Jason Byassee: Two scoops of virtue

How Brian Willis, a yogurt shop owner and a Christian, reveals the quiet, remarkable virtues of an entrepreneur.

Christians have not been known as of late for being entrepreneurs. Publications like this one and Q are dedicated to helping the church remember her founding impulse precisely because she’s often forgotten it.

Which is why I found meeting Brian Willis, a local entrepreneur here in Boone, so interesting. He went into business at Sweet Frog here in the High Country -- not despite his Christian commitment but precisely because of it.

Willis runs events for Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- pictures on his wall feature the inauguration of the Graham Library in Charlotte, replete with a visit from three presidents, an event Willis coordinated.

He told me in an interview at SP that he was walking with Will Graham one day in Auburn, Alabama, looking for lunch (I’m suddenly wondering what celebrities I’ve walked past unawares in my life). They noticed a line out the door at a business near Toomer’s Corner that intrigued them. On another visit they got in and learned it offered self-serve yogurt, however much a customer wants, before she pays by the weight.

Sometime later Willis was in Lynchburg, Virginia, where his daughter was in college. After meetings, his hosts suggested they eat out at Sweet Frog, a then-new yogurt business in town. Same concept as in Toomer’s but a different chain. And it turns out a friend who is a worship leader at a local church was the entrepreneur behind the effort. Willis called his friend, learned the ins-and-outs of starting a yogurt store, and became intrigued. His friend said, “You can do anything you want Brian, but I’d love to partner with you.”

We see here two remarkably quiet virtues. Willis, with Will Graham, noticed. A business was working somewhere else. He got curious and asked friends their experience, and within his network someone knew precisely how to pull this off. Networking has negative connotations in some circles, so let’s call it the virtue of creative friendship.

Willis speaks of God’s blessing in his first foray into business. Its name not only echoes “frozen yogurt,” it’s also an acronym: “fully reliant on God.”

God’s ways are mysterious, and not lacking in serendipity perhaps. Willis attributes some of his store’s success to its bright, airy, fun space. He attributes more of it to its cleanliness -- no small task with 60 toppings that kids spoon out for themselves (the danger: “Fathers will come back if a store isn’t in perfect shape. Moms will not”). Willis describes himself as “OCD about details” (he’s in events for the Graham family, what else could he be?!). But he also attributes some of the store’s success to, shall we say, more secular factors: it sure helps, traffic wise, to share a parking lot with Wal-Mart. When the store opened Willis and family, multi-decade Boone residents, recognized almost everyone who came in. Now they look around at times and recognize no one. This is especially impressive in a town of 16,000 with several other yogurt places, one 150 yards from Sweet Frog’s door.

Willis’ is a family business, with his son, his daughter, son-in-law, and wife heavily involved in addition to himself. Obviously such an undertaking can be hard on a family. One minor challenge is how, precisely, to go local. Boone is a town that treasures businesses that treasure it back. So Sweet Frog has fan paraphernalia from Appalachian State (who else?) and local Watauga High School, but should they include stuff from Ashe and Avery County High Schools next door? More seriously and theologically, should it open on Sunday? Chick-Fil-A is legendary in the evangelical community for refusing to do so; locally Stick Boy Bread Company, founded and run by Willis’ fellow church members, closes Sundays. Would Sweet Frog?

Willis discussed it with his pastor. His partners and family figured this way -- one Sabbath thing families like to do is go out for a treat together. So paradoxically the business could help create Sabbath rest by being open. They do it with alterations. It opens 2-8 (the norm is 11-10); they don’t clean the machines that day so employees don’t have to come in beforehand and can worship.

It’s only one fairly sweet (in more than one way) story about a local business. But it comes directly from Christian practice, including Willis’ own experience at SP (his gleanings from that world-class organization: delegate and expect excellence).

It could suggest that the church is remembering how to create, in reflection of a God who loves creation.