February 2016 Report card on last year’s Living Large brands

We caught up with last year’s subjects of Living Large—Wild Wing Cafe, Bottle & Bottega and Executive Care—to see how well they reached their growth goals.

Wild Wing Café

Tom Lewison

“Along the way there were some learnings, too.” — Tom Lewison, Wild Wing Cafe

Wild Wing Cafe’s goal was to add seven units last year, and CEO Tom Lewison and his team beat that nicely—signing with new franchisees to build nine restaurants, plus three more deals with existing franchisees.

“I was hoping to sign two more groups. We wanted to get to 20,” Lewison says, offering the growth-oriented leader’s constant mantra: More, more, more.

“Along the way there were some learnings, too,” he adds. Chief among them: Wild Wing Cafe beefed up training for restaurant openings last year, but in hindsight he could have “saved a little bit of money on the support team,” Lewison says. “What happened was, the franchisees let us run their restaurants in the beginning because there was so much talent.”

Now they’ve modified the program to emphasize training of the franchise owner and operator. “We found some opportunities in our training program to help the franchisees to be stronger” on their own.

One key tool is scheduling software that an operator can use to create opening work schedules—a big task because typically 160 employees will work during such times.

Wild Wing also added what Lewison calls zone management, in which the restaurant is divided into such areas as the bar, the front of the house, the prep area, the food line, etc., with a leader in charge of each small area. “Many hands make light lifting. The general manager only had four or five people to manage, instead of 45,” with the arrangement, he says.

Lewison is also reconsidering his decision last year to stop using a broker and instead to bring franchise sales in-house. “I’m doing a lot of it myself, and it gets taxing to follow up,” he says. “Keeping a broker relationship might have cost us more money and slowed us down, but maybe I’d be further ahead in other initiatives.” Wild Wing’s 2016 budget includes a broker relationship.

Executive Care

Lenny Verkhoglaz

“It does take time. We are realistic.” — Lenny Verkhoglaz, Executive Care

“I think we did well, being a young company,” says Lenny Verkhoglaz, CEO of Executive Care, a home healthcare franchise based in New Jersey. “Just last week we closed a deal with another franchisee, in San Antonio, Texas, for two units.”

He was referring to early December, and the Texas deal brought his unit count to 20 from 12 at the beginning of 2015. When we talked at the beginning of last year, Verkhoglaz put out a larger target—he wanted to add 20 units through 2015—and again he says his goal is to add 15 to 20 units in 2016. Verkhoglaz, like many franchise executives, isn’t afraid of setting an audacious goal.

“The challenge of any young brand is to brand ourselves,” Verkhoglaz reflects. “We are competing against well-known brands, like Home Instead, Brightstar, Comfort Keepers and the rest of the big boys in the field.

“It’s a challenge, but that’s a challenge that can be overcome by building our brand, showing what we have,” he says. “It does take time. We are realistic.”

Executive Care hasn’t reached that tipping point yet, the magical number of units sold when momentum begins to take over. “It’s a ways off,” he says, but he believes he has built the infrastructure needed to handle more growth. “Being in business so many years, I can always predict. For example, I always hire staff ahead of when we need them.” This year they’ll add a trainer position and a support position at corporate headquarters.

He and his wife, co-founder Mila Feldman, will continue to hit the road, traveling to brokers’ conventions, for example, and anywhere else they can spread the word about their brand. “We’re getting well known,” he says. “We’re always out there mingling and talking and presenting ourselves.”

Bottle & Bottega

Nancy Bigley

“We think it’s going to go faster than it does, always.” — Nancy Bigley, Bottle & Bottega

Nancy Bigley, CEO of Bottle & Bottega, added three new franchises in 2015, short of her goal to add five to 13. Nonetheless, “I feel definitely good about the year, but we certainly didn’t hit all of our targets, no doubt about it,” she says.

Other goals were met, including opening eight new studios in 2015, the fruits she believes of signing with an outside real estate partner to speed leasing and build-out. Technology, too, was a win in 2015, with the conversion of private event contracts to electronic, for example, and a test of a new tablet mobile point-of-sale system for franchisees who sell beer and wine.

A new marketing platform allows franchisees to customize their collateral materials, so they have choices to drag and drop imagery and pictures. “Our studios are such a differentiator for us. That was a platform that I’m super excited about,” Bigley says.

Bigley’s background includes stints with big franchisors Dunkin’ Donuts and The Dwyer Group, and she reflects on the difference when building an emerging brand. “What I always forget, especially when you’ve been in franchising for so long, you forget that others haven’t. It’s new to them,” she says. “I got great learnings this year about clarity and focus, and trying to simplify more. Going into 2016 I’m trying to work a lot harder on simplification, communication.”

A big year-end move was to hire a new head of franchise development, James Franks, with whom Bigley worked at Dunkin’ and Dwyer, plus he was with 1-800-Flowers. She believes he will boost unit sales in the year to come, but she tells herself to be patient, too.

“There’s so much we want to do and I’m constantly having these conversations with my team, that we’ve got to complete what we started,” Bigley says. “We think it’s going to go faster than it does, always.”