A Serial Entrepreneur on a Mission to Make the MOV a Better Place
Clutch MOV is proud to sponsor this year’s Mid-Ohio Valley Entrepreneur of the Year. Clutch MOV envisions a community where citizens can take risks on the promise that success would uplift the residents of our valley. Our artists, creators, innovators, and small business owners strive to build something new, better meet the needs of our community, and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of our region. These entrepreneurs are on the edge, finding new ways to build, create, and serve. This year we received dozens of nominations for innovative, forward-thinking, community-building entrepreneurs from the Mid-Ohio Valley. The panel believed five individuals stood out for the impact they are making through their work. We are sharing their stories in this series.
William “Zak” Huffman knew he was destined to be self-employed at a very young age. As a child, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he confidently answered “a successful businessman.” Now, Huffman is a serial entrepreneur and the successful owner of not one, not two, but six local businesses in the Mid-Ohio Valley. His current businesses include White Oak Property Research, The Cocktail Bar (formerly The Coffee Bar), Warrior Fitness Facility, the Huffman Company, a music studio and he is in the process of opening Nancy Huffman Stables in his hometown of Barlow.
Huffman’s parents inspired his dream of being self-employed for as long as he can remember. “My parents have always been very entrepreneurial minded. Although they never had a successful brick and mortar business, I remember them always have great ideas and hustling every day,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what business I would start, because as a kid you have so many passions. Little did I know as an adult I’d still have those same passions that I could weave into a business.”
Huffman said there is not one business he owns that does not have a lifetime passion attached to it. “I was always told to focus on one thing but I am not wired that way,” he said. “This community just has too much potential to sit back and hope somebody starts a business I wish was in town. If someone isn’t willing to fill a void and it’s a service I would love to see, I’ll take that challenge and dive head first and educate myself, put a plan together and execute.”
Nobody around me seemed very motivated, so I took the reins.
Of his entrepreneurial pursuits, he is most passionate about The Cocktail Bar and what it brings to downtown Parkersburg. Growing up in the area, Huffman said all he ever knew were chain restaurants. When he began to travel as an adult, he visited restaurants that had an ambiance that was as exciting as the food itself.
“It really impacted me,” he said. “When I saw that level of service in larger cities I just couldn’t believe it. I thought why in the world is there not a bar like this in Parkersburg? Nobody around me seemed very motivated, so I took the reins.”
The Cocktail Bar (TCB) started out as The Coffee Bar. Looking back, Huffman said it was a hilariously rocky transition. “But being an entrepreneur isn’t about knowing everything. It’s about learning and growing.”
“We had so many guests come in at 7:00 pm for coffee, even folks who were not big coffee drinkers, simply because they loved the chill ambiance and inclusive community,” he said. Customers expressed a vision of coffee during the day, cocktails at night, and Huffman gave it a trial run. “Our sales goals are to increase 10% a year. The first year of being a cocktail bar, our sales jumped 200%.”
Huffman views The Cocktail Bar as an extension of his family and his home. “When I walk in, I don’t feel like I’m at work. I feel like I’m in a formal dining room of my home, throwing a dinner party with my favorite people every night. When people get upset (which is an inevitable aspect of owning a restaurant) they can be quite harsh when you’ve put your heart and soul into a place. If you really have your heart in it, it feels personal. But you just have to remind yourself that people forget a local business is someone’s entire dream and often their life savings. It’s not store #502 from a chain.”
The most rewarding aspect of being a business owner for Huffman is the flexibility, opportunity to dream, and the ability to adjust based on the community and customers’ needs.
When I decide to do something, I want to do it to the best possible version.
“Myself, I’m not huge into trivia,” he said. “But, the community is, so that’s what we offer each week. And when I decide to do something, I want to do it to the best possible version. I so often hear people say ‘you don’t have to go overboard, it’s a small town, we don’t expect that much’ – but that’s not how I’m wired. So, after just a couple of years, we have been named the #5 best trivia in the state of West Virginia. That’s an example of how I like to run my business – especially one as personal and reflective of myself and my personality as TCB is.”
Like many small business owners, Huffman faces the challenge of never being ‘off the clock.’ Whether it’s scrolling through TikTok for event inspiration or reading up on the latest employee training techniques, his mind always drifts back to business. Usually though, it fuels his excitement.
Huffman also finds making tough calls when it comes to staffing a challenge. As someone who struggled in school, he emphasizes with those who learn differently from others. “For most of my childhood and teenage years, I really thought I was not a smart person and would struggle my whole life. I’ve always loved animals and wanted to be a vet,” he said. “I remember when my teacher pulled me aside and told me most kids who can’t keep up in public school don’t go to college, let alone become a vet and I should consider looking into being a veterinary assistant instead.”
This really shaped Huffman and still affects his daily interactions with staff. “I have never met a dumb person in my life. We all have different types of intelligence and have unique skill sets that the next person may not have. I can make a much longer list of things I cannot do than of a list of what I can do,” he said. “Obviously with good management, you find the role that’s best suited for each strength and weakness of your entire staff, but in the fast paced restaurant scene where staff must be quick as a whip on their feet, the position isn’t for everyone.”
“I know a lot of people enjoy being seen as the boss and may even boast of how they went about firing someone, but I’ve never enjoyed it one time,” Huffman said. “I always stress that just because their skills and intelligence didn’t line up with the restaurant industry, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of excelling in a different field.”
People WILL support you if you treat them right. Patrons are friends, not just sales.
To those thinking about taking the leap into entrepreneurship, Huffman says he wants you to know that you are not alone, that there are lots of folks just like you who want an amazing business or idea executed in this area. “People WILL support you if you treat them right. Patrons are friends, not just sales. Give the area a chance and take the risk! Our community is so supportive.”
He also believes in admitting your weaknesses and reaching out to others for advice when you need it. “I’ve found in our town, most people are out to help the next person. I could have saved so much time and money reaching out to others years ago,” he said. “I think there’s a stigma to ask ‘competitors’ for help but honestly, they aren’t competitors, they’re people just like you and me trying to feed their families and add to the community.”
Huffman approaches business from an abundance mentality. He said he’s often asked what he would do if another bar came downtown. “I’d be the first one there to support them and partner with them,” he said. “The more business downtown has, the more foot traffic we have, which leads to more sales which leads to the ultimate goal of taking care of my daughter which is what’s it all about at the end of the day.”
The impact TCB has had on downtown is catalytic. When The Coffee Bar first opened, the shop was slammed with downtown employees wanting to grab a cup of coffee on their way in to work, a clear indication that they were meeting a need. TCB also became a destination as their reputation grew.
“The amount of customers that come to downtown for ‘the first time in years’ just to come see us is astonishing,” Huffman said, attributing their location near the beautiful Blennerhassett Hotel as a definite plus.
As the business has evolved over the years, TCB continued to meet the community’s needs through providing nighttime activities and a comfortable ‘third space.’ And Huffman’s investment has spurred others to follow, adding to the vibrancy of downtown Parkersburg. His proof of concept gave others the confidence to take that first step. Even still, Huffman is far from finished.
“TCB has just begun. We haven’t ‘arrived.’ We are still becoming. But being a finalist of an award that has become so incredibly respected in this area has really given me the confidence and credibility. I have so much I’d like to work on with the city of Parkersburg about turning downtown around, and I truly feel this nomination has helped me be heard.”
The 2021 MOV Entrepreneur of the Year will be publicly announced during a special program during the Mid-Ohio Valley Entrepreneurial Expo on September 23rd, 2021 hosted by Marietta College, following a panel discussion with all five finalists. Register today!