Aaron Pompeian knows he isn’t a cubicle kind of guy.
He tried that lifestyle for five years as a Mayo Clinic employee, but when a buy-out option was presented to him at just the right time he went for it and didn’t look back.
In 2012, he and three partners purchased John Hardy’s Barbecue in Rochester. Now down to two fellow partners, Pompeian and company have been growing the business since they bought in.
“I love the constant change,” he said. “My days are always different. There’s always a curve ball thrown in there. I do all the financial stuff, the budgets every year. I love that. I have an analytical mind so I like the opportunity to do the finance side of things.”
“I’m more introverted but I do love being around people and being the boss who cares and is present. A lot of times in business you don’t always see the owner, but in my business my employees see me every day. And I’m always learning. I’m kind of a sponge.”
Being co-owner of a restaurant with a 50-year history in Rochester has its perks, including a steady fan base of customers. Some come in weekly, and one fave is in daily, Pompeian said.
John Hardy’s originally opened near the fairgrounds but now has locations on Broadway Avenue and on the Highway 52 Frontage Road. Pompeian is the partner who takes care of the day to day.
That might mean scrubbing the floor one day, or bottling John Hardy’s famous sauces for sale at Hy-Vee food stores in Rochester, Kasson, Winona and La Crosse. Pompeain said they are also looking to expand into Hy-Vee stores in the Albert Lea and Austin markets.
“It’s important to set an example,” Pompeian said of his ‘dive right in’ workplace philosophy. “Others will see you and go, ‘Look at him.’ A lot of times you empower people around you to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. It’s extremely important in a business to do that.”
John Hardy’s puts out seven sauces, and a favorite is a genius concept by Pompeian called the “Sissy Boy Sweet” sauce for those who aren’t fans of the restaurant’s other hot sauces.
“Some people prefer sweeter barbecue sauce,” he said. “It converted a lot of people and it’s become very popular.”
In fact, for some time the John Hardy’s marketing slogan was “the sauce is everything.”
When they first started selling sauce at grocers, Pompeian was fearful they might reroute restaurant customers to Hy-Vee, and lose those walk-in customers. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, they’ve created new customers who wouldn’t otherwise have tried their sauce.
“It’s actually added sales, which has been great,” he said. “My fear was we’d drive traffic to Hy-Vee and not to us, but we’ve just increased business and made the sauce available to more people who normally wouldn’t have gone into John Hardy’s to get a jar of sauce.”
Pompeian said the “stars aligned” for him to take the John Hardy’s owner role, but his entrepreneurial upbringing by both parents Ed and Jayne had something to do with it as well.
Jayne was especially fond of the Nike “just do it” mantra, and would tell Aaron that often. His first entrepreneurial venture was finding rocks, splitting them open and then selling them to fellow neighborhood kids. His Dad Ed – who was a locally famous entrepreneur in his own right – was a mentor too, and he nudged Aaron into John Hardy’s ownership role when the restaurant’s former owner had unfortunately passed and the business was available for purchase.
“I could go back to a corporate job but I certainly wouldn’t be as happy doing it,” Pompeian said. “There’s a safety net there. Tomorrow is never a given in the restaurant industry. You could have a location burn down, God forbid, and all of a sudden what do you do?”
He said success is born of hard work, tenacity and grit and a “never ending push” to get ahead. “There’s luck involved too,” he said, “but if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, the results will show as long as you have a good idea at the root of it all.”
“A lot of people who fail multiple times have that resilience,” he said. “I was taught resilience early in my life. My Dad taught me resiliency. That’s how I run my life and I think it’s important as an entrepreneur to have that resilience. You can’t let the bad days get you down.”