A family-owned restaurant in Georgia secures the real estate of their dreams

Stu Little
lease-to-own guide-carriage-house
Published on January 27, 2022

Welcome to with Good company, a series of conversations with withco partners, from small business owners to brokers, and more.

In the words of owner OJ Wilkins, The Carriage House is a country cooking destination that makes you “feel like you’re at grandma’s house.” OJ’s partnering with withco on a lease-to-own plan that will put him on the path towards owning the restaurant’s beautiful nineteenth century farmhouse in Jefferson, Georgia.

We sat down with OJ to talk about how he got started with the Carriage House, where it’s at today, and how being on a path to ownership is shaping its future:

I’ve seen some photos of the food you guys make at the Carriage House and it looks amazing. Can you tell me a bit about your business and the property it’s on?

Well we do a little bit of everything, catering, buffet, etc. But mostly, we do country cooking, buffet style, served in a beautiful 1800s farmhouse. If you come and visit us, you’re gonna have things like fried green tomatoes, mac and cheese, chicken liver, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, real sweet tea, real lemonade, etc. Basically, we try to make it feel like you’re at grandma’s house. 

The property is beautiful, the farm it was on was originally something like 200 acres, now we’re on about five and the building and the land it’s on are gorgeous. People book us for weddings all the time!

What kind of business experience did you have before you started the Carriage House?

I started my first business when I was sixteen years old, in landscaping. I did that right up until the housing crash and I needed to do something else to take care of my family. Soon after I wound up in the food and beverage industry and I started a place called Spoonful of Heaven. We specialized in ice cream, fried oreos, funnel cakes, anything to get that sweet tooth taken care of.

I did that for about nine years and eventually got a new partner and got into pizza. Actually the concept of the Carriage House was born in that pizza kitchen. We weren’t open on Sundays and we wanted to fill that day so we started to do a country buffet and came to find out that the town loved it! Next thing we know, the building came available for rent and we moved that concept to its own location. 

When you started the business, was owning your property in your plans?

I mean ideally, yeah. When we started the property was for sale, but, you know, it’s difficult to secure enough cash for a mortgage. So a conventional loan was never really an option. We’re not a Burger King or a McDonalds, we’re not a “big box concept,” so a lot of times, we don’t get the same opportunities. Going through a conventional bank in the beginning was just not an option.

How did you first get in touch with withco?

Well, the building was for sale and I think you guys reached out to me. I’d never heard of anyone helping businesses buy properties like you guys do. But once I got into it with you and saw that this concept could work, we moved forward on it.

I’m glad we did too because this building could have been very easily snatched up from underneath us. If we hadn’t been in touch with you, there’s no way we would have been in a position to move on it ourselves.

What does owning your property mean to you as a small business owner?

It gives you security. You always wanna treat a building like it’s your own but you’re always limited on what you would like to do to it. As long as that building’s not yours, every dime you put into it, you’re never gonna get back out of it. You’re investing in someone else’s property.

Now that we’re on the way to owning our property, investing in our building is like investing in our business. You feel secure knowing that you’re going to get returns on what you put into your business and it allows you to think long term.

Now that you’re on the path to owning, does this change your long term plans with the business?

Definitely, because I have that stability now. When you’re renting you’re always looking at the end of your lease and wondering if you’re gonna need something bigger or different down the line. Now, all that’s on the back burner and we can really focus on making our business and our location the best it could be in our community.

Can you describe the process of working with withco? What’s the experience been like so far?

It’s been painless. There’s really very few hoops to jump through, I feel like you guys did most of the work. We did have to share some financials, you know standard things that we would have had anyway. Really it felt like you guys were willing to take a chance on me and our future. I’ll tell you, it was a lot less painful than trying to go through a bank!

So now you’re on a lease-to-own with withco. How does that differ from your standard commercial lease?

You know, in a lot of ways, it doesn’t. On the surface it’s pretty similar to any other commercial lease I’ve ever had, the terms and responsibilities are pretty much just like any standard triple-net commercial lease. There was very little change between what we were doing with our lease before and what we’re doing with withco now. Of course outside of the fact that we’re going to own this thing!

The only real difference is that instead of just paying rent, we’re getting a little equity in the property that we can use to put down a down payment. It’s nice to know that we’re investing in ourselves and that we’ll see that on the back end.

OJ Wilkins
Owner of The Carriage House
If anyone reading this finds themselves in the Jefferson, Georgia area, what is the one thing they simply must try from the Carriage House?

What we’re known for? It’s gotta be those fried green tomatoes, chicken livers, and our famous fried chicken.

Okay I’m regretting doing this before lunch now, so I’ll make this our last question: do you have any advice for other small business owners who might be interested in owning their own property and working with withco?

Being a small business owner, especially if you’re in food and beverage, is already stressful enough but if your building’s for sale, you’re somehow even more stressed out. When you guys first called I was like, ‘who are you?’ and ‘you want to help me own what now?’ I didn’t know what to make of it, and being independent, you gotta put your guard up and limit who you can trust.

What I’ve found is that withco is a company you can trust. I’ve had a great experience working with everyone there and the business model makes sense, it works for both sides. All I can say is that I feel a lot more secure now that I know we’re working towards owning my business’s property.

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