June/July 2015 Living Large: How 3 Emerging Brands Aim to Support Franchisees

BY BETH EWEN

When Tom Lewison arrived as CEO of Wild Wing Cafe, he looked at the organizational structure and made a change. “I took some costs out of the office and put it into the field,” he says.

One of those changes was to charge his field consultant to focus only on franchised operations; before the consultant also supported corporate-run stores. Especially when you’re growing, he believes, it’s important “to have one point of contact laser-focused on supporting” franchisees, “rather than, say, helping a general manager staff their restaurant.”

He also added head count to the training department. “We will open five new restaurants this year, and that’s a big ramp-up for our company,” which started the year with 36 restaurants.

A new person has come on board, and that person plus the franchise business consultant hold weekly meetings or calls with each franchisee planning an opening, starting six months in advance. “So we formalize what to do when, and we do start way out,” he says.

For the grand opening itself, Wild Wing sends 14 corporate employees to the restaurants, and its lead trainer is there for 28 days. “Opening your first restaurant you get a high level of support, and we spend well beyond the franchise fees that are paid to us because we’re in it for the long haul, not the sprint.”

Of course all that support is costly to the franchisor, but Lewison says it pays off in more successful restaurants down the road.  “We provide a lot—we want to open big and stay big,” he says.

Wild Wing Cafe is launching two new tools right now, as well. One is called “the voice of the guest,” or feedback from online surveys, mystery shoppers and social media to find out what customers think of their restaurant experience.

The second is a quality assurance checklist. A corporate employee will visit restaurants and go through the checklist, marking elements like food safety, sanitation, cleanliness. “It could be used as a hammer,” Lewison says about the checklist, but he instead wants to make the scores a key part in the newly revamped president’s award for operational excellence.  “I am a franchisee and I have inspections from franchisors,” he says, so he knows how that feels and accepts it. “But I’d rather award the best of the best.”

Finding the right person to consult with franchisees is tricky—it’s different from, say, telling a general manager in a corporate-owned restaurant what to do. “Franchisees are entrepreneurs,” says Lewison, who is a franchisee himself of other brands as well as CEO of Wild Wing Cafe. “So we take these entrepreneurs and we put them in a box called franchise rules. And they’ll wiggle and squirm, just like anyone would.”

Consultants have to have the right mindset and temperament for the job. “So this franchise business consultant needs to understand that these are business people they’re dealing with, that are investing in this concept, but they own it. We don’t own that restaurant,” he says. “The person has to be good at selling and not telling.”

Hands-on training at Executive Care

Depending on the state and its regulations, a new franchisee of Executive Care could wait two months or as long as two years before gaining certification as a home healthcare provider. But CEO Lenny Verkhoglaz doesn’t wait—they immediately begin working through “pre-training” modules.

Those are lessons on the online portal that map out everything from getting real estate, registering the company, opening a bank account, purchasing equipment, creating a business plan and analyzing cash flow.

Franchisees are also put in touch with All Points PR in Chicago, Executive Care’s public relations firm, which begins a publicity campaign that will lead up to a grand opening event, not on the first day of business like a restaurant might do but rather about three months in.

When pre-training is finished and any needed licenses are in hand, then actual training begins, for one week in company headquarters in New Jersey, which houses its franchising group on the second floor, and on the first floor its corporate-owned home healthcare agency.

Verkhoglaz and his wife, co-founders of Executive Care, have operated their corporate location for years, working out all the kinks through trial and error before they began franchising, in 2012. So new franchisees actually go into the field with a sales person, for example, to add to the training in the classroom setting upstairs.

“We have four people providing training in the franchise office, including myself. And then we have an additional whole staff downstairs that comes up and shares their wisdom and experience,” he says. “They don’t learn in a vacuum. You can read the manual and understand it, but until you see how it’s done it’s very hard to imagine how to operate.”

Formal training continues throughout the first year, with modules for each segment: what to do the first three months, the next three and the next three until the most difficult year is over. “We feel after month 12 we can let go of them a little bit,” Verkhoglaz says. “They’re more stable on their feet.”

Two new Executive Care franchisees have just signed on, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Clearwater, Florida, and finished training at headquarters. Verkhoglaz and his head trainer will visit each within a month, then each quarter to make sure all is well. “And they’re always a phone call away,” he says.

“We have scheduled phone calls, meetings, webinars, just to go over what’s happening with their business. We want them to ask questions. We don’t want them to get into a hole and never hear from them again.”

‘A fine balance’ for Bottle & Bottega

The lead trainer worked out “super wonderful” for Bottle & Bottega, says CEO Nancy Bigley, because she has a teaching background and started in the art-making and wine-sipping franchisor’s corporate store, learning all the ins and outs before joining the corporate staff a year ago. The marketing trainer went through a similar process.

“The goal was always to make sure we built a training and support team that had franchise experience if possible,” Bigley says. “You know, it’s so much different and better when your franchisees know you’ve done that role. You’re not just preaching to them.”

Bigley has a long background in operational roles at large franchisors, including Dunkin’ Donuts and The Dwyer Group, so she knows the challenge of getting the relationship right with franchisees. “It’s a very fine balance, and we’re in that gray area kind of all the time,” she says. “You do have brand standards that have to be maintained. How do you maintain that relationship and still be the brand advocate and say, hey, you’re not supposed to do that.”

For her it’s all about communication, which is a common theme for Bigley. “I always tell them, if we come to you and say we’re concerned, please, please give us the respect to listen to us,” she says. “It’s not big brother looking over your shoulder, pointing the finger. It’s us being an extra set of eyes.”

Bottle & Bottega’s training rolls out “a little backwards I would say.” They start their franchisees with an online training program involving the onboarding operations manager. “She is on the portal, on the phone with them, multiple times a week,” walking them through the “boring stuff” like setting up bank accounts and such.

Then after about four or five weeks, they come to headquarters in Chicago for seven days of intense, hands-on training, in which they shadow staff at the corporate stores for real-life knowledge. She noticed at other franchises that weeks-long training programs caused new recruits to get antsy, homesick and overwhelmed. This way, she believes, “Now they’re ready to roll up their sleeves,” when they come for training. “They can start experiencing their real business, not a demo business.”

Bottle & Bottega’s longest-running franchisees are nearing three years, so now Bigley is getting ready to tackle a new challenge: How do you add programs and value for those well past their newby days?  It’s a nice problem to have—successfully working with franchisees past the initial stages—but also an operational hurdle. “It’s just like with employees. It’s so easy to say, ‘oh, they’re fine. I don’t need to worry about them.’ And then the next thing you know, they’re leaving.”

“We’re always trying to learn” from the top franchisees, “but I try to be careful about not asking without giving,” she says, adding, “we haven’t put a solid program together yet” for the experienced set, but “it’s on my list.” .

Living Large follows three emerging franchises all year. Send advice to Beth Ewen,bewen@franchisetimes.com, and we’ll publish excerpts.