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Busboy-turned-owner builds on Tampa Bay Village Inn empire

Daniel Lehan IV has turned a teenage busboy gig into a multimillion-dollar restaurant enterprise. One simple key to success: You have to like people.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 21, 2024
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Daniel Lehan IV is about to open his ninth Tampa Bay-area Village Inn restaurant in Clearwater, 34 years after he started at the franchise as a busboy.
Daniel Lehan IV is about to open his ninth Tampa Bay-area Village Inn restaurant in Clearwater, 34 years after he started at the franchise as a busboy.
Photo by Mark Wemple
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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As Daniel Lehan IV readies to open his ninth Village Inn restaurant, with its all-day breakfasts and tasty pies, it's worth recalling the story behind his other eight franchise locations. 

It's an all-American story: A 16-year-old Largo busboy works his way up, first to dishwasher, then further up the eatery ladder. Years pass. He then becomes store manager at a Village Inn in St. Pete.

Then a crucial choice must be made: Should he allow the first Village Inn he worked in close, or should he raise the money to buy the franchise? Lehan raised the funds, with some six-figure support from his father, a banker. He even got an $80,000 tenant improvement plan.

And there he was, a franchisee of the Village Inn on Walsingham Road in Largo. It was exactly 21 years to the day after walking into the store, with Lehan making the move to franchisee Aug. 1, 2011.

Seven stores would follow, with another store, location No. 9, along Roosevelt Boulevard in Clearwater, now in the oven. All told, the Village Inns in Lehan's portfolio do at least $13 million a year in revenue 

So how did he do it? What was his key business strategy?

The first key is a business, and life, axiom: follow your passion. A lot of people 16 or so would think of being a busboy as just a job, for example. But Lehan, now 48, never did. He discovered that he reveled in restaurants, despite the kitchen heat and humidity, the elbow grease and the dishes.

"I liked the guests," says Lehan. "I liked working with the coworkers. … You have got to have passion for people and service."

Daniel Lehan IV is about to open his ninth Tampa Bay-area Village Inn restaurant in Clearwater, 34 years after he started at the franchise as a busboy.
Photo by Mark Wemple

The Village Inn company was founded in 1958 as Village Inn Pancake House. The chain rebranded in 1989. Village Inn is now part of a 110-store franchise network based in Minnesota and owned by BBQ Holdings, which also owns Famous Dave's and Champps American Grill.

Over the years Lehan received what he calls a million-dollar education from Village Inn, known for its pies and breakfast. Lehan attended some classes, plus years of experience had built up by 2011. But liking people was thje main key to his success. 

When he was managing the St. Pete store, he saw his original store was closing in 2011. Lehan had to also work as lobbyist — to get the network and the franchisee to allow Lehan to run the brand as the new franchisee.

He won out, in part with help from his father and mentor, the late Daniel Lehan III, a Wells Fargo banker and a wise man with money. The father gave Lehan $250,000.

The younger Lehan prepped the Walsingham Road store and opened it on the Aug.1 "busboy" anniversary in 2011. The guests, many likely familiar with Lehan through the years, came out like it was a Beatles concert.

"It was the fourth-largest opening week in Village Inn's history at the time," says Lehan.

Lehan's eight Village Inns are spread across the Tampa Bay area: Largo, two in St. Pete, one in Oldsmar, two in Pasco County, and stores in Riverview and Brandon.

The average unit volume in revenue runs between $1.7 million and $2.1 million annually, he says. And store No. 9, the new one in Clearwater, will implement some innovations, Lehan says.

It will have a different design with different colors, departing a bit from Village Inn's orange trim and standard design. And it will save money, shaving 1,600 square feet off old designs. It will also serve alcohol, another innovation.

"The new design is 37 years of learning about floor plans," says Lehan. "It has no ceiling tiles. It's got a bar. It has all of our new colors."

While the pandemic deflated commercial real estate prices in many sectors, it has not had the same effect on restaurant square footage, which, says Leahn, actually got more pricey. Lehan was excited to save the per-square-foot money while easily placing the inn's "toys" — the pie-making ovens and machinery the franchise is known for.

Oh, and it's not an actual inn. Not everyone of Tampa Bay's new residents and visitors know that. "We had a little bit of explaining to do," says Lehan.

Of course, Lehan is happy to explain, and happy to keep both guests and staff happy.

One example? He rents out Busch Gardens every December for his 350 employees.

"People first," says Lehan. "If you put them first, you are always going to win."


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