Terra Saunders went from Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader to the award-winning captain of an empire without ever missing a beat.
Above the desk of Terra Saunders rests a custom doll draped in gingham print with an expertly placed bandana. From her brightly colored box, she surveys the head office of Waitressville and Dallaswear Uniforms — the uniform empire built by Saunders, her identical human likeness.
“Before the doll I created this alter-ego of myself,” said Saunders. “When I feel like I can’t do things, Terra the Tailor can.”
The product of an especially flattering Modcloth order and iPhone photo turned artwork, the doll was gifted by Saunders’ loyal work family at her Dallas-based design studio and manufacturing space. Included with the one-of-a-kind collectible are existing outfits, one being a miniature version of the company’s homage to sassy waitresses, the Waitressville uniform. As a 10-year-old only child in Plano by way of Kansas City, Missouri, Terra’s love of uniforms runs deep and started early.
“I would see kids playing soccer and doing things in groups and they had uniforms; they had friends,” said Terra. “I thought, ‘If I get a uniform I’m part of a group. I can be something bigger than myself and have friends, so I wanted to wear the best uniform in the world.”
Before donning her legendary dukes as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, Terra used her first sewing machine to recreate bonnets inspired by “Little House On The Prairie”.
“That was the first time I knew that I could see something and then make it happen,” she said.
Unable to achieve the brim’s desired stiffness, she turned to cardboard, one of the first make-it-work acts of many. Creative solutions came into play long after innocent afternoons at the sewing machine, and propelled her through 20 years of blood, sweat and fashion.
Inspire N Style: What was childhood like in Plano?
Terra Saunders: “I wouldn’t say high school was tough but I definitely stood out. I knew I was one of eight black students in a graduating class of 1300 people. I knew I didn’t have the fancy stuff my friends had but I was okay with that. I was grateful to be in a better place at a good school and I made it work.”
Did you go to school for fashion? What was college like for you?
I went to Stephen F. Austin University to be a Home-Ec teacher because that’s how I thought I could sew for a living. College was a blur for me because I worked hard in class and I worked to pay for it. I was a waitress at this pancake house called “The Hot Biscuit” — I straight up wore one of those classic waitress uniforms — it was great. I also worked in the school cafeteria and in college that ain’t cute, but I didn’t have any issue with humbling myself. I knew it would be over soon and I’d have something better. I have my glory days now.
Oh wow, we always thought you knew uniforms so well because you were a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, but you have a lot of experience as an actual waitress!
People love to talk about being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, especially men. I used to think, “I’ve grown this business and people want to talk about something I did 15 years ago?” But I’ve changed my attitude on that because it was really cool. I was the best at something — I’m in the Cowboys Cheerleader Ring of Honor, I was Veteran of the Year, I did seven USO tours — I did everything you can do in that organization and I kicked ass at it.
So did you audition for the team after graduating from college?
I left SFA my junior year. I knew I wasn’t going to be a Home-Ec teacher and what I want in this life you don’t need a degree for. I left the day I made cheerleader. I think college is great for some people, but I know plenty of people who have that piece of paper and don’t have what it takes to make it in this world.
People think being a member of the squad is all glamour and jump splits. Tell us what it was really like.
The toughest part was — I hate bringing it up — but the pay. We made $15 a game at 10 games a year. I was on my own financially and it was rough, but I honestly don’t think about that part when I look back on it. I had to get a new passport because I filled it traveling the world. I got experiences I couldn’t imagine like being on Leno and Oprah and Saturday Night Live. For five years straight, spending the holidays with troops who haven’t seen their families? That’s at the top of my list.
Where do you go from something like that?
I always wanted to see Japan and decided to move there after cheerleading. I ran out of savings and had to move back to Texas, but decided to stop in Paris on my way back. I kept extending my stay by a week, and then another week, until I ended up living there for over a year. I just soaked up life and fashion by studying the world.
How did you initially start your business?
I started it on a dare from my cousin: If she got her really competitive flight attendant job, then I had to start my business. She got the job. So I got business cards and papered my neighbors’ doors with ads saying I did alterations and curtains, just the worst sewing jobs. I learned business lessons in the real world; if someone skips out on a bill you only have to learn that once.
As odd sewing jobs became a steady stream of dance costumes and practice outfits, the business grew and I tackled a new goal: NBA and NFL dance teams. The newly formed Oklahoma City Thunder came calling after receiving a Fed Ex-ed press kit (because people always open Fed Ex envelopes) and became my first pro team client. Teams from the NBA, NFL and both minor leagues followed suit.
How did you find yourself in the restaurant uniform industry?
I got a call from the then CEO of Rockfish, Randy Dewitt, and he described to me the concept of Twin Peaks. I sketched out the design for the Twin Peaks uniform right there in that meeting. I just had a light bulb moment: I could have my designs on thousands of people instead of teams of 36. The sheer volume sent sparks and dollar signs off in my mind.
Share a business lesson that you’ve learned.
I was underbid and my biggest client left me just like that. I thought it was going to end me, but I didn’t bad-mouth them or say I got screwed because I didn’t get paid for the design. I learned my worth after that. You can’t sit down with Vera Wang to talk design without opening your pocketbook because she’s the best at what she does. I’m the best at this and after that I learned my lesson.
Where do you go for advice?
I’m the queen of reaching out. I know what I don’t know and I think that’s helped me be successful. It takes guts to reach out but what’s the worst that’s going to happen? They don’t contact me back? I lost two minutes and an email. The world is a beautiful place and there are awesome people out there if you just ask.
Your husband handles finances here at Waitressville. What’s working with him like – and when did you have time to meet him?
After my biggest client left, business got really slow and I even had to let my two employees go. I could not let go of my assistant, Marichelle, because she was just too valuable. So, I took away my salary and kept Marichelle, and worked a part time job at a pizza place at night. So I’m a 35-year-old business owner who was on top of the world going back to slinging pizzas. On my last day I went to pick up my last check and free shift meal, and Paul was eating there too. He invited me to sit with him and we started talking. We spent every second of the next week together, and now we’ve been together for eight years. I married him three years ago in a pink wedding dress.
The biggest challenge is keeping our life ours because we’re always working. Since we’re together morning, noon and night Monday through Friday, on the weekends we do our own thing.
What do you do to make sure your staff is happy?
I’ve had a lot of jobs and a lot of crappy bosses, so I knew that when I became a boss I wanted to be better. We eat way too much cookie cake, have piñatas and ice cream sundae bars. I treat them like I love them because I do! There’s no angel investor or rich dad that gave this to me; there’s a lot of trust that goes into sharing secrets that took me 20 years to learn. I don’t hire anybody I don’t like, I don’t care if they’re a genius.
How do you keep yourself happy? Is there a work/life balance?
I work a lot, but that’s what I’m supposed to be doing at 41. I’m in the prime of my life! When the phone is ringing I’m answering it. All my life I’ve wanted to be a designer and I’ve wanted the phone to ring, and I’m just going to check out now? It’s not happening. But I do eat healthy, meditate and volunteer.
What kind of volunteer work do you do?
For the past two years I’ve worked with female inmates at Lew Sterrett Justice Center (Dallas County Jail). It’s the best part of my life. I’m not really the charity ball kind of person — I’m more of the one-on-one, in-the-trenches kind of person. I connected so much with these women and found a home there. There are no differences between us; they describe situations growing up that are identical to mine. I just had a little luck in some areas.
Any last parting words?
All of these girls — from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders [and beyond] — should have outfits that make them feel like a group they can be proud of. I want to elevate this industry one uniform at a time; no waitress left behind!
Images (except for Terra Saunders’ wedding and cheerleading photo) credit Kenyatta Giddings for Inspire N Style Magazine.