Debbie Richman – Giving People A Fair Shake

Monday, June 2, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

President of Debo's Diners, Inc. (dba Steak n Shake) Debbie Richman offers fair prices, fresh ingredients and around the clock meals, along with the signature milk shakes at each of the five Steak and Shake locations in the Chattanooga area.

Growing up in Indiana, Debbie took on a caretaker’s role as she was the oldest of her three sisters. Realizing her family struggled financially, Debbie’s inner desire was to do better and to help others to do better.

 “I didn’t have a particular thing that I wanted to be growing up, but I just always knew that I wanted to help people and I wasn’t sure what that was. I was working at Steak and Shake when I moved out on my own at 16 and have been supporting myself ever since,” Debbie asserts.

Her independent nature led her to a career in which she now employs 350 people in the Chattanooga area and provided them with benefits long before the Obama administration mandated small businesses to do so.

After beginning with Stake and Shake as a teenager, Debbie worked at a few other restaurants learning all areas of the business.

“I was a waitress at 15 and I wanted to learn about different areas so the managers trained me on how to count the money, do inventory and different things at that point,” Debbie says.

She married when she was 20 and had her first son, Matthew, when she was 22 and son, Michael, when she was 27. Debbie mostly stayed at home while raising her children, but she still worked part-time to contribute to her family the best she could.

Debbie returned to Steak and Shake before her family moved to Chattanooga to open a franchise of the all-night diner.

“We were interested in a franchise and talked to the owner about Nashville, but they said Nashville was a large market and they wanted to keep those corporate locations. We really liked Chattanooga. We went through it whenever we went to Florida,” Debbie says.

Opening the first Steak and Shake on Gunbarrel Road in 1994, each year brought a new location and Debbie and her husband opened sites in Hixson, Dalton, Fort Oglethorpe and Cleveland. They also opened one in Athens, but when the recession hit, they closed it.

The couple divorced and Debbie bought her husband’s share of the business. After an employee’s child had given Debbie the nickname “Debo” she ended up calling her investment company Debo’s Diners Incorporated, which is the umbrella for all of her successful restaurants.

In the beginning, Debbie found herself working over 60 hours a week plus taking home work to handle the administrative end. Though she had other assistant managers working with her, she was the “go-to” person during the 24 hours per day they are open. Debbie’s hours seemed to never end as she worked hard to build her business.

Today, Debbie has five managers at each location and she mostly handles the administrative end.

“I don’t have to be there as much, but I still am very involved and, with all of the IT systems in place, I can look in at any time and see what is going on with sales, or see if there is enough help. I can dial into the cameras, so I am pretty much on call 24/7,” Debbie says.

Each of Debo’s diner’s Steak and Shakes is a great place for families to bring their children, offering “kids eat free on the weekends” as well as being open around the clock.

“We have almost 20 items of meals that are under four dollars and we have good quality food like our homemade guacamole and Pico de Gallo and fresh chopped vegetables. It is a good value, but high quality,” Debbie says.

“It still amazes me to go into the Gunbarrel Road restaurant at 2:00 in the morning on Saturday and see it so full with people who have just gone to the movies, or ball teams just finishing a game or even those on dates. It is amazing the number of people who are out at that time of night and I love that they can have a fun, family environment to go to,” Debbie maintains.

When Debbie talks about her favorite menu items, it takes her back to 1977 when she first worked as a waitress.

“The original double cheeseburger and chili and fries… sometimes, when I get the smell of something, it takes me back to when I carried food to a table. I like the old classics… and the chocolate shakes,” Debbie chuckles.

Sons Matthew and Michael began working as youth in the restaurants and are now on the board of directors.  

Matthew had been a preacher, but as his family moved nearly every year it became important for Michael to provide stability and an environment around his family.

“He took a different approach than I might have in handling things with the HR side of the business and we had let a district manager go so he has also been pretty involved in operations,” Debbie says. “Michael is a CPA for the Decosimo firm and doesn’t have a role to play in the day-to-day business, but he stays informed.”

As the popularity of the diners continue, it is evident Debbie truly cares about her staff and she prides herself in taking care of her employees - some of whom have been with her for 10-20 years.

“I am not really motivated by money… I am motivated by helping someone achieve their best - whatever that is and helping people take care of their family,” Debbie vows.

She is also motivated by having her sons and grandchildren close by and to be part of the business. Though Debbie doesn’t see herself retiring anytime soon, she tells her children ‘maybe in 10 years’ but says it would be hard for her to pull away .

“Thankfully, my children have a similar mindset as I do. They do not feel ‘entitled’ nor are the ‘owner’s son’ type… they respect others and they want to help take care of people too,” Debbie says. “That goes hand in hand in taking care of our customers and making people happy… and that is what I am passionate about.”

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