When Ford’s Garage and a local auto dealer joined together in a unique partnership, the results were profitable for both. Here are some lessons learned about the potential to repeat success.

When two successful companies come together over common identities, it’s a match made in profit heaven: a powerful combination that can drive sales, build brand awareness, and engage customers on a whole new level. If you carefully engage the right partner and manage that, both sides can reap significant rewards.

At Ford’s Garage, we’ve engaged the power of collaboration through our partnership with the Bozard Ford auto dealership in St. Augustine, Florida. At Ford’s Garage restaurant we serve craft beer, gourmet burgers, and other American comfort food in a setting designed like a 1920s service station, with details like mechanic shirts as server uniforms, napkins composed of blue shop towels, and restroom sinks made from tires. Founded in 2012, the original Ford’s Garage opened in Fort Myers, Florida, less than a mile from Henry Ford’s winter home. Today, as the only restaurant concept that’s an official licensee of the Ford Motor Company, we pay tribute to America’s most iconic automobile brand by offering a truly historic dining experience.

Bozard Ford is one of Ford Motor Company’s top dealerships and has been a fixture in the local community for generations. Since we connected a Ford’s Garage on the dealership site, car sales have been through the roof, and the restaurant’s average annual unit volume is above our company-wide average.

After almost four years, we’re looking to replicate that great success. We’ve learned a lot that we’ll apply to similar deals, which can benefit any restaurant seeking to build a profitable relationship with a complementary brand.

1. Look for shared identities. 

When Bozard Ford was opening their new location, they were trying to secure an on-site food/beverage dealer that offered more than just a snack area like many dealers traditionally offer. People love the fact that while they’re having their car serviced, they can enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner with us and also enjoy our unique Ford memorabilia. Of course, it’s not absolutely essential that there be as direct a tie-in as that, but there should be some sort of commonality that creates natural interaction. For example, your cuisine style or other themes could provide the link that connects you. We were fortunate that our shared connection enabled a smooth transition into an exciting partnership. 

2. Ensure it’s a culture match.

Your shared identity should go beyond cuisine and theme. Look at each other’s company culture. Do your values match, especially when it comes to guest service? Bozard Ford has a culture that’s very similar to ours; we’re both successful because of our people. The dealership has a strong family culture and their people have worked for them for a long period of time, so it’s a fantastic organization that we’ve loved partnering with.

3. Be creative.

One size doesn’t have to fit all. You don’t have to set up your restaurant on your partner’s site; we’re not necessarily doing that in future partnerships. Sometimes it will make sense if the location is ideal, and sometimes it will be more suitable to just have the partner invest, like a franchisee, and become part owner but still keep the properties separate. 

4. Help prospective partners get to know you.

Once you’ve chosen your partner, visit and observe each other’s operations—more than once or twice—to see if you’re a good fit and where you can capitalize on your shared identities. Our team at Ford’s Garage went to St. Augustine and spent a lot of time with the dealership team. We had them visit our restaurants to see how we could support each other. It helped them to see the benefits of having an established name like Ford’s Garage on their property.

5. Look for opportunities to cross-promote.

Can you offer incentives to each other’s customers or co-host events around your theme? For example, Bozard Ford gives Ford’s Garage gift cards to customers who purchase a car, and we’ve hosted car shows that bring in classic Ford automobiles. That’s something the dealer loves to be involved in because it makes sense for both of us and drives traffic for all. Take the opportunity to brainstorm together. You never know what creative ideas you’ll come up with. 

6. Build a strong community presence.

This is one of the strongest factors in the success of our collaboration. The Bozard Ford family has had that dealership for a couple of generations and are likely to be there for a few more generations. They have an established and respected name, and their community knows them, which builds strong customer support and awareness. When they built their new location and included us on the property, it created a lot of excitement and interest. Now, between the restaurant and dealership, we’re attracting thousands of guests every week. 

7. Stay in your lane.

This is critical. Cross-promotion is great, but your guests should never feel obliged to do business with your partner. Ford’s Garage is a restaurant first and last, and Bozard Ford is a car dealership. Period. You can enjoy a meal and go home in the car you drove in with or have it serviced without buying so much as a cup of coffee from us.

Establishing a partnership with another business doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, planning and patience. But when you discover a collaboration that works for both parties, it can be a beneficial experience for your company and most importantly, your guests.

Steve Shlemon is president of Ford’s Garage, a 1920s garage-themed burger and craft beer restaurant franchise with 24 locations across six states and an official licensee of the Ford Motor Company. He has more than 30 years in the restaurant industry elevating the guest experience through innovative menus, excellent customer service and unique dining atmospheres. 

Chain Restaurants, Expert Takes, Feature, NextGen Casual