The idea of operating a Taco Bell restaurant first came to Iris Cohn one evening in 1982. That's when her husband, Dick, came home and told the family he wanted to open a Taco Bell in the Chicago area. So the couple took their daughter, Jennifer, to one of the restaurants, where they proceeded to order one of every item on the menu. "We were hooked," she recalls. Putting everything on the line, the Cohns became the first Taco Bell franchisees in the Chicago metro area, growing steadily over the years to become one of the brand's largest franchisees.
In 2006, their company, RLC Enterprises, received the Franchisee Operator of the Year Award from Taco Bell. And three years later, Cohn and co-owner and business partner Terry Haseman accepted Taco Bell's other top honor, the Glen Bell Award, which recognizes the franchisee who best exemplifies the "entrepreneurial spirit" the Taco Bell founder brought to the QSR business.
She was honored by the awards, but it also was bittersweet. "My husband, who passed away in 2000, and I worked together from the start, and it was very difficult because the one who'd carried the other half of the load was gone," she recalls. After his death, she says, "It was challenging but doable, and I was confident I could rise to the occasion."
Cohn says that her continued success is due in large part to the contributions of co-owner and partner Haseman, a Taco Bell employee since the age of 15, who left corporate to join her company in 1992. "Terry has played a significant role in our company's development. He and I have an extraordinary working relationship. His dedication, loyalty, commitment to excellence, and integrity are above reproach. He's an incredible leader and has an unwavering commitment to team RLC. He's my business partner, for whom I truly care, respect, and appreciate every day."
Haseman is executive vice president of the company, and the core team includes several members who have been with the company for years. Cohn says she's learned "how important loyalty is."
She also has nothing but praise for her daughter, Jennifer, a PhD in clinical psychology whose help, she says, has been invaluable since the beginning. "Jennifer was 15 when we bought the first Taco Bell. She worked after school and on weekends and continues to help, even with her own family and career, whenever and however we need her," says Cohn.
The early days of being a franchisee were tough, but exciting, she says. "I was an accessories manager for a ladies' department store, and my husband was a plant manager for an aluminum smelting foundry. His business closed, but I continued to work in retail for a time. I'd leave the store in my high heels and dress, change into my polyester uniform and work in the restaurant. I remember doing payroll until 5 a.m. We all did what we had to do."
Two years after opening their first Taco Bell, the Cohns opened their second Illinois unit. They set an aggressive growth plan, and by the end of 1988 they had nine stores. Today, they have 47 Taco Bells, including nine KFC, three Pizza Hut, and three Long John Silver's multi-brand units. Cohn and Haseman have also added units in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
"I'd describe our growth as slow and steady. We don't want to get stagnant, but we don't want to be out of control either," she says. "On average, we're building one new store per year. We're always looking for the opportunities that are best for our business."
Balancing a business with several different brands has been challenging, she admits. "But we have trained and learned and grown with multi-concepts and seen that it's worth it to give our customers choices."
After 27 years in the business and having created a strong, well-trained team, Cohn is now taking more time off. She enjoys playing canasta and spending time with her family: daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Joe, and her granddaughters. "My grandchildren bring me more joy than I ever knew existed," she says.
Cohn has achieved most of what she set out to do, both personally and professionally, she says. "I'm comfortable with my life, and I don't have regrets or major yearnings for anything else at this point in my life."
She still misses her husband, who has inspired her throughout her life, but she says he sends her a special gift each May around her birthday. "When my husband was dying of pancreatic cancer, we happened to visit Mackinac Island. It was June and there were gorgeous flowers, irises, everywhere. Dick wanted some bulbs so he could plant them at home for me. He went all around the island trying to find the bulbs," she recalls.
He died the following December. On her next birthday, May 25th, she came home, got out of her car, and walked around to the back yard--something she didn't normally do. "When I walked around back that day, I saw dozens of huge, incredible irises blooming in an area of the yard that couldn't be seen from the window. It was such an amazing surprise and birthday present. Every year they come up, so Dick is always with me."
Name: Iris M. Cohn
Company: RLC Enterprises/RLC of Michiana
No. of units: 47 Taco Bells (includes 9 KFC, 3 Pizza Hut, and 3 Long John Silver's multi-brand units)
Years in franchising: 27
Years in current position: 10 as president (previous 17 as vice president)
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