Jason Hill makes starting a successful business from the ground up look simple. The sheer number of entrepreneurial endeavors he has accomplished sometimes astounds even him. With thirteen unique businesses under his belt, started anywhere between months and a few years apart from each other, that comes as no surprise.
Hill started his career as an industrial painter, but by 2004 he reevaluated his opportunities and changed his career trajectory. There was a need in his local community of Six Nations of the Grand River – the indigenous land was in short supply of commercial infrastructure, and Hill saw a chance to innovate with solutions that helped build up the local economy and community. The roaring success of his first location, Aces Convenience and Tobacco, was the tipping point in a series of new and increasingly more successful locations opening up across Six Nations, ending with the advent of his proudest accomplishment in 2011 – the Burger Barn.
Becoming a restaurateur is no easy feat, but Hill’s work led to his venture becoming an international success. The popular spot known for its fusion between classic Texas and traditional indigenous cuisine was featured on the second season of Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here. Every year people continue to flock to the Burger Barn for their Signature Kitchen Sink Burger, Ultimate BB Sweet Fry Bread, and Golden Crispy Fresh Cut Fries.
A decade later, he expanded the restaurant into another opportunity that directly and positively impacts his own community – a food truck that can travel throughout southern Ontario.
Hill’s other successful operations include a wholesale supplier which provides goods to both his own store and his competitors, a ranch for prize-winning Belgian and Clydesdale draft horses, and a racing venture that has had numerous top-five finishes and won the Southern Ontario Sprint Car Championship of 2019.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, from my youngest days growing up in Six Nations of the Grand River. Even when I was starting my first businesses — retail, wholesale, energy and construction — I always had the idea for Burger Barn. It was a dream of building a better burger. And it was more than that — creating a place in my hometown where people could gather to have fun and enjoy good food. A place that would create community and wonderful family memories. That’s what Burger Barn is all about.
When you come here, you’ll see familiar faces — folks that wouldn’t miss a breakfast, or who’ve been craving a double stacker. They’re at home; and they feel at home. Even the tourists can feel it. That’s probably why we’ve attracted so much notice from all across Canada. Television crews, folks just passing through, travellers who’ve seen us on Tripadvisor or Yelp, they can tell there’s something unique here, and I’m very proud of that.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day is somewhat atypical, and I like it that way. I enjoy that each day may have some new surprise in store, a new opportunity, or even something to learn. Some of my days are focused on my ongoing retail, energy or construction projects, and some on the restaurant. I should say “work days,” because I also love to spend time with my equestrian and race car teams. It’s a hobby that turned into a passion. I love the competitions, and especially the winning!
How do you bring ideas to life?
When you’re in business and planning to start one, you need to set aside time to think about the big picture. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of a business, because frankly the details are important. You can’t spend all day dreaming yourself to success. But you also have to step back and take a broad view of where you are and where you want to be, in six months, a year, five years. When you think like that, you discover opportunities — opportunities that would pass you by if you were focused on the columns of a spreadsheet.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I love the idea of fusion in cuisine, matching different cultural foods and tastes to create something new and spectacular. Although we are famous for our burgers of course, this is something we do a lot at Burger Barn. My take on this trend is Southern-style comfort food with a farm-fresh twist, with generous measures of First Nation cuisine influence added to the mix. The rewards of this type of experimentation are always great — and delicious!
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
In addition to big-picture thinking, I advise every business owner to get to know your people — the people who work for you and the people who buy your product or service. As the owner of Burger Barn, that’s a really fun thing to do. You’ll see me there a lot. And even though I’m there as Jason, just regular customer Jason, I’m also taking the temperature of the entire operation — not in an intrusive way, or in a way that would make my employees uncomfortable, but I’m taking note of the atmosphere, the friendliness, the level of customer service; and I’m also listening to what the customers say and how they react to the whole experience. There’s always room for improvement, even for the best burger in eastern Canada!
One thing I would add that is very, very important for any boss, CEO, company president or manager who is dropping in on the business and interacting with employees: When you do this, you’ve got to overextend yourself on the positive side. Don’t stand around looking for faults that you’ll highlight in your next email. Be ready to praise, encourage and engage your workers on a very human level. You certainly don’t want them to duck and cover when you walk in the door. You want their greetings to be genuine, because they genuinely know you are looking out for them, not just yourself.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Start earlier! My first job was as an industrial painter. It was a steady paycheck, I was good at it, and I enjoyed working with the team, but I also felt restless. When my wife and I started a family, that was the catalyst to reach for my dreams, which also meant reaching for greater security for my family. Looking back, I wish I had gotten that reality check a few years before; not simply because I was essentially treading water, but also because I was missing out on the thrill, sense of adventure and fun of being a serial entrepreneur. There’s really nothing like it. Entrepreneurship puts you in control of your own destiny and tests your skills, persistence and character. You either sink or swim — it’s definitely not treading water.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I’m actually kind of a private person, a bit introspective at times. When you see me enjoying the company of my friends and customers at Burger Barn, you might not believe that!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Jason Hill: Reevaluate. It’s an important word for any entrepreneur. Step back, take a look at where you are, where you’re going, where you may find some new opportunities, ways you can improve both your business and yourself. Be honest and be reflective.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
It may not be a strategy, exactly, but it’s a key ingredient to success: self-confidence. There’s a tremendous advantage when you believe in a project that everyone around you is doubting. Sometimes passing up an opportunity, or cutting your losses in an ongoing project, is the logical thing to do. But self-confidence pushes you on — and powers you to success.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Like almost everyone in the restaurant business, the pandemic literally brought us to our knees. We were not prepared for the loss of business, the anxiety, and the reality that many of the possible solutions were limited by the concern we had for our customers and workers. But as lockdowns gradually eased, we decided that a great way to bring our food to people was to start a catering service, and also make plans for a Burger Barn food truck. Both of these innovations are still going strong.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I actually had the idea for “make your own pizza.” I used to talk about it years ago, and then people started telling me, “Oh, you got that from Seinfeld”! And then the day came when there were suddenly franchises like Blaze and Pieology that made the idea real – not exactly making a pizza as if you were at a salad bar, but having someone make it for you, according to your preferences. Me and that Kramer guy, we could have been pizza billionaires!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Dinner at Burger Barn with family and friends! I’m proud to say that the $100 actually went a long way.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
As you know, I started out as an industrial painter, so I’ve never really been considered a high-tech person. Paint and brush. Quality inventory. Great service, spectacular food. These are some of the simple concepts I’ve had in my day-to-day business life. Not very technical stuff, but I have managed to master some of the basics of new technology. I use my mobile often, and our backend operations are all efficiently managed by computers and networks.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rationale for the American Revolution by Bruce E. Johansen. It shines a light on one aspect of the great heritage of our people, the ideas of governance that influenced the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. Haudenausaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy political ideals even reached Europe and influenced the enlightenment philosophers, including Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and others.
What is your favorite quote?
I like this one from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right!”
- Trust in yourself, trust in your people.
- Step back and look at the big picture. Don’t micromanage.
- Approach every new day with a fresh perspective and boundless
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.