Traverse either Oklahoma City or Tulsa and one is certain to see common signs and edifices within each city. Oklahoma is home to a greater number of chain retail and eateries and fast food restaurants per capita than many other states. Locally owned and operated businesses tend to follow a similar pattern – moving outward to near regional markets as expansion occurs.
Other businesses, though, have recognized the benefit of expansion from one major Oklahoma metropolitan area to the other in a relatively short period of time. Despite the cities’ close proximity to one another and the sense that a statewide market could be serviced from either location, savvy businesspeople have come to understand the advantages of presences in both markets.
Greg Hughes, owner of the popular In The Raw sushi restaurant, had just two locations in Tulsa – Brookside and a south location at 61st and Sheridan – when he began to recognize the value of looking down-state for a next location. First came a site across the street from the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Then, rapidly developing Bricktown caught Hughes’ attention.
“It was the next logical step,” Hughes says. “A lot of people in Oklahoma City had asked us about a restaurant there. So many people go back and forth between Tulsa and Oklahoma City that our name was pretty well known.”
Key to the move into the Oklahoma City proper market was the available location, close to Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I knew that, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it would work in that location,” Hughes says.
In time, the Oklahoma City location also taught Hughes something valuable. Initially, he’d gone into the expansion with investors, with the corporate store taking back over in January. Hughes says he realized that having removed ownership of an operation like In The Raw was perilous, and he found himself traveling between the two cities frequently. Today, the restaurant’s general manager and bar manager, a married couple, are on the cusp of becoming operating managers of an In The Raw franchise.
“We aren’t quite there yet, but it’s happening and we will continue to provide support,” Hughes says. “They have done well and have a good customer base.”
Experience in hand, Hughes says that franchises are the plan as the restaurant expands.
Behfar Jahanshahi has also learned the value of locations in multiple major markets. The CEO of InterWorks, Inc., a business-to-business IT consulting firm, has led his company to impressive growth since its founding in 1996 when Jahanshahi was still at Oklahoma State University. An initial location in Stillwater has expanded numerous times, but even though in the technology industry, physical locations still mattered.
“We just started picking up more work in Oklahoma City, and the system kind of fed itself, and we kept growing organically,” Jahanshahi says. First came an Oklahoma City office and then a Tulsa office. From that base, Jahanshahi says InterWorks is expanding around the country.
“When we were not in Tulsa, a lot of people wanted to talk to us but were a little uneasy because we weren’t that close,” Jahanshahi says. “There is a comfort factor that comes with a local presence. It was also a matter of efficiency because we were getting so much work in these markets.”
Jahanshahi says that another advantage to cross-state expansion is that it permits a deeper pool of talent from which the company can draw. InterWorks’ slowest growth rate in a year since inception is 27 percent; the company now has 83 employees in markets in Oklahoma, California, Georgia, Texas, Washington D.C. and even a European presence.
“At the regional level we have a strong focus on infrastructure, hardware and setting up,” Jahanshahi says. “Globally we’re more involved with data analytics.”
Lessons learned in expansion in Oklahoma have been an advantage to both Jahanshahi and Hughes, and it’s notable that both led their companies through economically troubled times through to the launch pad of future successes today.