First conquer New England. Then the East Coast. And finally, the country.
The founders of b.good, a Boston chain of nine farm-to-table burger and fry joints, are launching an ambitious campaign to spread their feel-good fast food in two weeks with the opening of the company’s first franchise store in Shrewsbury.
“We set out wanting this business to be huge,” said cofounder Anthony Ackil. “We never wanted to open five restaurants. We never wanted 50. We want hundreds.”
Ackil and Jon Olinto, the company’s other founder, developed plans and found partners last year for 23 new franchise stores. The restaurants, along with 12 more corporate locations, are slated to pop up in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts over the next five years.
The duo met long ago, in sixth grade at Dexter School in Brookline, and bonded over homemade meals cooked by Ackil’s late uncle. As adults, they shared a love of fast food — but not the post-consumption guilt it inspires.
Ackil and Olinto opened the first b.good nine years ago, serving all-natural burgers, fries, and salads. Now the chain’s restaurants feature wallboards identifying the farmers who raise the beef and cultivate the produce served at each location.
As the business grew in Greater Boston, Ackil and Olinto spent time dissecting every aspect of their menu, finances, and operations — down to the amount of potatoes an employee can cut in 15 minutes. The founders share these details with their franchisees and take a hands-on approach with the each store, believing the brand’s success relies on how these restaurants perform.
“We want to give our franchisees a road map to make money,” Ackil said. “It’s taken us a long time to get things right.”
John Freeley and his brother, David, owners of the Shrewsbury location, were drawn to b.good above other brands because of the owners’ attitude and the farm-to-table approach.
“One of the key factors was their involvement in the franchise,” Freeley said. “In most cases, you sign the deal and you’re on your own. That’s not the case with Jon and Anthony.”
B.good sold the New England franchise restaurants to four different investor groups in deals for four or five stores each. The Freeleys are on pace to open a store a year, like the other investors, for five years in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
But one analyst questioned how b.good, which serves a niche market of health-conscious consumers, will perform on a national scale.
The company follows two different trends in the “fast casuals” restaurant category — farm-to-fork fare and better burgers, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic, a food industry research firm. That could be a problem.
A bleak national market for farm-to-fork fast casuals means b.good’s founders are either on the brink of something new, different, and ready to burst with growth or people just won’t buy it, he said.
“Only a minority of consumers want farm-to-table,” Tristano said. “Out of that minority there are those who aren’t willing to pay for it because the price is higher. Now you’re getting down to a small minority that want it and are willing to pay for it, and then there’s a small percentage that actually do it.”
And in the booming burger market, well-established brands are offering lower investment costs and yielding similar annual sales.
B.good’s owners said a franchise store requires an investment between $400,000 and $600,000 and is expected to generate annual sales of about $1.15 million.
Another strong, growing brand in the better burger business, Five Guys, has an entry cost of about $350,000 to $550,000 per store and produces annual sales of about $1.2 million.
“Franchisees, knowing the market for those other burger chains, will look at b.good and ask why the investment costs are higher,” Tristano said.
Olinto said the b.good restaurants require slightly more money upfront because of upgraded fixtures, furniture, and equipment that help drive home the farm-to-table theme.
“If you just come in and get a burger and fries and don’t learn about our concept or where your food comes from, we’ve failed in a sense,” he said.
B.good is also likely to see competition from other fast casuals such as Subway, Chipotle, and even Panera Bread, which also serve more affluent consumers who care about the food they put into their body.
Although franchise business growth is predicted to increase at a slightly slower rate this year — by 1.4 percent compared with 1.5 percent in 2012 — it is still ahead of other business sectors, according to an IHS Global Insight report released in December.
Burger restaurants continue to pop up in the franchise industry, according to Alisa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the International Franchise Association. Overall, about 3,000 new restaurant franchises are forecast to open this year.
“We continually see new burger concepts because burgers and fries never go out of fashion,” she said. “It’s a concept that people like and if it can be replicated from one region to another, franchising is a great way to grow your business.”
Ackil and Olinto are confident they can stick to their restaurant concept of serving real food, which they define as knowing its source and the farmers who produce it.
The all-natural beef served in the nine corporate-owned b.good restaurants comes from Pineland Farms, a co-op of 270 sustainable farms located east of the Mississippi River and as far south as the Carolinas.
Pineland also supplies Whole Foods Market Inc., and Olinto said b.good is likely to pursue new markets that the supermarket company has entered because they share a similar customer base and need for local suppliers.
Tristano said it’s no surprise b.good found diners and investors in New England, but the brand will be tested in markets that don’t place as much importance on their food’s source.
“They’ll likely grow in the short term, but the long term is going to be a bigger question mark,” he said.