Francesca’s remained steady through the recession by challenging itself.

The last five years have been difficult ones for most businesses, but some restaurants marched through the recession virtually unscathed.

Chicago-based Francesca’s was one of them. Owned by Scott Harris, who also has a number of other restaurant brands under his belt (including Davanti Enoteca and Glazed and Infused, a donut brand), it has 24 locations and that number is expected to double in the next 10 years.

Francesca’s president and CEO, Trent Brown, talks to Restaurant Management.

How has Francesca’s fared through the economic downturn?

Just in our Francesca brand alone we were up in the high single digits in growth—7 to 8 percent growth, year over year, in a recession. And when you add in expansion or our affiliates we were up more like 30 percent.

We reflected on what a loyal following that we have, but we didn’t rest on our laurels or say we’re in a recession.

Instead, we decided to hold ourselves to a higher accountability—saying we were going to operate at a higher level.

We were creative, aggressive, and thoughtful and I think it ended up showing on the bottom line. We really solidified our customer base and attracted new customers.

We want people to come in to Francesca’s two or three times a week, not once a month. And we have never gotten away from what got us started and that is value.

Why is now the time to expand Francesca's?

You have to think strategically and you have to have a longer-term thinking. We’ve been around for 20 years and I want us to be around for another 20 years plus.

When I make decisions I want them to be built on a longer timeline. When we do that we can have better clarity about what’s important. We are starting to build a reputable process and to understand how to replicate this.

We saw an opportunity around real estate being depressed so we found some really strong locations that from a demographic standpoint are what we need to be successful. And we thought what better time to be successful than in a downtown.

How will you orchestrate that growth?

We’re looking at growth in two ways: Through our brands and through our geographies. We have a strong hold in the Midwest. This is where we were born and raised as a company. We think there’s a lot of room in the Francesca brand alone.

We see growing concentrically from the Midwest with Francesca’s. We’ve also established ourselves on the east coast in Raleigh, North Carolina, and on the West Coast —in California and Arizona. But at the same time we believe in synergies. We don’t plan to have a standalone store in a state or in a certain geography. We’re viewing almost all of our stores in the same way. I’m starting to cluster our stores together. That drives synergies and buying power.

So instead of running one-off strategies we can leverage from one brand to the other to create a greater whole.

You’ll cluster in your new brands, too. Tell me about them.

Davanti (which offers small plates and shareables) launched two years ago and the first store in Chicago was became immediately successful. Davanti means across the street and it was across the street from Francesca’s. We now have three—another is in Little Italy in San Diego and a third is in Del Mar. The fourth is being completed in Paradise Valley outside Scottsdale.

Glazed and Infused is donuts and is brand new, but in the works for a year plus. It just opened here in Chicago and we’ve had tremendous results. All donuts are made from scratch with no artificial flavors, and are trans fat free—they’re as wholesome as you can get with a donut.

We’ll start in Chicago and have two locations now, and then move out.

What are some of the challenges you foresee with your growth?

The challenge is always sustainability of the standards we put in place. The quality of what we do has to be there, every time, every meal.

We’re going to make training very centralized and every new hire will have to be trained.

I’m interested in having consistency in our dishes as much as goodness in our dishes. I encourage individuality but I insist on consistency. I want them to taste the same in every restaurant.

It’s also about straining the organization in many ways when you expand and there’s a tendency to focus on the shiny new penny and not the pennies you already have.

By Amanda Baltazar

Industry News, Leader Insights, NextGen Casual, Francesca's