The topic for this Foodie Friday is the grocery store. Think for a minute about where you do the bulk of your grocery shopping. Is the merchandise that it carries substantially different from one of its competitors? My guess is that it probably isn’t. All the national brands are there and the same person who stocks the snack or bread aisle at your store might have left a competitor twenty minutes earlier. So why do you go?
We had a Wegman’s open here. The lines to get in were HOURS long. I’ve never shopped at a Wegman’s but those who have proclaimed their undying loyalty. There’s been a rumor floating around my neighborhood (since confirmed!) that a Publix will be opening in the not too distant future. People who’ve missed their sandwiches and service are swooning. In the case of these two stores, they separate themselves from everyone else in very clever ways; Wegman’s via setting themselves up to feel like a European marketplace and Publix via their signature subs.
Some of it is just smart branding. While my local Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods both make various types of sausages in-house, Lowe’s brands the entire operation as The Sausage Works and gives each type of sausage a clever name. They even sell “My Sauageworks” tee-shirts (and you can imagine the looks I get when I wear mine in public). They pride themselves as being the Best Of The Wurst and are constantly inventing new flavors such as their newest, The #63 Philly, which they describe as a brotherly love blend of chicken sausage, mozzarella, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and spices. No commodities here but while both stores sell the same basic sausages, Lowe’s goes the extra mile and can market behind it.
I think may business sectors have become quite commoditized. When I was running a sports site, we would often remind ourselves that people can get a game score or most statistics anywhere. The only way we could compete was to provide something unique, better, and in-demand. I think every business needs to think of itself in terms similar to that, even if you really do have unique aspects baked in. It won’t be long before someone has what you have and maybe is offering it on better terms.
Why do you shop where you shop? If “better prices” is the only answer, that store might have trouble the minute a competitor decides to price match. It’s much harder to match a better experience or unique merchandise, no matter what business you’re in. Don’t you agree?
One question that often comes up as I’m discussing franchise opportunities with people is that of what businesses are “hot.” It’s interesting that “hot” comes up at least as often as “profitable”. I can answer the questions for them (and usually do), but I also add a couple of other thoughts. That’s our topic for today.
For those of you that are curious, what’s currently “hot” in the world of franchises falls into a few broad categories. Within the food sector, breakfast places, juice bars, Mexican food, and healthy bowls are doing well. Restoration services – businesses that clean up after accidents or disasters are hot as well. Some of the other categories that are in demand are childcare, pet services, fitness businesses, and some “alternative” health businesses (cryotherapy, etc.), and beauty/grooming. As an aside, I represent businesses in every one of these categories – let me know if you want to learn more!
I’ll review those categories with interested candidates but then I caution them and I’d like to do the same here. Many of the businesses in those categories are “sexy” but several are not particularly profitable. When you’re thinking about making a huge life change, which is what many of the folks I speak with are doing, you need to take a step back and look at the big picture. It’s not about what’s hot because what’s hot today may be gone tomorrow. Think about businesses that were all the rage a couple of years ago. Yogurt stores (yes, I have some of those too) seem to be fading away. Most of the “daily deal” sites have consolidated or gone away. Same with many of the subscription box services. The tanning bed business has transitioned into a spray-tan business.
My point to them, and to you, is that focusing on what’s hot isn’t a great criterion as you’re looking at new opportunities. Instead, ask yourself what makes you happy. What can you see yourself doing every day that will have you excited about getting out of bed? The odds are that there is a franchise that will allow you to do that. Some folks are equally concerned (or more concerned) with making money. Many of the businesses that do that aren’t “sexy.” They’re things like home repair or remodeling businesses or they’re businesses that might require a higher level of capital like a senior care business where you might need to “float” a payroll until cash flow grows.
Businesses ebb and flow. Categories run hot and cold, but what makes you happy probably doesn’t. Add profitability to the mix and you’re on the right track, whether it’s hot or not.
Let’s go to the movies this Foodie Friday. I did the other day. If you’ve been spending time at home streaming your entertainment and none at the theaters, you might not be aware that things have changed dramatically at the old cineplex with respect to food. I happened to go to my local Alamo Drafthouse, which features recliners as well as a large menu of food and beverage.
You are probably aware that theater owners make more money from concessions than they do from admissions. You might have noticed that most movie concessions are high-margin items such as popcorn and soda. Still, I generally didn’t spend much more than $10 on food and beverage. Boy did THAT change at the Alamo. Even factoring in the additional labor costs for the servers bringing the food to my seat, I’m pretty sure that the theater owner netted a heck of a lot more from me than they might have in the past.
The Alamo overall is an interesting model. There are fewer seats in the theater but that really only reduces the take from admissions. My guess is that the concession net more than makes up for the fact that there are fewer bodies in the seats. Of course, my Alamo also has 10 theaters under one roof, ranging from 50 to 100 seats. What I like about this from a business perspective is how they’ve rethought the business model and focused on the part of the business that makes an owner money. The concessions are a significant upgrade. There are craft beers, top-shelf cocktails, and even a vegan menu. Sure there is popcorn but it’s served with real clarified butter. It’s also a bottomless bowl. There is also an herb popcorn that is tossed with that same butter and fresh herbs. Do I give a second thought to paying $8.50 for it? Nope – it’s delicious. So are the sandwiches, pizzas, and salads. $45 on drinks and food? Even at a 20% margin, my concession purchases yield the business owner as much as my previous bill might have been in total.
Any business can learn from what the Alamo and other theaters are doing as they transform their business models in the face of unlimited streaming options. It’s the Wille Sutton Rule – go where the money is.
When you have over 500 different brands that you represent, the reality is that you can’t know each and every one of them to the same degree. As I’ve been speaking to people interested in changing their lives for the better, I’ve come to have a list of “go-to” brands in each of the major categories. How these brands got on this list is, I think, instructive for every business.
I was actually speaking about this topic to a development director at one of the brands who reached out. Her first question was about the commission structure. We consultants get paid by the franchisors based on people signing franchise agreements and not by the candidates. I gather that for some consultants that how much of a commission they can make influences their choice of which brands to put forward. Point number one: while it’s obvious that the brands are my customers since they pay me, it’s impossible to work in a situation where the candidate’s interests diverge from the brand’s. In my mind, therefore, the commission is a non-factor. I can’t expect to earn anything in a situation where I hand off an unqualified candidate to a brand. My point is that in any sales situation, every stakeholder’s interests must be considered and subordinating what’s right for one party to a potential higher commission isn’t going to work.
One thing that influences my choice of brands a lot is the amount and quality of information the brand provides. You would not believe how little information I have about some of these franchises, several of which are businesses I don’t quite understand. In some cases, all I have is bare-bones information about costs and royalties and a link to the consumer website – not even a “want a franchise?” page which I have to find on my own. Where some brands give us presentations, folders, one-sheets, and research, others give us nothing. You can guess which brands get pitched. Point number two: don’t send your troops into battle without arming them properly.
The next thing I consider is responsiveness. In many cases, getting the candidate engaged enough to want to speak to a franchisor is a time-consuming effort. Once they are ready to go, I want someone at the franchisor who will be as proactive as I have been to get the candidate this far. Once I’ve made an introduction, I expect the brand to reach out within a day, hopefully within an hour or two. Point number three: if you’re not going to work as hard on making a sale as others engaged in the process, you need to know that there are other businesses out there who will. Be responsive. Return phone calls and emails in a timely manner.
Finally, I also consider communication. Some brands tell me every time they have an interaction with my candidate. Others have been radio-silent. You can guess which type I prefer. It’s very hard to over-communicate in any business.
Those are things I consider when choosing partners. Anything I’ve missed that you think is critical?
Happy Foodie Friday! One thing I’ve learned in my franchise consulting is that people have a fascination with the food business. A significant percentage of the candidates I speak with want to invest in something food and beverage related. I’m generally fairly blunt with them, reminding them that it’s often a business where you’re open for 14 hours a day and are really busy for about 90 minutes. The margins aren’t great, the labor is often unskilled and sketchy, and there are liability issues hanging around everywhere.
Today it’s those 90 minutes I want to talk about. The really busy time. It’s incredibly stressful from what I remember of my days working in foodservice. The stress precipitates everything from accidents caused by rushing to fistfights. It’s not for the faint of heart! That’s why I was happy to read the following this week:
Chipotle Mexican Grill will be providing access to mental healthcare and financial wellness for more than 80,000 employees in 2020 through Employee Assistance Programs and enhanced benefits offerings. This is just one of the many ways that Chipotle continues to enable its workforce by offering world-class benefits.
By simplifying access to mental health benefits and identifying work-related risk factors, Chipotle is trying to minimize the effect of mental health in the workplace.
So many good things here. First, I’ve worked for bosses to whom employees were disposable cogs in the business machine. Someone burns out and isn’t getting it done? Replace them and move on. It’s frustrating as hell when you don’t share their attitude but your hands are tied with respect to offering a solution to the stressed-out team member. Having also worked in places with an Employee Assistance Program I can tell you that they can be literal lifesavers and well worth the cost.
Second, you probably haven’t forgotten that Chipotle had some issues with e.coli a couple of years ago. You know you have a problem on your hands when research showed that 22% of all respondents and 32% of those who don’t currently eat Chipotle said that “nothing” would make them want to visit more often. The food issues have been fixed but the bad taste lingers. Demonstrating concern for your employees is part of rebuilding the brand. Happy employees don’t make stress-related mistakes that lead to bacterial contamination, right?
You can never go wrong doing right for your staff. As a manager, they are your eyes, ears, hands, and voice. Keeping them happy and healthy is doing the same for your business.
This Foodie Friday I’m writing to you from a condo in Myrtle Beach. It’s a place I used to come to only once a year with my golf outing but now that I only live a couple of hours away I’m down here more often. I’d be lying if I said that Myrtle Beach is one of my favorite places to go. Honestly, except for the golf (and there is LOTS of that here), there really isn’t much about it to love. The beaches further north on the coast are way better – less crowded, prettier, and less touristy.
Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo
One thing my golf group learned about Myrtle Beach long ago was that there really isn’t a lot of great food here. Oh sure, damn near every chain restaurant has one (or more) iterations and there are local executions of generic food types that one can find anywhere: Italian, sushi, burgers, etc. There are, however, a handful (OK, a couple of handfuls) of places that do their damndest to capture the local flavor and that’s our topic today.
I wrote about Mr. Fish 10 years ago and I still visit when I’m here. His success at capturing the local seafood flavors of the Carolina Coast has enabled him to build a much larger place. There is a huge local supermarket here – Boulineau’s – that has a great kitchen serving local specialties and taking out the fried chicken to the beach is a local tradition.
I’m not going to run down all of the local places that do similar things but it’s instructive to any of us in business. Sure, the national chains are mobbed by tourists that love the notion of eating the same meal here as they can get at home. Those aren’t the loyal customer base though. Any business should be trying to be a local business even if the local outpost is one of many. I represent a national coffee franchise that insists that each local cafe be decorated in a local style, using photos of the town in which it’s located. That’s smart in my book.
People look for the local flavor. You can see it in the push to patronize local small businesses. How can your business be “small” and capture the local flavor even as you grow? Something to think about!
I went to one of the warehouse club stores yesterday to make some bulk purchases. If you’ve ever been in one of them – Costco, BJ’s, Sam’s Club, etc. – you know that one feature of walking around the place is that there are usually free samples. You can taste the latest and greatest in meats, cheeses, and frozen things to cook while you’re too busy to make something yourself. That got me thinking about the fact that you really don’t see a lot of sampling elsewhere.
I’m a fan of the free trial. It gets customers walking through your door and using your product. What I don’t particularly like are those “free” trials that require you to fork over your credit card. Free means without strings, right? In particular, if you’re a business that is built around what I think is the gold standard – recurring revenues – you ought to be spending a good chunk of your marketing dollars on free trials.
It’s relatively simple math, right? What’s the lifetime value of a customer? What does it cost you to offer up a free trial – a visit, a free month, whatever? What is the conversion rate of those freebies – how many of the trials become regular customers? Recurring revenues are predictable and generally pretty stable. I bet you’ve signed up for subscriptions of some sort and forgotten you’ve done so or don’t use them as often as you thought you would. For a business, that’s a customer without costs, and that’s a nice margin!
When I talk to people who are looking at franchise opportunities and who don’t have a particular brand or industry in mind, I usually talk to them about the businesses with recurring revenue models. Things like cleaning services. Not a sexy business, but very profitable and that, in part, is because of the recurring revenues. Same thing with spa businesses or some hair salons that feature memberships. Are those businesses that can offer a free trial? Maybe if you’re an out-of-the-box thinker. Giving a converted customer the ability to give away a free trial to a friend is another great way to expand your base at very little cost.
Here is the thing about free trials leading to recurring revenues. As with any business, you have to maintain a high level of customer service. After all, when someone’s credit card is getting dinged each month and your business appears on their statement, it’s an opportunity for them to reconsider. If they walk away, no amount of free sampling will get them back most of the time. Everyone loves something for nothing. The opposite – nothing for something – is very much NOT true!