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Resilient bar owner celebrates 25 years of success — and grit

Two-plus decades running bars and nightclubs have taught Joanna Olsen a lot about resilience and persistence. “Never quit," she says. "Just get back in there and conquer."

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. June 19, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Joanna Olsen has been the bar and nightclub industry for 25 years.
Joanna Olsen has been the bar and nightclub industry for 25 years.
Courtesy image
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Longtime Tampa Bay and Florida entrepreneur and bar owner Joanna Olsen has two remote-drop movies in her life, the flicks she will stop whatever she’s doing to watch.

Widely different in plot and tone, both films, which originated as novels — "The Godfather" and "Great Expectations" — share similar themes in Olsen’s life: tenacity, resilience, overcoming challenges big and small, unending loyalty and a relentless never-settle disposition. 

Olsen is celebrating a big milestone this year as a leader and business owner: 25 years running nightclubs and bars. Her flagship spot, her baby as she calls it, is the Coyote Ugly Saloon in Ybor City in Tampa. The bar, known for its cowboy style and women bartenders with a penchant for serving drinks while dancing on the bar, is part of the Coyote Ugly network that debuted in New York City in 1993. The popular movie Coyote Ugly came out seven years later, based on a magazine article written by a former bartender. (The movie isn’t based on Olsen’s life. But she shares some characteristics with the real life tough-love, gritty bar owner and Coyote Ugly founder Liliana ‘Lil,’ Lovell, played in the movie by Maria Bello.)

After a few years of building up the Ybor location, Olsen opened Coyote Ugly saloons in Panama City, Destin and Daytona Beach. I recently spoke with Olsen for an episode of From the Corner Office, the Business Observer’s leadership podcast. We spoke about her career and leadership lessons. Edited excerpts:

Remain strong

Napkin deal

Olsen was born in New York and raised in Atlanta. She got into the nightclub business early, co-owning a place called Paradox in Atlanta when she was 24. On a trip to New York City with her cousin she checked out the original Coyote Ugly. “I walked in and literally fell in love with the concept to make a fun story. They were like, ‘hey, supermodel, get on this bar and do a shot of tequila or get the F out,’” she says on the podcast. “So I look at my cousin who's kind of my main buddy, older sister type cousin who looks at me like ‘you better get up there.’ And I did. And about several shots later, I was talking to the owners and we did a napkin deal that night and I said I will find a location.”

Leaders eat last

Olsen, in a gallows humor kind of way, says leadership for her is being “a glorified landlord that is basically putting out fires every day. It's a mini fire, from fixing the air conditioning unit to the toilets to this to that.” But Hurricane Michael in 2018 tested Olsen like few other fires ever had. She arrived in Panama City — a drive that took 10 hours from Tampa, double normal time — with tears in her eyes as she saw the “war zone” like destruction in the streets. “It's not just you're worried about your business,” Olsen says. “Half my employees lost their homes. So at that time, I had to find housing for them, get Publix gift cards to make sure they had food to feed their kids…It’s very difficult to see people in that situation.” 

“At the same time, of course, you're worried about where my income is going to come to support (the employees) and to reopen?”

Joanna Olsen
Courtesy image
All alone

The Panama City location was shuttered for two months, Olsen says, costing the company at least $1 million in sales. “Plus, my girls make tips, my barbacks make tips,” she adds, which isn’t covered in unemployment.

Olsen says she kept it together in front of the crew and team. Then, when she got to her house in Destin and was alone she had what she termed a mini-meltdown. “It’s a very lonely space as an entrepreneur. I mean, you do have a few people you can talk to but you have to act like the strong leader in those situations and then regroup and do things on your end, healthy things. I tried to do yoga, do breathwork, sleep well.”

Write it down

A mentor of Olsen’s back in college suggested she start a journal. Turned out to be a great move, one Olsen advises new leaders and young entrepreneurs to do. She even has pictures and a scrapbook of some past doings. Like the opening night at the Ybor City Coyote Ugly, which was a major headache due to a (non-hurricane) storm. “I'm so fortunate I have those and wrote down” what happened, she says, adding looking back gives her an “I can do hard things” perspective. 

That night, she says, “was the biggest thunderstorm you've ever seen. We were used to that, but it was a torrential downpour. My power went out. AC units are out, it's 90 degrees and people are waiting down the street getting soaked. Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong that evening. And it was neat to reread that…it was like, you hold it together but you're losing it behind the scenes.” 

Never give up 

Escape hatch

Perspective is an important leadership trait for Olsen. It’s a message she relays often to her team — that even when you have a bad day, there are people who have it worse. It’s why she doesn’t show the news on any TV stations in the bars, sports only. “Everyone here is coming to Coyote because they want to forget their problems, be in a great space. Whether they have cancer, they're going through a divorce, they're going through a breakup Your job is to really lift them up,” she says. “This is an escape for them…so I try to remind the girls that you're going to feel so much better (by) making their day better. And it's going to make you feel better to give them that attention and listen to them.”

From within

Olsen seeks to promote people from inside the company as much as possible. An employee who started as a security guard making $8 an hour, for example, is now a co-owner with the Daytona and Destin locations and owns a second home in North Carolina, Olsen says. To get to that level, Olsen looks for eager and positive people, and people willing to come with ideas picked up from traveling to other places and bars. Olsen also prioritizes hard workers who don’t come in with a sense of entitlement. “I'm just as willing to walk by any table and pick up things and throw out things and get beer for the girls,” she says. “I want someone who's in the trenches, who will do any job and they're not above any job.”

Diversified portfolio

Olsen has another job, in addition to bar owner, that of property owner with a multitude of tenants. That comes from a key career lesson: don’t be beholden to a landlord whenever possible. She learned that the hard way, she says, when her landlord in the tony Buckhead section of Atlanta denied a lease extension on a Coyote Ugly she had there. “They put a parking deck and a condo where my Coyote Ugly location was,” she says. “So even though we're paying rent on time, and sales were rocking, it was game over. And my heart was broken, not only for me, but for my staff. We had worked so hard for five years to build up this great,” location. 

“I took that as fuel for my fire to say I will always own my buildings from this point forward,” Olsen says, adding she has some business partners in those ventures. 

Keep going

Two hallmarks of Olsen’s leadership at Coyote Ugly are philanthropy and longevity. On the former, she and her employees have supported a host of causes, such as March of Dimes. On the latter, the how-to of a lasting and sustainable business is the No. 1 piece of leadership advice she offers to budding entrepreneurs. 

“It takes grit, and it takes a hustle,” she says. “The first 10 years of this was constant. If it goes well, you will be rewarded 20-30 years into it, or even sooner. Be ready to never take no for an answer and you have to be able to get through every obstacle and never quit. … Just get back in there and conquer.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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