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Community Highlights: Meet Jen Nichols of Jennings Depot

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jen Nichols. 

Hi Jen, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today.
My journey as a business owner began in 2010. First it was with my husband, Rob, as an assistant and partner in his Auto & Ag Mechanic shop. From there, we opened a Uhaul Dealership, I became a Notary Signing Agent, and later a realtor. Stepping into “Boss” mode was scary and overwhelming, not to say that years later there aren’t still moments that are the same! The journey really began back in 1981 when (I was born) Rob’s dad, Milton, bought this old body shop. He had the vision to turn it into a drive-thru. Jennings Depot, which has the old train tracks running behind it, remained in the Nichol’s family until the late 90’s when Milton passed away. After that, it was sold several times and then closed. We live a 1/8th mile from it, driving past and watching his dad’s business fall apart, Rob finally convinced me to buy it. So, in 2015 we purchased the building and started remodeling. We opened June 28, 2016, with our kitchen later opening Halloween weekend of 2016. I was still practicing Real Estate and hoping to purchase another business. However, I didn’t see the future changing as quickly as it did! Our sales began to soar, I needed to be more hands-on with the daily tasks. Real Estate began to get in the way of my focus on our family business. I was scared to say the least! We had our children helping with the remodeling, opening, working, recipe tryouts, pretty much everything. After talking with a few (there are 7) of them and Rob, I decided real estate had to go, and buying the other business was not going to work either. That’s when my main focus became Jennings Depot. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Smooth? Never! Not even til this day! If it were smooth, I would say we aren’t doing enough. I am always challenged with staying up to date with trending foods, habits, and the most recent beer craze! First off, I’m not much of a drinker… I mean maybe a 6 pack a year. I had to learn all about IPA’s, seasonal beers, breweries, wine… is it dry?!? Then came what percentage of alcohol we can carry. Followed by food licensing and Sunday Sales being voted in. Then there’s the whole other section of making a menu from nothing… I’ve never looked at so many meal ideas, menus, and ingredients in my life! Pricing… now that’s an ongoing, week-to-week, time-sensitive job. I have to adjust pricing with increases, keep up with the market, and know what’s reasonable and affordable. There are so many good foods that we don’t make, but how big can our menu be? 

Next was hiring and training. How do I know who makes a good employee, I’ve never hired anyone! Trial and error is all I can say! I found out how to look for the good, find the positive and work with that. EVERYONE has something to work with… whether it’s organization, time management, cleaning, prioritizing… I’ll take it! I listen to employees’ ideas, thank them for new ideas and explain why the bad ones won’t work. I’m open to them about why we do what we do and what we need to improve on. I can tell you becoming friends and mentors to employees is amazing, but also has its downside. Sometimes I need to let them go, and I have a blind eye to that because of our friendship. I’ve learned to sit down and really go over, in my head or on paper, the employer vs friend part of our relationship. 

Oh, and don’t forget that I own this business, but my husband and I are partners in every aspect. We make decisions together, most of the time. And when we don’t, it’s not such a pleasant day for either of us. Marriage AND business partners make for a different kind of relationship. It’s hard not to carry work home, or for that matter, personal to work. We struggle with that the most. We have definitely gotten better, but are far from good at it. 

Our children have been involved with the business from day one. They help with maintenance, jump in to cook when needed, do the heavy work, and also work some hours on the clock. Our daughter, Chelsey, 23, has worked here for several years. Being an employer sometimes is hard to do instead of being a mom to her at work. I think we have found a pretty good boundary there, and it’s gotten much better with age. Cole is up and coming, he helps when needed with some persistence, we’ll say. He’s 11, he’s learning all about business and knows a good buy when he sees one. He challenges my baking and cooking with new ideas. Jacksyn, 20, is motivated, business-driven, and the money saver. He has a full-time job, but still finds time to help almost daily with what’s going on. Isaac, 26, also employed full time, is here almost every day helping with whatever needs attention, Andrew, 24, works full time and is knowledgeable about wiring, assisting when possible. Elizabeth, 28, helps with last-minute running when needed. Alex, 30, is also knowledgeable about wiring and helped with our remodel. Our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren play a vital part in our lives. The grandkids help keep the environment family oriented, fun and provide a lot of laughter! They give us a purpose to keep this family business going. Without all of them, it would be impossible to do what we are doing right now. 

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about Jennings Depot Inc?
Jennings Depot Inc is a drive-thru, but so much more! We love to cater events from showers, birthdays, weddings, reunions, graduations, funerals to luncheons and anniversaries. We sell pizza, subs, wings, and salads every day. We make our own Italian Sausage for our pizzas and process the majority of our items in-house, fresh. My husband, Rob, makes our taco meat, sausage, BBQ pork, meatloaf, and many of the specialty meats like wedding beef, fried chicken, BBQ chicken, roast pork, and smoked items. I make the shredded chicken and beef, pot pies, and breakfast foods. But my real love comes from baking! I’ve baked since I was a child and have loved growing up with an orchard and garden. Zucchini bread is my heartstring. My dad would always call me and say he could smell it baking through the phone and come over while I would bake it for him. We talked and shared a lot of heart-to-heart feelings while it baked. After he unexpectedly passed away in 2012, I stopped baking. In March of 2017, my daughter asked if I would bake her this Chocolate Peanut Butter cake she found online…I did. I posted a picture of it and had 3 orders for that weekend, ummmmm I wasn’t taking orders for it! So, then I started baking cookies and they sold in 24 hours. All of a sudden, I was baking again and my heart was mending. Everything I bake, from the cookies and cakes to the bars, pies, and chocolates have a back story. 

My Great Grandma Young would never give out her cherry delight recipe when I was a kid. However, she typed it up in her dining room while I sat next to her at the age of 10 and gave it to me. I still remember the sounds of the keys typing away and her having to white out a few letters on the recipe. I haven’t made that recipe without thinking of her every single time! My Grandpa Rode started to cook and bake when my grandma got breast cancer, later passing away from it before I was born. He had to learn how to take care of himself and the kitchen duties. He kept up with the baked goods tradition in the home and always had a jar of cookies. After we (myself and my kids) would raid his cookie jar on the way in the door, I remember him saying “you must really like those cookies, I better get some more out of the freezer” as he chuckled. I have his air popper and enamel pan now; he used them every time to make the caramel corn. All of my life I would walk or ride my bike to his house. I would keep my step-grandma and grandpa company all day. I helped them garden, pick in the orchard, can and freeze corn, zucchini, applesauce, strawberries… just about anything and everything. After my (step) Grandma passed away, Grandpa kept on baking. I spent several years helping him pick up walnuts and smash the outside off, they taste amazing in chocolate chip cookies! During the fall we would spend 1 day a week picking and washing apples, another day pressing cider. The kids and I would turn the press and drink cup after cup of fresh cider as Grandpa smiled and laughed. 

My recipes, they aren’t just picked from a website. They are made with memories. The fresh strawberry and peach pies are from my Grandma Rode’s recipe, she was a well-known wedding cake baker, her recipes are delicious!! My mom and aunt Diane have baked all of their lives. They decorate cakes and make about anything you can think of. I’m guessing most of my love for baking originated from my Grandma Rode, I only wish I would have met her! 

Last year, we branched out a bit and now make protein bites for a small locally owned business. We are working on expanding that and continuing to branch out. I want to be more than a small-town business. I’m challenging myself to get an online shop set up to start selling cookies, protein bars, and other items that are in demand. Continue checking our Facebook page for updates! 

Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
I have found that other small business owners are the biggest help! There are people who cater and bake all over the place. Some for a hobby, others to live off of. When we support and encourage each other, we all succeed. I network with several other business owners in a 15–20-mile radius. We talk about trends, pricing, vendors and often talk about problems we are experiencing and help each other. 

There’s other times where the best “work” that I have done has come from taking a walk or nap. A fresh perspective seems to sneak in during a nap or walk with the tunes cranked up. Sometimes I just write down ideas in my calendar for the following month. I revisit it several times and make notes. If a plan works out great, if not, I take what I learned, tweak it, and figure out how to use that knowledge elsewhere. Sometimes the plan doesn’t work out for a year or two, but never give up! Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

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