By Gwen Rockwood
If you asked Karin and Mike Nabors, founders of Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Cafe, what makes their bread so good, they’ll tell you it starts with the best ingredients as well as a commitment to the time and expertise required to produce something remarkable.
The couple had dreams of having their own bakery and restaurant one day, but, like many would-be entrepreneurs, family life and day jobs kept that dream on the back-burner for decades. Mike spent the majority of his career in the corporate world, and Karin managed a busy household with two kids. But along the way, life began to hand them the ingredients they’d one day need to begin a new adventure.
“I worked in the corporate world for a long time, but then the company I worked for was sold and a lot of us were let go,” Mike said. “It gave me the opportunity to do something different with my career. Karin and I had always talked about having a restaurant so when we were forced to go in a new direction, we decided to go for it.”
They dipped their toe into the restaurant waters by buying a franchise known for dip cones. Buying the Dairy Queen franchise in Harrison gave them the perfect training ground to learn what they needed to know about restaurant management, labor and food costs, franchising and quality control. They bought it in 1994 and it was soon the No. 1 Dairy Queen in the 45-store region. They sold it six years later as they looked toward an even bigger dream – a new bakery and café specializing in bread and food made from scratch using premium ingredients.
They crystallized their vision for the restaurant’s concept and prepared a solid business plan. In December 1999, Karin and Mike broke ground on the project. By August 2000, Neighbors Mill Bakery & Café was ready to come out of the oven.
Not all married couples could run a business together, but Karin and Mike know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work in a way that creates balance. Mike’s corporate experience makes him excel in the operations side of the company while Karin’s expertise in food and finance helps keep the restaurant’s vision intact.
“I’m the dreamer and she’s the bookkeeper who keeps me between the ditches,” Mike said with a laugh.
Having grown up in the restaurant world, Mike and Karin’s children knew about the long hours and hard work it takes to succeed in a competitive industry. Their parents told them that taking over the family business was not something they were expected or pressured to do.
I’m the dreamer and she’s the bookkeeper who keeps me between the ditches
“Karin felt strongly that the kids should never feel obligated to take over the business. She always stressed to them how important it was that it be their own decision – one that they should make only if they felt like this was something they truly wanted and would enjoy doing as a career.”
When Mike and Karin started making long-term plans for the business and their own retirement, their adult children – who had moved across the country to pursue careers – called their parents within days of each other to say they were interested in coming home and continuing the Neighbor’s Mill tradition. Their daughter Lauren Brown and her husband Clif now own the Springfield, Missouri, location, and Cary Nabors, their youngest son, is the general manager of the Harrison location and is in the process of buying the Harrison Mill.
Is running a company with your spouse and your adult children a recipe for disaster? Not at all, according to Mike.
“We all share the same passion, and because the kids grew up in the business, they’ve done everything here and know what’s expected and what it takes to make it successful,” he said. “We really do see eye-to-eye on most things and, in cases where we do disagree, we’ve been able to reach compromises. It helps that we’re all Christians who believe we’re supposed to get along together.”
The only thing that doesn’t get compromised is the laser focus on quality ingredients and the proper techniques for making the most of them. The Nabors own a 100-year-old grist mill where they grind whole grains. Their daily baking schedule allows them to bake breads using freshly ground flour before it begins to lose its nutritional value. They make more than 25 varieties of hand-crafted breads that are chemical free and GMO-free. Mike confirmed that 100 percent of their bakery items are made from scratch.
Neighbor’s Mill Bakery now sells bread wholesale to 28 outlets throughout the Ozarks, including Big Cedar Lodge, Chateau on the Lake, Ruby’s Market in Springfield, several grocery store chains and health food stores.
Their café has become renowned for some of its signature items like the chicken salad, which earned a write-up from Southern Living magazine. In February 2017, 417 Magazine’s “Best of the Best” Awards named Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Café as one of Springfield’s top 3 “Best New Restaurants.”
While the grist mill keeps turning and the bread keeps rising, Mike and Karin are seeing their vision reproduce itself in new communities as the company grows through franchising. Their experience as Dairy Queen franchisees helped them learn how to make a franchise model successful on both sides of the equation, Mike said.
A new Neighbor’s Mill location in Rogers, Ark., owned by Michael and Robyn Brooks, will open in the summer of 2017. Other cities under consideration include Russellville, Conway, Fort Smith and Tulsa.
Mike and Karin’s advice for fellow restaurant lovers with a dream of one day having a place of their own? “Don’t go into it on emotion alone. Do your homework and have a business plan that makes sense. Don’t take shortcuts on the right equipment and especially when it comes to hiring the right people. Whatever you do, don’t compromise on quality.”