Yolunda Armstrong came here for her career, and found a community

Yolunda Armstrong, a businesswoman since age 16, with her latest venture, the food truck she’s launching with her business partner Quinton Harrell. Photo: Elli Williams Yolunda Armstrong, a businesswoman since age 16, with her latest venture, the food truck she’s launching with her business partner Quinton Harrell. Photo: Elli Williams

Yolunda Armstrong’s influences are layered like the floors of a hotel.

First floor: her mother, telling her you have to give back to your community even if you’re living in the projects.

Second floor: her dad, who’s never too busy to carve out an hour on Wednesday night to spend time with his daughter watching “Criminal Minds” over the phone.

Third floor: her older sister, calling her her “big little sister” in one of their daily conversations, because she’s the responsible one.

Fourth floor: her business partner Quinton Harrell, introducing her to other civic-minded African-Americans in Charlottesville.

The floors continue to climb, but Armstrong only has so much time to go into them all. As manager of the Red Roof Inn on the well-trafficked Corner and co-owner with Harrell of A Taste of Home Southern Cuisine, a catering company and food truck, she’s busy. And that’s before you take into account the volunteer work she does for organizations like City of Promise, a local nonprofit working to improve outcomes for disadvantaged youth.

“I want to see other people go higher,” Armstrong said. “That is my passion and what keeps me wanting to stay in this community. I want to be more than just someone who is making money on the community.”

Armstrong, 41, has been working on going higher for 25 years. She got her first job at 16, starting in the microfilm department at Blue Cross Blue Shield in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, then moving into printing. After a couple years studying psychology at the University of South Carolina after high school, she used her knowledge of printing to pursue a job in management with Xerox Business Services. The company offered her a position in Charlotte, North Carolina, and gave her two weeks to decide whether to accept.

She took the job. At age 23, Armstrong found herself in charge of 25 people. It wasn’t always easy. She was handed a few customer contracts that were absolute dogs.

“When we took over the [printing] contract for Mecklenburg County, we were billing them $32,000 a month for the entire county,” she said. “We had to sit down and think, how can we make this make money?”

Within a year, Armstrong and her team had increased the revenues generated from the contract to $100,000 a month by partnering with the county on its newsletter printing and becoming its sole paper supplier. It was a shining star on her then-short resume as a manager. But it also got her thinking. What if she could do the same for a business of her own?

Armstrong took the next logical step to learn what it’s like to manage the bottom line for yourself—she went to a more performance-based management job. With Kinko’s in Savannah, Georgia, she found the fiscal pressure she wanted and then some. Her new boss showed her how not to manage, turning to profanity-laced tirades when things went wrong, and she failed to hit her quota in the first month the performance-based salary structure kicked in. It was the reality check Armstrong needed.

“I was like, O.K., this cannot work,” Armstrong said. “The next month, I did make a profit, and then after that I started making a profit consistently. I had to get it fixed quickly because it affected my ability to support myself. I enjoyed that about it.”

Knee deep in management experience, Armstrong set out to learn sales. She took on two commission-only positions, selling water treatment devices and later vacations for Marriott Vacation Club in Hilton Head, and found the confidence she needed to talk directly to customers. Still, you need money to start your own business, so she went back to management. She landed with Red Roof Inn in 2002 and took over several chalet-style properties before coming to Charlottesville in 2007 to oversee one of the company’s larger hotels—a 138-room high-rise doing $3.3 million in annual revenues.

“The night I was driving into Charlottesville, it was raining,” she said. “I saw the hotel, and I thought, that is a big building, can I do this? But I got in there, and I realized I could do it. I just had to take it a piece at a time.”

That she’s done. The hotel lacked a sales team; she installed one. Revenues dipped below $3 million during the recession; she drove as much as 20 percent year-over-year growth. The hotel needed a renovation; she impressed the higher-ups enough to earn a place on the short list for $2 million in improvement funds.

But she’s done more than just manage a hotel in Charlottesville. She’s finally realized her dream of owning her own business—she and Harrell are just weeks away from rolling out their first food truck—and she finished her bachelor’s degree at Averett University.

Along the way, she also became part of a community. She’s not only given back through her volunteer work, she’s also leaned on others. A Taste of Home is one of the success stories of Charlottesville’s Community Investment Collaborative, a nonprofit designed to assist minority businesses. Once things really get moving with her truck, Armstrong hopes to use the business to lift others up, hiring primarily individuals with blemishes on their resume, such as a criminal record, giving training to those who need it, and helping entrepreneurs launch their own food trucks.

“We need people like Yolunda here,” Harrell said. “Our business model is truly built on employing people in our community and helping develop people, really playing an important part in the economic development of this town. That is something I am proud and excited for, and I can’t think of a better person to be doing it with.”

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