Christie Lawler is the founder and owner of CJL CONSULTiNG, a niche marketing agency that serves the restaurant, hotel and entertainment chains across the U.S. She’s also the founder of their philanthropic arm – The WITI Group – a 501(c)(3) organization that aims to promote the future female leaders of our industry through mentorship as well as financial and emotional support when they find themselves in abusive or otherwise hostile work environments.
Christie founded CJL CONSULTiNG in 2009 while completing her MBA as a way to stay engaged in her career while completing her studies. As Founder & Owner of CJL CONSULTiNG, Christie supports clients by creating beverage marketing and training programs for the likes of Alamo Drafthouse, American Social, Arcis Golf, Drive Shack, and Flagship Restaurant Group. Christie is also the host of Lawler Out Loud: Mixing up the Mainstream – a weekly podcast featuring trendsetters and newsmakers around the hospitality industry.
Prior to the re-brand of CJL CONSULTiNG in 2017, Christie was consulting with AREAS, Smokey Bones, and Shula’s after spending seven years serving as the National Accounts Manager for both Sidney Frank Importing Company and Lavazza. After managing more than 200 accounts across the U.S., she was excited to bring her knowledge of the sales side full circle to help her company’s clients drive their beverage strategy forward.
Before entering the world of sales, Christie worked as a newspaper reporter and went on to create the marketing office for MWR Europe covering Southern Germany while stationed overseas with her active-duty husband. Upon moving back to the U.S. in 2004, Christie got her first taste of national accounts beverage marketing while creating training and beverage programs for HMSHost, Consolidated Restaurant Operations, Outback Steakhouse, and House of Blues.
In 2018, Christie discovered her deepest purpose so far as she developed the charitable side of her company founding The WITI Group, a 501(c)(3) foundation focused on supporting and helping the women of the hospitality industry. She is also proud to serve as a CORE Ambassador.
CJL CONSULTiNG is WBENC Certified as a Woman-Owned Small Business and Christie serves as an advisory board member for Datassential’s “The Bar,” she’s a member of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Female Founders Collective and also volunteers with the Women’s Business Center of Houston.
Christie also speaks publicly on corporate culture strategy, marketing, branding, and sales strategy and her first book will be published in 2021.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Christie to discuss her journey as an entrepreneur and here’s what went down:
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your business?
We are a niche marketing agency that serves the restaurant, hotel, and entertainment chains across the U.S. In just one week, our clients were all shuttered and we had to pivot our business model to stay afloat while we wait to come to another side of the crisis. That responsibility falls on me as the owner of the company.
Our small business is shifting its mission by adding services and products to our portfolio to attempt to stay afloat. We are a niche marketing company focused on the food and beverage industry and most of our clients have no need for our regular services as they are not operating in the manner they used to (if at all) before the Coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
I asked our team to give me new ideas where I can collaborate with them and fund their ideas to help our company grow. We are now offering weekly educational webinars to support our industry as one of our pivots. This is a marketing strategy for us as the free sessions create value when our industry needs help more now, than ever before.
We also pivoted to create a service we are calling The Chef’s Table. We are using our existing skill set and strengths as a company to provide nutrition-focused recipes and menus to the healthcare industry across the U.S. The program consists of multiple levels of service all offering celebrity-chef curated food and beverage packages and menus that are customizable to the needs of each facility/dietician.
We aim to continue to grow our services and product lines as our clients return to business and find new and innovative ways to help their unique needs.
What social media platforms do you usually use to increase your brand’s awareness?
We primarily use LinkedIn as our network is very strong within our industry. However, we are engaging in Instagram and Facebook more frequently to gain exposure for the non-profit arm of the company – The WITI Group. We are currently undergoing a social media strategy rebrand and planning to attack the platforms with a new look soon.
What is your experience with paid advertising, like PPC or sponsored content campaigns? Does it work?
Our marketing strategy is much more network focused due to our niche. However, I do see the value of using sponsored campaigns and PPC options for companies with different models. And we will be using those methods for some of our products as we continue to evolve that strategy.
What is your main tactic when it comes to making more people aware of your brand and engaging your customers? How did your business stand out?
Our primary tactic is goodwill toward others. Not a method as much as an ethos. Through our philanthropic arm, we aim to promote the future female leaders of our industry through mentorship as well as financial and emotional support when they find themselves in abusive or otherwise hostile work environments. As part of our outreach to help others, we have donated $12,000 in recent weeks to other philanthropic organizations that help our industry’s most vulnerable – the kitchen, bar, and restaurant staff that have found themselves without income.
As part of our efforts to use marketing as a positive change agent, we have been offering free weekly educational webinars to support our industry as one of our ways to give back. We are also donating 10% of our sales from one of our products, Wake Up Wine to our foundation as an effort to fundraise through sales. As the North American Wholesaler for this wonderful innovation, we are able to help our industry by giving back and promoting a better guest experience. We have also pivoted our business to also serve the healthcare space by using our expertise in food and beverage to create customized, nutrition-focused and celebrity-chef curated recipes to serve both patients and caregivers.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
As a marketing company, we are always changing our approach to match the needs of our clients and new customers. We are lucky to have that capability to turn quickly. We have always relied on our relationships and the strength of our network. But as we evolve, we are also venturing into new avenues with social media marketing and brand engagement.
What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months?
The hardest decision I made was also the easiest. With my clients shuttering and going into furlough situations, I decided to offer my personal support at no charge. We went from constantly working to focusing on how we could be the most beneficial to our clients. It isn’t a great financial model, but I would rather do the right thing than the profitable thing right now as we are all hurting. I knew that we weren’t the company that was going to make money off the pain of others. So we have sustained ourselves through new projects and business pivots while we wait for our past revenue streams to evolve through this.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from (or something you’d do differently)?
I self-funded the company in its genesis as well as through our growth by reinvesting revenue to grow. I do look back and often wonder if I should have added a line of credit for the business to help us over unforeseen hurdles.
What new business would you love to start?
I am actually already working on that as I had an idea for a new product in December and was crafting the plan when COVID hit. I have been steady in my R&D and we plan a soft launch in the coming months. What makes me most proud of my first CPG effort is that I am working with other women-owned and family-owned businesses that also happen to be members of The WITI Group. I am using my network to grow and that makes me feel like I am accomplishing something in spite of the challenges we all are facing.
If you could go back in a time machine to the time when you were just getting started, what would you do differently?
I have made so many mistakes, but I have no regrets. If I say I would have trusted myself sooner, that would be honest. However, if I hadn’t learned what I needed to, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I am grateful for my mistakes because I have learned more from one mistake than I ever have for a multitude of successes.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
This is a great question. The best advice I have ever received is advice I had been given more than once before it sunk in and took hold. I was told to see myself the way others see me in positive ways instead of only trying to work on the negative ways I have been perceived. I now live this model giving the same advice to others.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
It’s the same internal speech I often give to myself…There will always be pitfalls to starting your own business. Listen to your inner positive voice. Because if you don’t trust yourself, then how could anyone else trust you?