It is an old adage that success is when preparation meets opportunity. Jon Swenson’s path through Normandale to become the owner of a Famous Dave’s restaurant in Linden Hills is a great illustration of this concept.
After graduating high school, Swenson went off to the Air Force for four years where he was a mechanic.
Upon his return in 1989, Swenson was trying to figure out the next move in his life. He tried going back to school on a couple of different tracks including Computers and a Biomedical focus. It wasn’t until he found the Hospitality program at Normandale that he figured out the career path he wanted to follow.
"When I was deciding what to do after I was in the Air Force I changed focuses a couple of times," said Swenson. "At that point, I thought back to my past and what I knew. I had worked in restaurants when I was going to school, and was a kitchen manager at one point before going to the Air Force.
"I saw the Hospitality Management program at Normandale and knew it would be a good fit."
Swenson went to school at Normandale and in 1993 got an opportunity that would jumpstart his career in the industry. Through one of his instructors, Barney Klecker, Swenson received a year-long internship at the Garden Hotel in Guangzhou,China. Klecker’s connection to this internship was through a former Normandale student Samuel Tseng, who was a Room’s Director at the Garden Hotel at the time. That connection allowed Swenson and other Normandale students to spend a year learning the business at world-class hotel in a foreign country.
"The internship opened up a lot of different opportunities in my life," said Swenson. "I met my wife there and also learned a lot about the industry that would help me throughout my career.
"I think it was one of the most important experiences of my life. Just seeing a different culture, learning a lot of things and bringing what I knew over there was a great experience. It was a great hotel with several restaurants and 15 different kitchens, so it was an excellent place to capture a lot of different ideas."
Swenson, who married his wife Queen (Qing in Chinese) in 1994, started the beginning of a very successful career path after returning from the internship. He worked as a manager and bartender at the Coyote Café in downtown Minneapolis and was a general manager at Annie’s Parlor and Rainbow Bar in Uptown for three years.
In March, 1996, Swenson would start what has been a long and very successful career with Famous Dave’s.
While Swenson was working at Annie’s Parlor, Dave Anderson, owner/founder of Famous Dave’s, was scouting out a place in the area to put his Blues Club. After Annie’s Parlor closed because of the high cost of rent in the area, Swenson went to work as a manager for Famous Dave’s Blues Club in Uptown. From that point, things started to fall into place for what would be one of Swenson’s ultimate career goals.
“I was loyal to the guy I was working for at Annie’s Parlor, but when it closed I was offered the opportunity to work as a manager at Famous Dave’s in Uptown,” said Swenson.
“Working at a restaurant with a live music element definitely was a good experience for me, and something new I had not done. Following that opportunity, I was asked to be a general manager at the first ever Famous Dave’s in Linden Hills. One Saturday morning, the president of the company, Doug Lanham, called me up and asked me when I was going to buy the store.
"My reply was I did not know it was for sale, but that I was definitely interested.”
In 2000, Swenson took a loan against his house and bought the restaurant. In 2003, he bought the land from Famous Dave’s and has been running the restaurant since that point.
Early on in Swenson’s time at Normandale he was in a class where each student would write a 10-year plan and a path to get to an eventual goal. He pulled the plan out shortly after buying the restaurant in Linden Hills and realized he had just about perfectly matched the original plan he laid out.
Swenson realizes the great experience he received at Normandale and tries to pay it back by helping to serve the board for the Hospitality program and inviting Klecker’s classes out to visit his restaurant so he can explain his path and some of the nuts and bolts to running a business.
“We usually bring classes out to the restaurant, give them a tour, I talk about my experiences for about 30 to 45 minutes and then go over a profit-loss statement,” said Swenson. “We did a lot of trips out in the field when I was at Normandale, and I feel it is important to provide real life examples to give the students a chance to get an accurate idea of what goes into running a business. It is cool to see, and something I am glad to provide.”
Swenson will be the first one to admit that he was never really excited by school initially, but something about Normandale clicked for him.
“Normandale was a real approachable place to go to school,” said Swenson. “All the teachers and classes I had were really helpful. I also really liked the diversity at Normandale. There are also a lot of people from many different age groups, which was especially true in the Hospitality program.
"Normandale was a great fit for me and the career path I wanted to take. It was a perfect fit and I am thankful for the role it played in my career path.”
Throughout the time he started at Normandale, Swenson had a plan for success. With determination and hard work, he used turned the opportunities Normandale presented into a successful career.