It started out as an itch, a way to get out from under the long shadow of my father and grandfather. Don’t get me wrong, they gave me every opportunity while working for them at the peanut company. I could not have asked for more, but I was always going to be “Little Dan”.
Donalsonville had several mom and pop restaurants, but nothing that had a recognized brand on the sign. If the significant number of people passing through recognized a chain restaurant, perhaps more of them would stop. Was Donalsonville large enough to support a fast food restaurant was the real question.
I optioned several pieces of property on a block at the best intersection in town and hired Billy Grantham to help me identify the best possible fit for a restaurant in our community. We both agreed the best choice at the time was a Hardee’s Restaurant.
Headquartered in Rocky Mount, North Carolina at the time, Hardee’s had southern roots, a breakfast menu, and perhaps most importantly had the type of ownership structure that allowed me to own the land and building while operating the restaurant.
We opened the first restaurant in June of 1984. Over 400 people attended the grand opening and people flocked through the doors in record numbers to have a biscuit, a roast beef sandwich or a hamburger. Within six months, Hardee’s was pushing me to build another restaurant.
This is when I made one of the best decisions of my business life and welcomed my brother, Ernest, as my full partner. With seed money from our parents we slowly, but steadily started building Hardee’s Restaurants in our area.
It was not always easy and the brand itself, like all brands, would go through ebbs and flows of popularity. We stuck to our guns, though, and tried to keep building and remodeling even when times were tough. At one point, we even took out third mortgages on our homes to keep moving forward.
Ernest and I have always been close, though all who know us would tell you how different we are. Our own strengths and weaknesses were a compliment to each other. We were not in each other’s way and were responsible for different parts of the business.
Along the way, we were joined by really great people. We tried to look after them, and in turn some of them gave us decades of their lives. The people who worked for Ponder Enterprises were the real secret to our success.
We became recognized as leaders within the brand and received the very first Wilbur Hardee’s Founders Award in 2008. This past October, Ernest and I received the Wilbur Hardee’s Founders Award for the second time, the only franchisees in Hardee’s history to receive this coveted honor twice.
The company finally grew to 38 restaurants, over 1,100 employees and development rights in 40 counties in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. It was recently recognized as one of the 200 largest franchise restaurant companies in the United States. It is hard to believe this all started right here in Donalsonville, Georgia.
After months of negotiations, Ernest and I are selling our Hardee’s operations to Phase Three Star, LLC, an up and coming Hardee’s franchise group based in Tampa. It is a bittersweet moment for both of us.
Our children have no interest in coming back and running the business, and we are both very pleased and happy they have found their own way independently of us. After all, that is what led us to Hardee’s in the first place. Our exit strategy was to find a company that would run our restaurants with the same respect for our customers and employees that we have had for the past 34 years. Hopefully that is what we have done.
We would like to say thank you. Thank you for being our customers and friends. Thank you for being our dedicated employees and working with us these many years. Thank you for being our loyal vendors, suppliers, and lenders. Thanks for helping us building a great company. It has been an awesome ride!
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]