Before talking about the future, Martin O’Dowd wanted to briefly rewind. “After 21 years,” he asks, “why would Hurricane Grill & Wings want to go to Europe?”
The answer, as it turns out, was that the brand, which originated in Florida and just enjoyed a record year of growth, simply didn’t. O’Dowd, the president and vice-chairman of the board, says the idea literally walked up to Hurricane Grill’s table at a franchise exhibition in Las Vegas more than a year and a half ago. CEO John Metz chuckled at the memory. “We just kept saying, ‘Are you sure they eat chicken wings in Italy?'"
A representative from the Luxembourg-based franchise group, Hurricanum, S.A., convinced the pair that the European market would be a prime launching pad for Hurricane Grill to take its budding brand global. In early February, they opened their first concept outside of the U.S. in the suburbs of Milan. O’Dowd, who is heading up the international expansion, says Hurricanum’s sturdy credentials shrunk the risk in favor of obvious reward.
“If we had not affiliated with such a strong group that understood supply chain management, and it was a deep group, we probably would not have taken this opportunity to go to Europe, to be candid,” he says, noting that Hurricanum also franchises Fuddruckers.
Metz’s earlier question was also met with a convincing response. “[They] asked, ‘When was the last time you’ve been to Italy? Have you seen the changes in the consumer’s taste?’ And the answer for both Martin and I was no. We hadn’t been to Italy in probably five years,” Metz recalls.
They traveled overseas to scout the region in person, realizing quickly that the landscape had titled significantly in recent years. While it was once a mom-and-pop dominated arena, chains and other wide-reaching brands had moved in—especially American-themed restaurants. O’Dowd estimated that the ratio had shifted from a 98 percent saturation to a 60-40 split. There was no reason why Hurricane Grill couldn’t thrive in that 40 percent, he thought. “We’ve seen enough over there that we feel with great operators in our franchise partners, and proper supply chain management, that we’re going to be able to compete long term,” he notes.
The brand, which closed out 2015 with 12 new locations and a company record 10 multi-unit development agreements, agreed to open 25 international restaurants beginning with Milan and sprouting in Austria, Germany, Poland, and Switzerland over the next six years. After breaking the $100 million mark in sales for the first time, O’Dowd says franchisees are committing to the brand in stronger fashion than ever before.
“One of the measurements looking into any franchised brand, if you see the current franchisees building their third, fourth units, that’s a good pretty endorsement of what they think of the brand and the brand’s success,” O’Dowd says.
“Our franchisees are very confident in their future success because of our past success,” adds Metz, who with partner Gail Asarch was part of a team that purchased the brand in 2008 and currently has more than 80 restaurants open or under construction. Hurricane Grill was founded in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1995 by Chris Russo.
Metz felt the beach theme would play well in Europe. As for his chicken wing quandary, that opened an entirely new chapter of thought for his company. O’Dowd says the Milan customers have enjoyed perusing the 35 different wing sauces, but that it’s run at a much different pace. In the U.S., Dowd notes that about 25 percent of guests order from that section of the menu. Overseas, it’s dipped to around 7 percent, although that’s come at the positive rise of burgers, an American item that he says Europeans clamor for. Instead of a 7 percent clip stateside, nearly 30 percent of Italian diners are ordering the iconic dish.