"You try things, and some things just don't work out. The trick is making sure you don't risk the greater good for little things."
A lot of mornings, if you want to find Bob Miller, you should head over to the lobby of the Das Dutchman Essenhaus Inn and Conference Center. There he’ll be, with a cup of coffee and newspaper, chatting with guests.
While it might look like Bob’s having a good time – and he is – he’s also working, connecting with customers. “I try to have 15 or 20 minutes like that every day when we’re here,” he says. “It gives me a chance to thank people and establish relationships.
”Bob’s daily ritual reflects the formula that seems to drive Das Dutchman Essenhaus and its various operations: equal parts folksy Hoosier hospitality, hard work and smart business practices.
Bob certainly hasn’t always spent his morning relaxing with a cup of coffee. When he and his wife, Sue, launched their operation with Das Dutchman Essenhaus restaurant in 1971, they were the primary workhorses, doing whatever it took to get the business off the ground.
“When you start a new business, it’s just to survive,” says Sue Miller. “I still remember the first day we had $1,000 in sales.
”Bob and Sue have worked together for almost all of the nearly 50 years they’ve been married. During those years, they’ve managed to do two things successfully: Expand their operations and raise a faithful, dedicated family.
You don’t have to walk far from the restaurant’s front porch to get a sense of the enterprise’s considerable growth. Today, that business that started with one little eatery now includes the 1,000-seat restaurant and a catering service, the 89-room hotel with attached conference facility, live-entertainment productions, a cluster of retail shops, and a noodle production and distribution business – with most of those operations just a few steps away. All together, the company now employees about 450 people.
As impressive as this growth is, it always has been executed with a certain caution. “Growth will only be as good as your human capacity to develop it,” Bob says. Adds Joel, one of the Millers’ sons who work in the business, “You can easily outgrow what you can manage.”
That’s not to suggest the Millers didn’t occasionally take risks, or that everything they’ve tried has been a home run. The family experimented with a furniture business for a while, and also took a shot at a fast-food concept and candy making, and they have had to close some operations along the way. The trick, they say, is to take reasonable risks.
“You try things, and some things just don’t work out,” says Lance Miller, another of the sons who works for the family business. “The trick is making sure you don’t risk the greater good for little things.”
None of these undertakings – successes or failures – would have been possible without the full family effort, Bob and Sue say. All of the Miller’s five kids have come up through the business, cutting their teeth bussing tables and doing other front-line jobs. Now their three sons serve in management roles: Lance is the company’s president, Jeff the operations manager, and Joel the facilities manager.
Before they took on these roles, all three of the brothers went to college and held jobs in other companies. “We wanted all of the kids to be involved in another business somewhere else before coming to work for us,” says Bob, who serves as the company’s chairman. “That helps them earn the respect of the employees with their experience, and we gain from their experience.
”For example, Jeff spent time working with Hyatt Hotels in Florida, where he says he learned a lot about systems and customer service that he was able to apply to Das Dutchman Essenhaus when he rejoined the firm.
The experience also reminded Jeff of some of the virtues of working for a small, family-owned business.“In a big company, it might take six months to get a decision. Here it might take six minutes,” he says. “And the people here … their honesty, integrity and work ethic … I took those things for granted.
”That work ethic was something they learned at home. Bob and Sue showed their kids that you had to put in plenty of effort and long hours to run a business. But they also showed them that the rewards of that hard work is a happy life and a close-knit family … not to mention the opportunity to, one day, spend your mornings sipping coffee and chatting with old friends.
Elkhart County, IN Entrepreneurs