The Remarkable Rise and Ride of Rise’s Tom Ferguson

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If the answer is birding, what’s the question?

When Tom Ferguson launched his first Rise Biscuits & Donuts outlet in 2012, it was the start of something big. Over the next few years, Tom – formerly of Durham Catering Co., Only Burger and other well-known Durham food ventures – and his team opened and operated 26 company-owned and franchise outlets. It had all the earmarks of a runaway success. And in many respects it was, but the chain’s (now known as Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken) arc of fast growth – and decline and reconfiguration and restoration – nearly derailed the business and crushed the spirit of its founder. By his own description, Tom went into a deep depression and eventual breakdown as he struggled to confront his business challenges and some personal demons.

Photo by Anna Norwood

Rise transformed from its early mainly-doughnut iteration to now a chicken-and-biscuit eatery (still with doughnuts!). A pared down business now has a mix of 15 company-run and franchisee-owned outlets in North Carolina. “Truth is, we’re doing better as a business now than when we had all those stores,” Tom says.

Following is an edited transcript of Tom’s recollections, collected from a recorded conversation with Durham Magazine’s Dan Shannon:

Rise was a phenomenon when we started [in 2012]. I’m making doughnuts from scratch, making everything from scratch. There were lines out the door. We were coming up with ideas and putting them on the menu the next day. And then we had a franchise company reach out to us, the guys who helped Five Guys start, and they said, “Hey, you know what, you should franchise this.” The first three years or so we were rocking.

When I first met with the franchising company, they told me everything I was going to have to do to be a success. And my chef-y stubborn parts thought, “I’m not going to have to do that, I can do it my way.” And I had this fantasy that I would [sell franchises to] experienced chefs who were in their 30s, who were kind of burned out, had families and wanted to have a life at home as well as run [a successful franchise]. Well, the thing is, these chefs came from higher-end restaurants. A lot of them were overwhelmed by the customer service demands they faced [and] having a young workforce that wasn’t their life goal to be working in restaurants.

Our model just didn’t scale. And before I knew that there was, you know, over $10 million invested in [the company]. And it was too complicated, it wasn’t working, and in 2017, I simply didn’t know what to do. And I’ve always kind of thought I’ve known what to do. Why wasn’t it working? Too many moving pieces, you’ve got franchisors that want all their questions answered and [we weren’t] answering them. It was crazy.

At the same time I was feeling like I had made it. My ego got bigger, and I was never about money until money came into the play.
And then I had something happen in my life that I don’t want to talk about, but I had a nervous breakdown, and I didn’t even know what a nervous breakdown was. I thought I was pretty bulletproof. I was hyperventilating, undergoing enormous work pressures, enormous personal pressures. And they kind of clashed at the same time. I wasn’t sure what to do.

I retreated into a really a dark place. And I went to rehab Sept. 11, 2018. I learned some great stuff. I learned to meditate, and I love crystals and all this hippie-dippie stuff and got clean at that point. I still do my five routines. I make my bed, I do a couple of few reps of something. I say daily affirmation, I meditate. And I pray. So those things that I learned there, I still carry with me.

When I came out, I knew I needed to fix my company. So I went to a Wilmington store for three months, and I started making my adjustments. I still thought I can make everything from scratch, I can still do it my way.

But I didn’t know how to fix it. I couldn’t do it. My whole reputation sits on this, really, and I felt that I sold out, but it’s all about the [return on investment]. Doesn’t matter how foodie you want to be. It doesn’t matter how much you want to take care of your employees. Doesn’t matter at all. If you don’t have return on investment, it’s over, done. So we basically stopped selling franchises in 2018.

And I had another nervous breakdown of this time. It was pretty severe: depression, sleeping in bed, not grooming myself as much, not getting up and interacting with other people, hiding out, binging, eating a lot, gaining a lot of weight. I just wanted to hide.

The important part of this story is in December, almost two years ago. I went to a doctor after my nervous breakdown this time, and I’m ready for an antidepressant or some kind of pill. I’m just, “Give me a pill.” And he says, “Yeah, you’re not really an addict and you’re not really bipolar. What you need is a hobby. OK. I didn’t have a hobby. For some reason I’d been thinking about bird-watching. I don’t know why. I know I thought about it. I thought I might do it in my older age. So he kind of shuffled when I said, “Birding.” He said, “Hey, can you slow down enough to go birding?” I kind of took it as a challenge, ’cause I need challenge. I went home that night, and I went on the internet and found out what equipment [I needed]? I joined three bird clubs. I signed up for a bird trip down to the Outer Banks. I jumped totally into it.

And then I made my proclamation on Facebook than I am going to be a birder. One person said, “Have you ever heard of the Big Year?” It’s a movie about this competition to count as many species of bird as you can in a calendar year in North America. And I go, “Oh, there’s a competition. Oh, I’m in, I’m in.” And I go, “OK, what I’m going to do is, when I travel to visit the stores, I’m going to go birding in that area. So I did that. And then I took some other trips by myself, and I just went after it. My first year.

And so on Dec. 25, when the family was in New York City, I went birding for the first time on Christmas Day in Central Park. I got all my gear Jan. 1. I was out birding all day, getting lost in it. I’m still doing my job at work, but I have time to get away. I went to Tennessee, flew down to Florida, and started to build this bird count.

There’s a bit more than a thousand bird species in America, and I was going to get as many as I could. I’m trying to set the rookie record. I’m all in. I met the president of the American Birding Association. We became good buddies. I go to some festivals, hanging with [birding] people, starting to build this [collection] of friends throughout the country and decided I’m going to start a bird club in Durham.

So I started a bird club here. I went birding last Saturday. I took two people out who hadn’t been [birding] before. We saw this osprey fishing on the water [at Jordan Lake]. So here comes a bald eagle, drops down, grabs a big old bass and comes out. It’s so awesome for first-time birders.

I saw 350 or so birds my first year, which is a lot. I went as far as Arizona, Washington state, Utah, Texas. I think I went to 18 states in the first year.

I’m getting centered. Birding is balancing me in a way that I didn’t really [anticipate]. Look, I’ve been through rehab. I have a toolbox of all the tools to help you with addiction. But I was a workaholic. I was always thinking about work. I still do to an extent, just always thinking and trying to create something new. Then I’m birding, and this gave me some balance, because all of a sudden I had to learn something new. I thought of birds as all brown birds and white birds and, you know, a couple of blue birds, but I didn’t know anything about them. So I started taking pictures of birds. I took 10,000 pictures my first year. Then you have to log the birds on email.

All of a sudden I could throw myself into [something] nobody was dependent on me for. With Rise, my family depends on me, my partners, the investors, the franchisees.

I’m still working and birding. I’m carving out a little more vacation time. I found balance, you know, I’m like, “Oh, I had no idea.” Why was I over 50 [years old] before somebody told me I needed to get a hobby? And I made a commitment that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to tell as many people I could about the value of a hobby – in my case, birding.

I think the pandemic has doubled the number of people who are into birding right now. That’s crazy. So people are getting into it because … you know what I realized those two first years? I used to go around to my stores and talk to the managers and employees about how they’re doing and kind of tell my story and they tell their story. And you realize how much people are hurting when you had that honest conversation with them. And I knew that I’ve got to tell as many people as I can. That’s why I started the bird club in Durham.

People think birding is a very isolating hobby – it’s not. It’s a very connecting thing. People get together, go on group outings. There’s like, 300 birding festivals a year around the United States. You hang out, you cook food, you party. It’s just like, “Wow, this is really fun.” It’s not how I would imagine it. But what do I know?

Birding changed my life. It gave me a reason to not always be thinking about work when I would go on a binge. I got to stop thinking about work, and I didn’t party with other people. Recently I was driving around, out looking for birds, and got out and walked around before I realized I’d been out there about six hours. I got in my car and go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t think of anything except the birds.” I started crying. I was like, “Wow, thank you, God. I needed that.”

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