At Fundbox, we don’t just serve small business owners—many of us (or our families) are small business owners ourselves. That’s why we say small business is in our DNA. One such example is our Fundbox Chief of Staff, Emad ElShawa, who was featured in a recent SFGate article about his restaurant Sam’s, noted as “One of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite burgers in the world.”
Sam’s restaurant in San Francisco. Photo by Dan Biewener.
We took a moment to catch up with Emad to share an even deeper story behind his lifetime of helping to run a popular family business and how this also drives his work at Fundbox to help others.
We’d really like to get your experience as a small business owner, to understand a little bit of the trials and tribulations, challenges and opportunities. To start, please tell us a little bit about your experiences growing up.
The restaurant itself we opened in 1966 and my dad originally was working with his uncle, named Sam, when he opened it. Back then it really was a grind, with my dad trying to raise a family and get a business off the ground at the same time.
He was literally working 7 days a week 365 days a year. He really never took a day off. But Sam realized pretty quickly that just wasn’t the lifestyle for him, so he decided to go a different direction. My dad took over the restaurant in 1967, keeping the name.
What gave your dad and uncle the idea to open a restaurant, especially something as specific as a burger place?
My dad immigrated to the United States when he was 19 years old, originally from Palestine. After he graduated high school, he worked on a farm and then became a butcher. So what he understood more than anything was meat—how to make a good cut of meat, cook it, and serve it properly.
So that really helped him narrow down his options and say, “Okay, this is what I know how to do best and what I think I can make successful.” That’s where the original idea of Sam’s came from. My dad knew he wanted to run a burger place.
How did your location in the uniquely nightlife-driven San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach affect your Dad’s business?
Emad: North Beach is not normal. It’s not a normal place for hamburgers nor really any area to run a restaurant. Historically speaking, North Beach was the area where the bars, the jazz clubs, and all the speakeasies and strip clubs were, even back in the 1960s. It’s kept some form of that throughout the last 50 years.
Broadway Street, North Beach/Chinatown in 2012. Photo by John O’Neill.
Before the pandemic, Sam’s hours were from 4:00 in the afternoon to 4:00 in the morning—because that’s when people would go out there to get some drinks, and then they would want some food after that. So Sam’s became a super late-night place, the majority of our business happening between 1:00 and 4:00 in the morning.
So imagine that. Add to the daily grind not only having to work 12 to 15 hours a day, but those hours are in the middle of the night. So you’re working when everyone else is sleeping and sleeping when everyone else is awake, and then getting up to do it all over again, back-to-back. It’s like having no life.
I know that over the years you have not been the only burger restaurant in North Beach, but you seem to be one of the few that survived.
Emad: Sam’s being in the neighborhood has become something that holds a cultural significance to the City. In the early 2000s, my dad realized that people were coming to Sam’s just because they wanted a taste of authentic San Francisco. It wasn’t just a burger place. People started to equate Sam’s with an authentic San Francisco experience.
[EDITOR’S NOTE:] In honor of its continuous operation—365 days per year since its founding in 1966—Sam’s Burgers is now poised to gain Legacy Business status, already approved by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (pending a final vote by the Small Business Commission on June 6, 2021.)
Other burger places did try to get a piece of the action. A Carl’s Jr. opened up about a block from where we are. That was one of the biggest scares for my dad, because until then, you had never had these big fast food chains coming into North Beach. We wondered, “What is our actual staying power as a small business?”
This difference in dealing with chains and franchises is that you’re not competing with other mom-and-pop burger shops and small restaurants. You’re now competing with an organization that has deep pockets.
As it turned out, that Carl’s Jr. only lasted pretty much a year and went out of business. Apparently, people preferred supporting the neighborhood and wanted to continue enjoying that authentic San Francisco experience.
You need that personal touch with your customers because people aren’t just coming in for the burgers. They’re coming in to hear your story. They’re coming in to hear stories of San Francisco from 30 and 40 years ago.
“In all your years running a restaurant, what stands out as something you’ve learned about small businesses success?
A lot of people ask me, “Why did your dad work 50 years seven days a week? Why don’t you just hire a bunch of people and sit at home and manage the place?”
I’m a firm believer that small businesses and restaurants in general will have as much success as their owners’ involvement in the place. You can’t be a successful small business owner by being an absentee owner. I’m not saying that you need to be there every day—but if you are there every day, it does add some sense of additional success by being close enough to manage any step of the process when you need to.
A very prideful point for my dad was to say, “We’ve made every last burger better than the one before it.” When you delegate that mission to employees, it’s hard to really guarantee that level of quality. But when you’re doing it yourself, it matters so much to you that you’re serving every last customer with that same attitude.
Fundbox: What financial challenges have your family faced running a small business for so many decades?
Emad: Part of the biggest trials we’ve had is just the amount of sheer work that it took to keep that up for 55 years in terms of financial troubles. I will say we’ve been lucky up until this last year, and that while business wasn’t always gangbusters like it had been for the 15 years before COVID, we’ve always had enough to where we knew we had our bills covered and we can get by.
Fundbox: How did COVID impact your business?
Emad: Last year was challenging. We weren’t immune from everything that came with the pandemic, since the business was closed. That meant we had to essentially fund everything out of pocket at that point. We were still paying our four full-time employees. We paid them all to sit at home—because part of a smart business strategy is when you find good employees, you don’t want to let go of them. They become a part of the family and a part of the success of the business.
At least one of our employees has been with us for eight years. These are people that are embedded in the fabric of our business. Customers come in and ask for them personally. So it’s very difficult for us to go and say hey we got a pandemic going on. There was no revenue coming in but we had to figure out a way to pay our people enough to support their families (in addition to rent and utilities) with zero money coming in, which we did for the first couple months.
Part of a smart business strategy is when you find good employees, you don’t want to let go of them. They become a part of the family and a part of the success of the business.
That was a very stressful time, to be quite honest. We were just hemorrhaging money as things started to slowly reopen—but not really reopen, just to be open for business.
Fundbox: How did Sam’s adapt to the new normal?
Emad: We had to completely pivot how we did business throughout our history. Sam’s is an old-school place. We did not accept credit cards. We were not on any of these delivery apps. We were used to being the place the neighborhood and people around would come in and that was part of the aura in the mystique and the simplicity of Sam’s for 55 years.
We realized really quickly that if we’re going to have any sort of success of making it through this we were going to have to race to come up-to-date.
We said, “All right, let’s add as many of these delivery apps as possible. Let’s figure out how to price things to where we could still pay the delivery apps’ cut and still come out ahead.”
We also needed to figure out a way where we could add credit cards really quickly. Having a credit card machine is a little bit more difficult than it is anywhere else because it’s literally an alleyway restaurant. We needed to figure out a way to physically structure the place so people could pay without actually having face-to-face or hand-to-hand touch with any one of our employees.
Fundbox: How has your recovery been going?
Emad: Obviously we’re not out of the pandemic yet, but the worst of it was about a year. We were open for business, but we were losing money every single month. Nevertheless, we never ever had the conversation of attempting to close. The conversation was how we were going to get to the other side of this.
It’s so embedded in the fabric of our family now, and I think even in the fabric of the community, that closing it down would hurt a lot of us significantly. Long term we knew we wanted to contribute to San Francisco coming back. We wanted to be part of North Beach. It was just like a day-to-day pivot of how we can actually get there.
Fundbox: You’re not just a part of your family business; you’re also part of the Fundbox family. What was your professional background that led to your work in fintech and with us?
Emad: I was born and raised in San Francisco, and educated in public schools in San Francisco throughout my life—Lincoln High School, then City College, then San Francisco State, then Golden Gate University after that. A large San Francisco bank offered me a work sponsorship program, so I started my first job actually during college as a banker.
Working for this bank, I saw people from all walks of life coming in. The biggest thing for me was that I could connect directly with small business owners because that’s what I knew. I saw my dad do it every single day. I could naturally talk with a small business owner about the difficulties they were having and relate it to what I saw my own family do to combat those difficulties.
Fundbox: Tell us more about how you focused on small business banking.
Emad: After graduating and for about seven years with a major bank, I was the head of small business banking for San Francisco and Marin. During that time I would see a lot of those customers facing the pain points of dealing with traditional banks. For example, taking time out of their day to come and talk to a banker in person, having to bring all these documents, and then having to wait for money that might not come.
Fundbox: How well have small businesses been served by most brick-and-mortar financial institutions?
Emad: Traditional banks have a one-size-fits-all system for everybody. They don’t have a personalized approach to small business banking—and that doesn’t work in the world of small business. Every single small business, even within sub-industries, is very, very different, just like Sam’s is different from any other restaurant.
If you want to offer any type of financial services, it’s very important that you know your customers and get as much information about them as possible so that you can tailor an approach that will work specifically for them and their business.
Many large, traditional financial institutions lack the technology or the infrastructure to do that. Plus, generally speaking, they are less willing to take on risk.
Statistics show that in 2019, only about 27% of small business owners actually got approved for a small business loan by big banks. And that’s after having to submit a very lengthy paperwork process, often 30 to 40 pages, and going through an underwriting process, which in most cases takes from weeks to months to complete and get an answer.
Fundbox: With all those forms they review, you’d think banks would have a better understanding of their borrowers. Where is the disconnect?
Emad: While they’ve seen a ton of small businesses, typically these lenders haven’t done a good job of collating the information they received from these businesses, so they don’t have a holistic view of things.
I was the guy who actually had to collect these documents and often the one underwriting the loans. So this became the issue that was top of mind for me and I started to think about where I could make a better impact for small businesses. That’s when I quit the big bank and joined Fundbox about four years ago.
Fundbox: Tell us about your evolution at Fundbox and how you started helping small businesses get credit.
As one of Fundbox’s first underwriters for our highest limits program, my job was to come in and develop an understanding and a strategy of how to give people access to loans.
Obviously we could not have 40-page applications because we’re not like a big bank. We wanted to fix that pain point, to remove those obstacles from small business owners.
So, how could we still do this? Theoretically, it’s the same underwriting process, but we do it a ton simpler. For example, our application was only one page long. We also put a ton of emphasis on actually speaking to the customer and getting to know their specific business.
Our early process was kind of this middle ground between a traditional underwriting approach and where we wanted to go—which was to develop a holistic algorithm that puts more emphasis on data points that traditional banks don’t even look at.
That hands-on, small business underwriting experience helped Fundbox to develop and make our algorithms smarter, because over time, as you’re looking at hundreds of small businesses, you start to see that certain individual data points matter more than others. That’s just one reason why our algorithm helps make credit decisions possible in minutes, instead of weeks.
Fundbox: In what you’ve learned as a small business owner and working at Fundbox, what are three quick tips you can offer other businesses?
The number one tip is to solve one problem at a time. Plugging all the holes at the same time is tempting but it’s not possible. Whatever the biggest problem is at that moment, solve that one and then move on to the next.
The second tip is to be a nice person. It’s probably an under-appreciated one, but that’s going to affect your day-to-day life in everything you do as a small business owner. Be nice in how you deal with vendors, how you deal with customers, how you deal with employees, and even lenders. Niceness has a mushroom effect. Your customers and employees will be more loyal. Even your vendors’ deliveries may be prioritized over people that are not as nice as you.
Third, find a way to personally engage with your customers. Sam’s personal touch advantage has been a challenge to adapt to this new reality of social distancing, so social media has become a great way to pick up the slack. We try to engage with the people who follow us so that they can at least continue to be reminded of who we are and what we mean to the City. People want to have those conversations.
When we are ready to fully open up again, it’s going to go right back to that because people want to come and they want to get to know you and talk and share their own stories. That’s going to come back.