McDonald’s is always the first guy on the corner. I remember when I was a kid, Dad was opening an interstate somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, which was 30 minutes away from any civilization. He was like, “It’s a big store but a highway store, a bathroom stop, and a truck stop. We’re going to establish an entire economy.” You look back at Winnie, Texas back in the early ‘90s. There was maybe a gas station there. In 2024, it’s an entire small economy.

Watching that grow and McDonald’s started it on that corner is cool. Not a lot of people can say that their business created the city. Though, I don’t want to say it because it was there but it put them on the map to a certain degree. I’m proud of that. It’s Winnie, Texas. It’s the highway stop but it’s cool. Every time I dropped through Winnie, I was like, “None of this was here until we put that store there.” I don’t know. It’s just cool.

Private enterprises are underrated for how they impact history.

LUNL Jonathan Ellis | Franchise Generation

Also, the economy. It’s a job provider. Regardless if it’s a job or not, it’s still paying people’s incomes and providing livelihoods and opportunities. The ones that do take McDonald’s seriously and do make it to HU or Hamburg University, their opportunities galore. Dad was always proud of the fact that he created nine owner-operators in his system. It means they got promoted to the point with the growth, expansion, and leadership. McDonald’s was like, “Maybe he can go up.” Dad was like, “Great. You’re getting expensive on my payroll. Go open your restaurant.”

He created 9 owner-operators in his 40-plus years in the business. Every one of them is still sprinkled around here in Texas. Anytime we were traveling, we were visiting stores where Dad and Papa helped create their opportunities. Even that is cool. It’s entrepreneurship and generational. We piggybacked off McDonald’s but it’s very much a family crest. It’s who we are and what we believe in. The core philosophies of McDonald’s are very much part of who we are and how we operate businesses.

It’s a people-first business. Working in fast food is difficult. It’s a grind. It’s a thankless job more times than not. We always like to say, “We’re McDonald’s, ” but we’re still a local business down the street from these restaurants. We’re a mom-and-pop corporation. We’ve got a lot of great corporate systems, plans, and strategies but it’s still a relationship-based business where you’re building and managing a team.

McDonald’s is a complex system so you’ve got to invest in your people. You have to constantly train, motivate, and lead, even keep in step with what McDonald’s expectations are. Another set of challenges is they’ve got this mega plan that they’re building and then I’ve got these individual restaurants with all their teams, leadership structures, and management personalities. You’re almost like the translator of how you take this giant complex system and make it easily digestible in bites. If we get all at once, it’s too much to manage. I can talk about McDonald’s forever.

That’s the genius of the simplicity of Hamburger University. The fact that the complex is made so simple is the beauty of how genius it is. You are scaling your franchise system as the franchisor, Founder, and CEO. You come from a family that is all about franchising. It happens to be a franchise system that we all know and love. Growing up and playing in the McDonald’s PlayPlace, I’ve always thought that that was so genius. The Happy Meals is beautiful. How genius so many things are.

That was my first job at McDonald’s. I was probably 5 or 6. I remember it was Parkdale Mall adding PlayPlace. At the time, it was still an outdoor PlayPlace before they started building indoor. He’s like, “Go run through the ball, play in the balls, and figure out, ‘Are there construction leftovers?’” I was pulling out old zip ties and screws. He was making sure it was kid-safe to the general public before we opened it up to the public. Playing in the balls, they always had diapers in them.

As a manager, they were paying the butt to manage but as a kid, I still remember pulling out zip ties and screws. Dad was like, “You saved me a lawsuit there.” I’m like, “Great, Dad. I’m happy to help.” I was six years old. Get the kids and families in. Let’s put birthday parties. It was very much a family-first business model. It became a lot more drive-through-focused, speed-focused, and value-focused in its later years but it was very family-focused in the good old days. That’s when I was a kid. I remember those days very well.

Disney does a great job of a very similar concept. I want to talk about Honest Lash. How did it get started? Can you tell us the story? That’s not a quick-service restaurant or fast food. It is in the beauty space. It’s still brick and mortar. We have a LIME Painting service-based company, home services, McDonald’s, quick service restaurants, and Honest Lash in the beauty space. How did you choose the beauty space? Maybe you do use the products.

I remember I was 11 or 12. I read an article about a national competitor who’s in the lash industry. They had partnered up with a large private equity company. They were going national and had opened up 200-plus locations. Their average unit volume was $600,000. Their average ROI was 20%. The path to break even was very fast. That article for Amazing Lash sat in the back of my head for close to a decade.

I liked those margins and the simple model of an inline strip center-based lease location with a staff of 3 to 5 employees and a minimal investment of some chairs, beauty equipment, and cosmetics. You have to make the setting nice. That article sat in my head for a few years. Being a restaurant guy and 100% focused on McDonald’s, at the time, it was just an article I read.

Fast forward to 2017 and 2018, we’re making our plans to exit McDonald’s post the hurricane. Right up to the hurricane, I was looking at restaurants all over the state to buy, purchase, and acquire. We went from buying to selling in the course of twelve months. In the pursuit of finding more McDonald’s, I found an operator for sale in Fort Worth, Texas who was exiting the system as well. I didn’t want to invest in Vision 2020, which is what they were calling it.

I love Fort Worth. I’ve got siblings that went to TCU. We visit there a couple of times a year. It’s 4 or 5 hours away from Beaumont. It was staying in Texas but living in a new part of Texas. The mindset was expansion, growth, and adding more units to the overall pie. In the course of that deal, we moved to Fort Worth, bought a house, and put the kids in school. We did all the things waiting for the deal to happen.

The deal did not go through because there was another larger local operator who already had an infrastructure and an established team here. I would have been acquiring this team starting over. I wasn’t going to bring anybody from Beaumont. McDonald’s has to approve deals. They chose the other operator. The next thing you know, we’re in Fort Worth. I’ve got no business or income. I’m helping remotely with the Beaumont market but not a ton.

Restaurant operations are very much hands-on in the grind. Keep your finger on. We live in this remote world but years ago, it wasn’t this remote. When that deal fell through, I was like, “What am I going to do? I got to figure it out.” Dad wasn’t necessarily out of the restaurants but he hadn’t been doing the day-to-day. I had been taking on the brunt of that for a while. When he exited, he was like, “Let’s take this as a time to regroup and figure out what the next steps are.”

Dad and I were both very adamant. All we’ve ever done is food. There was curiosity and intrigue. We started going into these franchise conventions. We wanted to stay in franchising and buy into another system or brand. Dad was a big fan of buying something with existing cashflow that we could go in, make it our own, and analyze it at our systems. We looked at everything.

Over the course of a year, I looked at 20 to 25 businesses, probably 1 under contract, and LOI for 2 or 3. Through the course of due diligence and all that, I was like, “Maybe or maybe not.” I looked at liquor store operations and restaurant operations. I looked at FedEx routes. I looked at 20 to 25 different businesses. I finally came across the Sylvan Learning deal, which is another franchise education business. They’ve been around for 40-plus years. It’s a legacy brand with 600 and something units, that might have more.

There was a patch for sale in North Collin County, which is North Dallas, which was a very high-end growing market with rooftops and a lot of development. I saw the revenue and margins. All those eight stores had a nice little patch, establishment, room to grow, and room to add more locations in the territories. It was intriguing. It felt right. It was a legacy brand with multi-unit operations.

Education was a new space for me but these were retail locations. At the end of the day, it’s still at a director and staff. It still was managing labor, building top-line revenue, and marketing. It still had all the same tools of a normal business. We’re selling a new service and product. There’s no more drive-through. We’re adding teachers and students to the floor. It’s a different way to run a business.

Ultimately, in mid-2018, I bought eight Sylvan Learning locations in North Dallas. Six months later, and I was still trying to figure out what I was doing, the Austin market came for sale. That was another seven locations. I had an opportunity to double down and grow. My lender was a Beaumont-based bank that knew us, our history, who we were, and what we were trying to accomplish. We had shown that we could scale and grow in multiple markets. It felt very comfortable, regardless of how early it was in the process. We levered up again and got another loan.

Within the first 10 months, I’m operating 15 Sylvan Learning locations. I’m not going to say it was easy but it was a slower pace than McDonald’s. At McDonald’s, you’re used to getting phone calls all day, every day because there’s always something broken, somebody not showing up, or an upset customer. There is always something 24/7. Whereas in the education world, it’s more nurturing and relationship-based.

For Sylvan Learning Center to be successful, you have to have a very strong sales director running the location and a director of education operating the education side. It’s a balanced approach to sales and delivery. 15 locations means 30 salaries, which means 300 employees, a lot of leases, rents, and salaries. I jumped on that treadmill and ran super fast.

In late 2019 and early ‘20, we were starting to get over that hump, become profitable, get our team aligned, and get some of these locations more. They were fine. They were making money before but we were trying to install our way. McDonald’s has a leaner approach and Sylvan gave me a lot of leeway like, “You’re a McDonald’s guy. Come in and see what you see. Let’s make some changes.”

I took that and ran with it. I was excited about it. We installed a subscription model that was very needed at the time because the revenue model was difficult at times. It was very sales-based. Fast forward to early 2020, we were feeling very good, confident, and motivated. In December 2019, we opened our location in Bastrop, Texas, which is about twenty minutes outside of Austin. I was opening locations up to the pandemic.

Your original question is how I get to beauty and I talked about education. Essentially, the beauty business is a 100% COVID pivot. The education business was leaving McDonald’s with a new venture and industry, carving a new path, figuring out what the next 40 years would be like, and following down that path like what Dad and Papa did.

In March 2020, Trump shut down travel from Europe. That was spring break. The kids and I were on vacation. I remember thinking, “This is a little off.” First, it was two weeks and it was a month. We were considered inessential as an education business. With essential and inessential, you’re still not going to convince me in one way or the other because if we’re providing jobs and livelihoods, we’re essential.

Regardless, I was shut down for three months. I had to furlough the majority of my staff simply because I couldn’t have no operations, no education, no nothing. Very luckily, the majority of my staff were full-time teachers at local school districts. They came to us during after-school hours, which is when we were primarily operating, I was their side hustle more times than not.

That helped me sleep a little better at night, that I didn’t have to lay off all those people but yet when we reopened, I wasn’t able to hire them all back because we didn’t have the demand for it. It’s still difficult to talk about. Essentially, we reopened in midsummer to not much demand because it’s summer. The kids are at home. They hadn’t been in school for several months at this point.

Back-to-school was delayed and then it was virtual. They canceled report cards. Several of my school districts were like, “Grades don’t count.” I know that seems silly but in my world, we need parents and students. I need kids who are struggling and need help to either fill in their gaps or help them get ahead. If the education system isn’t driving the need and demand for education, then my business bottoms out, regardless of how much we think, “What do you mean? How can that business not survive?”

We went from thriving, killing it, and doing this. It was three months when we were like, “We’re going to sit back and figure this out.” We did all the virtual stuff and tried to do a lot of plans that Sylvan was pushing but at the end of the day, there wasn’t much need for it. Sylvan is a great system. We had a lot of software-based programs but none of them were virtual. None of them were prepared to go online or cloud-based. We were inventing.

Sylvan was building some stuff. We were all sharing different ways to operate because we were all flying by the seat of our pants. We went through the PPP process and took on $500,000. I remember when I was talking to my CPA and he’s like, “For eight weeks, this is our payroll and rent. This is what it costs. This is what we’re going to borrow.” I’m like, “I don’t know.” $500,000 from the government sounds terrifying. I’ve grown up in a family business but this is the first time my name’s on the title. I’m going to take a loan from the government. Those were scary times.

2020 was a mess but through that mess, fast forward to November and December, I was running out of cash again. Customers are not necessarily calling because, at that time, we were still not very stable. I called corporate. I was like, “I’m out of money. I need help. Do you want to take these over? Do you want me to sell them? Let’s get on the same page.”

Essentially, I sold 12 of the 15 locations back to a combination of corporate and surrounding franchisees that weren’t as leveraged as I was from a debt point of view. They were all getting fairly good operating locations that I had sunk a lot of money into because I remodeled almost all 15 of them in that first 2-year window. I wasn’t prepared for it. It knocked me on my rear and I’m still here picking up the pieces. A result of that is Honest Lash. You’re going to say, “Why Honest Lash?”

I had three leases that were going to be dead rent and cost me close to $15,000 a month. I was like, “What can I plug into these spaces that would at least generate enough revenue for the rent?” That was the whole idea behind it. I didn’t have a lot of money or capital. I’d slowly had to let go of my infrastructure team and people over the course of the year.

I was like, “What can I operate by myself as an operator? What can we install in these spaces that is low capital investment?” I didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend on furniture and equipment. I didn’t have any money to turn Sylvan locations into restaurants. That wasn’t going to be a solution. Not only with the red tape of conversions but converting an inline into a restaurant, wouldn’t have worked.

I came up with a few different concepts like a liquor store concept, a dog wash concept, and then a lash concept. Back to that article that stuck in my head, I needed a concept that I could build out that was not expensive. Ultimately, we landed on the lash concept. I knew by going into this lash world that there would be an established set of people that I could hire who have been trained and licensed through the state, like estheticians, cosmetologists, lash artists, and beauticians.

I liked that there was a readily trained workforce that I could go out and hire. I also liked that the build-out on Sylvan would not be significant. Sylvan is essentially an open box with a bunch of tables and chairs, some iPads, and an office for the director. It’s not a very complex build-out, or some paint on the walls and carpet because it’s a student environment.

All we did was come in. I was able to buy one salon kit on Amazon. That was a twelve-chair kit. It came with lash chairs, operating tables, some lights, and lamps. I was like, “I can take that 12-chair set, split it across these 3 remaining leases that I have, and turn each one of these places into a 3-chair last studio,” which keeps my build-up and cost down on what I need to do.

On Black Friday of 2020, we opened Lash Goddess, which is a different name, but that was an available website on GoDaddy that I found. I was like, “That’s a good name. We’ll throw that on there. It’s a good website. We’ll build a whole brand around it.” When Lash Goddess first opened Bastrop, Friday of the week prior, it was a Sylvan Learning Center. A week later, we pulled out all the equipment, moved in the salon equipment, hung some chandeliers, put in some hardwood flooring, painted a lot of walls, and threw up some vinyl and shiplap in, trying to make it very aesthetically pleasing, a beautiful space.

It went from Sylvan Learning to Lash Goddess in a matter of 72 hours with a couple of buddies and me swinging hammers, painting, and doing our thing. It’s a wild story. It’s a COVID pivot story but ultimately, that was a hell of a year. We pivoted from McDonald’s to education. Here we are in year three of Honest Lash. We’ve got 4 locations in Austin and sold 2 franchises, 1in El Paso and 1 in San Antonio. I’ve got hundreds of leads coming in a month.

In ‘24, we’re on track to sell probably 2 or 3 a month. My goal is to sell all of Texas over the next several years, which we’ve mapped out but we can probably fit 80 to 100 across Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, Rio Grande Valley, and Beaumont, Texas. I’ve got a plan. It’s very much a McDonald’s plan and a growth plan with franchisees in mind. It’s been a wild ride. I can’t say I enjoyed every part of it but it’s very much an entrepreneurial ride.

Here we are. We have Honest Last. We are building and bolting on all the components like Hamburger University. We’ve added a university campus learning environment at our location in Austin. We’re in the process of beginning to train in ‘24. We’re not only utilizing Honest Lash University as our franchise school but also as an in-house training school for corporate leadership and development, and hopefully, owner-operator development. We’re going to be licensed through the state of Texas to also be able to create our lash artist.

It’s very much back to the point. I like to bake in McDonald’s, use them as the blueprint, and build my blueprint. Long story short, I was a franchisee and now a franchisor. I’m loving this side of the business as well. I’m ready to grow and take it where it needs to be. We’re right there. I’m excited to be talking about it and be on shows like yours. It’s been a wild ride. We’re excited to talk about it.

I want to bring it to the masses because it’s a great business model. I make good money on it. It’s very much an owner-operator model with a pull-up-your-sleeve mentality. It’s a great business model. I like being a part of it. It’s not exactly the story I envisioned for myself but here we are. I’m going to do whatever I can to capitalize, take advantage, and hopefully grow a strong franchise system very much with the core values and philosophies of McDonald’s and this generational franchise legacy of who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.

I told you a lot in a very drawn-out way. It’s hard to say, “We opened up a lash studio,” because it wasn’t just we decided to open a lash studio. We were in a situation that was not comfortable. We needed a solution. We were painted into a corner and made some decisions. We’ve had a few dominoes fall our way and here we are talking. I’m happy to talk about it.

In the business, it’s about the system, process, and culture. I often talk about my experience in the paint space where I never thought that I would own a paint company. I can go on and on about the amount of services out there where you don’t think that this is an industry where you’ll spend a decade plus. Speaking for myself, I’ve been in the painting space for several years. I always joke that the space wooed me.

I was chasing commercial real estate development in South Florida. That sounded great to me in college but the reality was this old-school, huge industry, there was a need for luxury space. I’m hearing your story and I see a business model that is built on the backside of some incredible organizations that you were born, lived, and grew up in. Here’s this business that is built based on your firsthand experience of business and what will make a sustainable business.

Hearing your story, I’m jacked up. I appreciate you sharing your story and taking the approach that you did. I don’t think I’ll ever forget your story. We learned from stories. Thank you for sharing that incredible story with me. I will always have that story to go along with Honest Lash. I know our audience will as well. Thank you.

Thank you for having me.

What is the best way for them to get in touch with you? I’m sure you’re going to have some follow-up questions. For folks who are interested in learning more about this incredible business model, where can they go to learn more about Honest Lash? How can they get in touch with you if they would like to have more conversations?

We’re based in Austin, Texas. We have four locations. We’ve got our flagship at the domain. We’ve got our West campus location where we’re housing our university for our training and everything we discussed. The easiest place to contact us is We’ve got all our franchising information and retail information there. It’s an evolving brand and landscape of who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.

With the state of the economy, coming into an election year, and all the PTSD I have from 2020, we’re doing our best to plan and be prepared to answer the questions that we know first-time business owners and entrepreneurs are going to be asking. What I like to say is I’m not going to have the perfect answer for everything you’re asking but I’m going to give you the best of my abilities to explain, introduce, and support it.

Understand that if the world takes a left turn again and all of a sudden we’re having to reinvent how we do things as a society, we’re going to be right there hand-in-hand with you, trying to figure out what our next move is. At the end of the day, it’s about providing for your family and creating an environment for your kids. I grew up in a situation where I benefited from the decisions that Dad, Papa, and everybody else involved in the process made over the years.

As far as getting in contact with me, go to I’m active on LinkedIn. We’re here and open. I like that we’re in this remote world because it makes these kinds of conversations easier to happen. I’m old-school. I’m an owner-operator. I like to be in the kitchen and visiting locations. We’re focusing heavily on taxes. We do have aspirations for national growth but I want to be able to grow smart instead of growing fast. I believe in the system and what we’re trying to build here. I’m excited and happy to have those conversations in the future. Please, call me. We’re here. We’re available. We’re opening locations. Come catch this wave. I’m excited to talk to you.

LUNL Jonathan Ellis | Franchise Generation

You got it from Jonathan Ellis. Check out Honest Lash. This is incredible leadership. It’s a business model that is built the right way. One of the things that you mentioned in the show that I appreciated is that you are building it with franchise owners in mind. This was an awesome episode. Please, subscribe to the channel. It’s how we’re able to continue to grow to bring on thought leaders like Jonathan Ellis, the Founder of Honest Lash. Thank you for reading. As always, level up.

Important Links

About Jonathan Ellis

LUNL Jonathan Ellis | Franchise Generation

Born out of a COVID-triggered pivot, Honest Lash currently has three corporate locations and signed three franchise partners within 90 days of launching opportunities to help the brand grow throughout the Lonestar State. Ellis can discuss how Honest Lash, a beauty and wellness business built during one of the worst possible times for the industry, has a business model specifically designed to weather any storm and was built to scale.

In addition to being a third-generation franchisee, Ellis also owned and operated 15 Sylvan Learning locations in addition to investing in one Signarama unit. Founded out of tenacity, out of being painted into a corner, and looking for a way to counterbalance the financial stress sustained during the pandemic, Ellis opened the first Honest Lash location by pulling out desks, chairs, and learning equipment of a Sylvan Learning location and installed lash chairs and equipment. With the best pieces of the McDonald’s, Signarama, and Sylvan business models, alongside generations of firsthand experience and well-developed expertise, Ellis can discuss the journey to becoming a first-time franchisor as Honest Lash looks to sell out its home market of Texas before eventually exploding nationwide.