Growing up with a father who founded a real estate company and invested in a retail franchise, Sara Darling ’02 M.B.A. always aspired to have her own company – it was just a matter of finding the right fit. She never envisioned owning a dating service, but when the opportunity came along, she found that being CEO and owner of It’s Just Lunch Midwest was a perfect match.

Darling had been out of college for only a year when an Opus College of Business employee told her about the Full-time UST MBA Program. She took the GMAT without any preparation and enrolled immediately. “It just felt right,” she said. “It’s kind of like chemistry with dating. Two people go on a date and sometimes it just feels right. I had that chemistry with St. Thomas.”

The chemistry was strong enough that she gladly joined the UST graduate business alumni board and has served on it for six years. “There is so much value in UST alumni connections,” she said. A warm and gracious person, Darling enjoys socializing with others.

After graduating with her M.B.A., Darling joined Sunbelt Business Brokers where she helped people buy and sell small- to mid-sized companies. “Business brokerage is a fascinating business,” she said. Working with business owners, she had a front-row seat to see every kind of company imaginable: service, sales, manufacturing and franchise. “I saw the financials behind them, the owners and the entrepreneurs.” She kept her eyes open for the right opportunity to buy one.

“When It’s Just Lunch came on the market, it was one of our listings. I actually didn’t have that ‘wow’ response right away,” she said. A manager at Proprietors Capital Holdings, a locally based angel investment fund, encouraged her to consider the opportunity. She did, and she liked what she saw.

“This office had four employees at the time, but I looked around at the industry, and I saw that online dating was becoming more conventional. Even eight years ago, if somebody said, ‘Oh, I met my husband on Match.com,’ people were still a little skeptical about it, but that was the way the world was going. And, honestly, that’s the best thing that ever happened to our business, because it made dating in different ways more common. You no longer had to be set up by a friend or meet somebody at the grocery store. Technology changed a lot of that. I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to build this office and find other markets.’”

She also liked the flexible nature of the It’s Just Lunch (IJL) franchise system. “It’s not taboo to try new things and programs,” she said. “I’m not cut out to be a franchisee of a business in a box. It’s not entrepreneurial enough for me. I like to be creative.”

Expanding the Business

Darling has been both creative and successful. “My goal was to buy this one franchise, learn the business and then acquire others, so that’s what I did,” she said. She bought the Minneapolis franchise in 2006, and over time acquired additional franchises in Cleveland, Denver, Chicago and Milwaukee. She also absorbed the membership base of two competitors, Table for Two and Together Dating/eLove. Through this growth, It’s Just Lunch Midwest has become the largest IJL franchise.

As her franchise has grown, her job has changed. When she started out, she matched clients, in part because she needed to learn every aspect of the business and in part because there were not many people on staff. Now most of her time is spent running the business. “I spend a lot of time on legal issues like leases, for example. At this point I am working a lot more on the business than in the business, which is a really important thing in order to grow. I saw that over the years at Sunbelt. Some business owners get so immersed in the day-to-day of a business that they’re not looking at it from a 10,000-foot view. In order to really make change and grow, you’ve got to be outside the forest as well.”

Since acquiring her IJL franchise, Darling has introduced a new division of the company called Elite Private Search. A network of headhunters work as independent contractors searching for matches for a select number of Elite clients.

“It’s a higher-end membership,” Darling said. “With a normal It’s Just Lunch membership, our clients are matched with other members. We arrange the dates, it’s all confidential, and we don’t show pictures. The Elite clients see photos in advance. They determine whether or not they want to meet a person. It’s more of a concierge-level service.”

Old-Fashioned Matchmaking in the Modern World

Step into the Minneapolis offices of It’s Just Lunch and you’ll see walls covered with photos of couples who met through the service.

Staff members gather daily for a meeting, during which they introduce new-client profiles and ask their co-workers who might be good matches. “It’s a collaborative process, and it is 100 percent manual, so there’s no database involved,” Darling said. Staff members communicate with clients over the phone; they don’t use email or text very often.

IJL makes all the arrangements for the prospective couple to meet in a local restaurant for either lunch or a drink after work. The clients decide if they want to exchange contact information; otherwise, it’s completely confidential. Darling noted that staff are very invested in their clients’ success, receiving bonuses for successful matches.

“Those are big differentiators between us and online services. The people who have come to us have tried other options, which didn’t work.”

Managing client expectations can be difficult. Darling observed that IJL is really about an intangible product: hoping that you will meet someone special. Staff are invested in that outcome, but of course they can’t guarantee anything beyond introducing clients to a certain number of like-minded people. Sometimes clients become frustrated if they haven’t met the right person.

“Dating to some degree is a numbers game,” Darling said. “We can’t predict chemistry, and we don’t manufacture people in the back room. We’re working with the inventory, so to speak, of our membership base, but we have a very large membership base. At any given time we have an average of 1,200 clients who are active [in the Twin Cities metro area], and we also have 500 to 600 people whose memberships are on hold, because they met somebody. The ultimate goal is that we want people to have a good experience and meet somebody special.”

When hiring new employees, Darling looks for people who are not only excellent communicators but also are intuitive.

“We get so many résumés when we have a job posting, because people think this is a fun, cool business, and it is,” Darling said. “But people who are successful in this business understand that it is a business.” Darling looks for people who are passionate about the business and their clients’ success. “You need somebody who’s aggressive enough that they’re going to make the phone calls. They’re also going to be able to explain an intangible service and paint the picture for the prospective client.”

My CEO, My Friend

Lynn Poferl, chief operating officer at It’s Just Lunch Midwest, was the former owner of the Minneapolis franchise. “Businesses sell for human reasons; the reason she had to sell was that her daughter had cancer,” Darling said.

“It’s rare that a buyer and seller of a company develop a relationship that’s positive, but we did. Last year, I needed to hire somebody else on our management side. She had been working at Wells Fargo. It was perfect, because she brought in a corporate perspective, and she also had the extra benefit of knowing the business and understanding it. So we work together now, and it’s great.”

Poferl had high praise for Darling. “I have tremendous respect for her,” she said. “She is one of the smartest people I have met. Having owned the business, watching her grow it has been fascinating. She’s a calculated risk-taker, and she’s very charismatic. People are drawn to her. She is an amazing entrepreneur who cares about her staff.”

One of her thoughtful gestures has been co-founding and co-chairing Date for Life, an annual fund-raising event for Children’s Cancer Research Fund in memory of Poferl’s daughter, Katie.

“Sara’s really the driving force behind the event,” said Poferl. “She puts a ton of effort into growing the event. I’m lucky to call her a friend.”

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