Brewer Stouffer likes to joke he isn’t afraid of using the “F” word. That would be franchise. This nine-letter version, while hardly vulgar, tends to carry its own negative baggage throughout the independent and small-chain restaurant community.
“In so many people’s minds, a franchise can be the epitome of sterility, big-box sameness, and uniformity,” says Stouffer, the founder and CEO of Madison, Wisconsin–based Roman Candle Pizzeria. But at some point, as it did with Stouffer and his four-unit restaurant this past year, it becomes clear that the only real viable path to expansion, no matter the personal roots, might be letting go and letting someone else in. “I think that right there is the creative genesis and excitement for me; taking our quirky, awesome, unique brand, and combining that with a business model that allows us to work with individuals in other markets,” Stouffer says. “I’m excited about that challenge.”
Stouffer admits it can be difficult to share your life’s work, especially when the concept speaks so specifically to a deep-seated ethos. The first Roman Candle was opened in 2005 in a corner, historic building in Madison. After rehabilitating the space, Stouffer set his culinary plan to work, using high-quality unbromated flour and local ingredients to craft pizza in an eclectic setting. The fourth location, which opened in 2013, popped up in Milwaukee’s North Shore, the first outside of the Madison area—a fact Stouffer says was key to his growth strategy. It proved the concept could survive outside its comfort zone. But how will Stouffer handle the added distance, both literally and figuratively, of a franchised store? He understands he won’t be able to travel or oversee operations at the first franchised model, or the second, third, or 30th for that matter. Unless he wants to spend his life in airports or riding down the highway, Stouffer says franchising, a decision he picked this past fall, was the only true path.
“Rather than send corporate trained managers and have them relocate to new markets, we’re going to work with people who have expertise, either from being a resident or being an operator in those local markets,” Stouffer says. “And that is really attractive to me. I know we have a model that works and can be easily repeated by people who care.”
“I went through a process of considering equity fundraising,” he adds. “I talked to other successful restaurants. I started really paying attention to developing brands. … I realized I had a pretty good pitch and people really liked my brand, but I had a terrible punch line, which was basically, ‘Why don’t you give me some money so we can help build more of these?’ Franchising was the only way to go for us.”
The decision wasn’t easy to come by for Dave Sobelman, either. He turned to franchising when his namesake, Sobelmans Pub-n-Grill—located in the Milwaukee area—became too big for one family to contain. “We’ve stretched ourselves too thin. So far, it’s been me and my wife, and we’ve had a little help from other family members,” says Sobelman, who notes he once sold 985 burgers in a day. “We just couldn’t do it anymore.”
The stakes are high, Sobelman adds, because of how deeply he’s invested in the 16-year-old brand. The restaurant saved his life, he explains, talking about how he lives in a beautiful, new home, and can’t even walk through the airport without being recognized anymore. Sobelman was working in the carpet cleaning business when he purchased Margie’s Bar & Grill, and opened the first unit without any cooking chops to lean on. “I was determined. This was my claim to fame. This was my chance at a better life, and I wasn’t going to fail,” he recalls.
Sobelman currently operates three locations, as well as a kiosk in the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Like the Roman Candle, he’s hoping lofty standards, which began with the “best burger buns in town,” are maintained beyond his watchful eye. That includes a Bloody Mary that’s nationally recognized, featuring shrimp, polish sausage, cheese, picked asparagus, celery, and yes, a burger—all sticking out of the drink. For potential markets, Sobelman is targeting communities where there is already some familiarity with his brand, like Illinois or St. Louis, where Marquette University students maintain fond memories of the 19 burgers and nine different cheese curds.
“I’m in uncharted waters. Who knows?” Sobelman asks. “I don’t know what to expect. I will probably reject more [franchisees] than I accept. We don’t talk about money. We talk about building the brand. And I don’t talk about it, but I think about what it means for my family and our family name. We are the only Sobelmans in Milwaukee, and that means something. What I’ll be looking for most is passion. You can’t survive in this business without it.”
Dan White is another operator who eyed the franchise model as a growth vehicle . A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” White saw an opportunity in the business of craft beer, leading him to open a brewpub, Growler USA, in Eugene, Oregon, two years ago. White calls the first location a concept store, and explains that everything, from the décor to the decision to hire an executive chef, was done with future growth in mind.
“Franchising is kind of a science unto itself,” he says, “and it’s one of the easiest ways to grow a brand if your intention is to have a largely regional or national presence. If you don’t have a wide-open checkbook, it’s the easiest way to go.”
Already, White says he’s sold 25 Growler USA models for 2016, and sees expansion hitting triple digits in 2017, and finding its way to the 200-store mark within the next couple of years.
Aside from personally picking the prospective owners, Growler USA leans on technology to promote uniformity across its multiplying units, deploying applications such as TurboChef—the same system used at Wolfgang Puck’s and Red Lobster—for consistent food preparation. Additionally, everyone working in the company has to become Cicerone Certified Beer Servers, which teaches well-rounded knowledge of beer and beer service.
“Two years ago, in Oregon, I took it 100 percent on myself to play with the concept, to see what would work and what wouldn’t,” he says. “Once I thought we had something that really works, and appeals to a lot of people, I think it became an easy sell. It’s going to be fun to see what happens next.”