From fryer to franchise king
Pacific Bells’ Tom Cook, who began his career frying taco shells and today runs a highly successful franchise, refines the recipe for business success
by Joel B. Munson
Photo above: Jen and Tom Cook with their twin boys Danny and Mikey.
To say that Tom and Jen Cook of Ridgefield, Wash., have left their mark on Clark County is an understatement. The two have helped build Pacific Bells Inc. and its sister company World Wide Wings, into a remarkable business with revenues expected to approach three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2018. The company, with headquarters in an unpretentious building north of downtown Vancouver, has grown into one of the largest restaurant-franchisee operations in the country. The firm also builds and owns most of its franchise stores, making Pacific Bells both a successful development and culinary powerhouse.
Recently, Joel B. Munson, Clark College Foundation’s chief advancement officer, sat down and talked with the Cooks. Education is a major focus in their family. Two of their older children are sophomores at University of Florida and University of California Santa Barbara, while their other twins are in kindergarten. It’s a reminder to them of the importance of learning and the role Clark College plays in making Southwest Washington a better place to live.
Partners: Your journey, Tom, is interesting because it’s not anything like you thought it would be when you started 40 years ago.
Tom Cook: It really is an incredible history. I thought I wanted to be a physician. Between my junior and senior year in college, I worked in a hospital for the summer and to be honest, I just didn’t like it. It felt very transactional and I didn’t see the physicians building long-term relationships, even though that’s what you think of when you think of being a doctor. I realized I wasn’t going to be a very good doctor. I was on an Army scholarship but I still had to get a job. I got a part-time job—at Taco Bell. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had to learn how to fry shells. I loved being around people and customers. You really get to know them. I found my home.
Partners: And here you are today, an incredibly successful entrepreneur. Back in the beginning, did you ever imagine that you would be overseeing such an enterprise?
Tom Cook: No. Even after we started the business, our big goal was to have a dozen restaurants. We thought if we could do that, it would be the cat’s meow, and we would live a life I never thought possible. I grew up in humble beginnings, so to think that today we have almost 300 Taco Bell and Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in total is unbelievable.
Partners: When you were young, did you think of yourself as entrepreneurial?
Tom Cook: I started my first business when I was 8 years old. I built a TV Guide route from scratch, and got a nickel for every TV Guide I sold. I built the business up to about 60 customers and then sold it to buy a paper route. Six days a week, I got up at six o’clock, built that business up and then sold it. I then bought a janitorial service that I ran and literally worked overnight while I was in high school.
Partners: Where did you get that entrepreneurial drive? Is that something your parents taught you or is that something innate in both of you?
Tom Cook: I think my mother and father taught me my work ethic, but I’m the first entrepreneur in the family. The best piece of advice is something my mother gave me and that is you can do anything as long as you are willing to put in the work. What I found over time is that the harder I work, the luckier I get. If you think something is going to be given to you on a silver platter just because you thought it up one day, that’s not how business works. It takes a lot of hard work. You have to ask many questions. As a biology major in school, I could tell you about the cells in a human body, but nothing about the cells of a spreadsheet. I had to go back and re-learn everything. Those who go on to higher education in their chosen field, whether it’s Clark College or some other place, get that foundational knowledge that I simply didn’t have in the beginning.
Jen Cook: Like Tom, my dad worked very hard, owned his own company, sold it maybe 10 years ago, but still he went back to work. I think I had that same work ethic instilled in me. Tom and I are hard workers. We are ‘type A’ people, so there is never a dull moment in our lives.
Partners: You are both big supporters of higher education, and particularly Clark College. Why is that so important to you?
Jen Cook: I was fortunate to go to college and not come out of there with loans. I just think it’s the foundation of our country, our world, our community. At college, I learned to be a very independent person. I left Nebraska at 18 years old and went to the University of Kansas in Lawrence—not too far away, but far enough to gain the independence that going to college can give you. After that, I was fortunate enough to get a job right out of college, and then I met Tom and the rest is history.
Tom Cook: When I first started in business, I didn’t understand aspects of finance or marketing, so if you are able to get that educational foundation, I think your path to success is easier and quicker. I don’t think everyone has to necessarily get a four-year degree or master’s degree. Sometimes you just need a good foundation like an associate degree or a certificate and then you can learn the balance on the job. For me, that’s one of the reasons I believe in Clark College. It provides opportunities to get a foundation and to understand what questions to ask. I think that is critical to the path to success.
Partners: Your support of Clark College has been exceptionally generous and transformational. Thanks to you and others, the beautiful new Tod and Maxine McClaskey Culinary Institute was built and our first class of chefs graduates this spring. You have also taken a real interest in helping students become strong leaders and potential entrepreneurs. Why the interest in these particular programs?
Tom Cook: I look back about five or six years ago and there was an abundance of employees at our company—an abundance of folks who wanted to go into management and people who were changing careers. Today, the job market is so tight and it’s a fight to find great people. The opportunity to partner with Clark and create a situation where we could pull from its Cuisine program, in our case, and work with the program to help educate and train people for the restaurant business is important. The simple fact is that this can be a great career for people, especially people who want to become entrepreneurs.
Jen Cook: It’s also something else. Supporting Clark is important for our community because Clark makes things better for our community and everyone around us, including people who work for our company or those who go to school with our kids. Clark provides opportunities for those who may not have the financial resources to go to school and may not be sure what their chosen career might be.
Tom Cook: Both Jen and I feel very strongly that everybody in the community has an obligation to be involved and sometimes it’s financially and sometimes it’s giving precious time. The community has to understand that those fit together. You may not have the financial wherewithal to provide support in that way, but certainly, you can support the college in other ways. One of the biggest ways is to reach out to a student. It’s important that all of us do this.
Partners: Where do you both find the time to make a difference in the community, be successful in business and maintain a great family life?
Tom Cook: Family is important to us. We have older kids and little kids, and of course our extended family. We make sure to find time for all of them. It goes beyond that. It goes to our close friends who are part of this community. We have found a way to delineate. Jen allows me to work hard on the business, while she runs the household. When she tells me to be somewhere, I’m there. She is the chief executive officer of the household managing two full-time jobs. She has the kids and she has our social and community schedules. She manages all this and does a phenomenal job. I’m fortunate.
Jen Cook: I think I have three full-time jobs if you include Tom. Both of us grew up in supportive families and so that affects where our lives are right now. It also helps that we like our family. We like our kids, and we like all of our siblings and our parents and aunts and uncles. We just have fun. We have close family on both sides and I think that helps. Unfortunately, many people do not have what we have been afforded. We want to help them get there because we know it is important socially, emotionally and financially. Education is where it starts.
Joel B. Munson is Clark College Foundation’s chief advancement officer.