Piling It On

OhCal Foods rides acquisition to No. 1 in Subway franchising.

Fine, Howard 1500030901a_r100x80
http://labusinessjournal.com/accounts/login/?next=/news/2015/mar/09/piling-it/
2015 Los Angeles Business Journal. All rights reserved.

Once the earl of sandwich in Southern California, Hardeep Grewal is now the reigning king of Subway restaurant franchising nationwide.

Grewal’s OhCal Foods, which oversees Subway franchises in Los Angeles and Orange counties, has just acquired franchise development rights for all of Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and most of Maryland in a deal that makes him Subway’s biggest franchise developer. By far.

OhCal bought the territory from Feldman Group of McLean, Va., in a sale that closed late last month and nearly doubled the size of the company’s hoagie holdings overnight. The Woodland Hills company now oversees about 2,170 Subway locations, or 8 percent of all Subways in the United States.

Put another way, Grewal’s territory now includes one out of every 12 Subways nationwide. That’s more than double the next biggest franchise developer.

For years, OhCal had been battling Feldman for the distinction of being the largest franchise developer for Subway, which is the world’s largest franchise operation and is owned by Doctor’s Associates Inc. of Milford, Conn. But with Feldman’s 1,000 stores now part of OhCal’s kingdom, Grewal has taken the crown.

“This deal put us over the top,” Grewal said.

But the deal is about much more than bragging rights. OhCal’s revenue also figures to grow substantially. As a franchise development agent, OhCal matches franchise operators with sites and helps existing franchisees with marketing, quality control and lease negotiations. OhCal gets a cut of both franchisee ownership transactions and royalty payments that the franchisees make to brand parent Subway.

Grewal said the nearly 2,200 franchisees now under OhCal’s supervision bring in about $1.3 billion in annual sales. Franchisees pay 8 percent of their sales in royalties to Subway, which comes to $104 million a year from OhCal’s restaurants.

Most of those royalty payments go to Subway corporate, but OhCal gets a slice. Grewal would not say exactly how much his company receives, but said it can be up to one-third of total royalty payments.

That would translate to as much as $35 million a year for OhCal in royalty revenue alone, not to mention money it makes from franchise ownership transactions in its territory.

Unexpected path

Grewal, 59, became a Subway magnate almost by accident. Born in Punjab, India, he attended school in Montreal and moved to Los Angeles with his wife. Patwant, in 1986, when he got a job as controller at a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp.

He entered the world of Subway franchising not for himself, but for Patwant. who was looking for something to do.

In 1989, he bought her a Subway franchise. The money was good enough that Grewal eventually left his desk job. He opened some stores and took over other underperforming ones until he amassed a total of 24.

But Grewal saw that the more lucrative end of the sandwich business was in becoming one of Subway’s 200 or so franchise development agents. Development agents have a guaranteed revenue stream without many of the overhead costs that franchisees face.

In 2006, Grewal sold most of his Subway locations and purchased OhCal, which at the time oversaw 446 Subway franchise stores in Los Angeles County. He later purchased the development rights for Orange County and part of the province of Ontario, Canada. Today, OhCal oversees 663 Subway stores in Los Angeles County, 246 in Orange County and 260 in Ontario.

OhCal’s purchase of the franchise development rights from Feldman gives it oversight of an additional 760 Subway stores in Virginia, 82 in Washington and 111 in Maryland. The Maryland territory does not include the Baltimore metro area. Add in about 50 stores in that region that only open for the summer tourist season, and the total is just over 1,000.

Grewal said it was the prospect of getting the franchise development rights to the market around the suburbs of Washington that made this deal so attractive. The region has seen explosive growth in recent years, driven by the spread of federal government jobs and an expanding roster of defense and national security contractors.

“There have been so many new buildings going in at universities, hospitals and government-related facilities,” he said. “That means a lot of new locations coming up.”

From Subway corporate’s perspective, putting this lucrative East Coast market in the hands of a development agent with a proven track record was crucial. Subway has to approve any sales of development territory.

“There are many areas of the business that a development agent for the Subway brand must handle, and Hardeep and the OhCal team excel all around,” said Don Fertman, chief development officer with Subway’s corporate office. “Now with the move into another one of our showcase territories–the D.C., Virginia and Maryland area–we are looking forward to what they will accomplish there in making an already great market even better.”

In the family

Grewal has sent his son, Jesse, to manage the newly acquired territories. A nephew already runs the Canadian operations.

He said he intends to add about 30 stores a year, with many of those coming in the Washington area. As a development agent, OhCal scouts out potential sites for stores, then prepares to offer the sites to the nearest franchisee.

But it’s not only about adding stores. Grewal said his other goal is to improve same-store sales at existing franchises, a job made harder in the last couple of years as the sandwich chain’s highly successful “$5 Footlong” promotion has wound down.

“No question that sales growth has been slowing, both because of the overall economy and because that campaign has ended,” he said.

To counteract this, Grewal said he wants OhCal’s marketing efforts on behalf of its Subway franchisees to focus more on the tastes of millennials, who are now in their 20s.

But OhCal’s job won’t be easy. Because Subway has gotten so big–there are now 27,000 Subways nationwide–the rate of new franchise formation in the United States has naturally slowed, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago food industry research firm.

Not only that, but Tristano said Subway’s size makes it increasingly difficult to find high-quality locations for new franchise stores, making Grewal’s strategy of focusing on boosting same-store sales all the more important.

“That’s where a development agent like OhCal can be particularly useful, since they can bring to bear the marketing and branding resources that franchisee owners may not have,” Tristano said.

Another pitfall is that OhCal’s business model itself might not survive over the long term. Subway was a pioneer in using franchise development agents, a practice used by other franchised businesses through the years. But that model has lost favor in the franchise industry in general, with Subway one of the last remaining holdouts.

“The trend in franchising has been toward centralized control, both to maintain quality and to cut out the extra cost of development agents,” said Kevin Burke, managing director at Trinity Capital, a West L.A. investment bank that specializes in restaurant deals.

To his point, there have been occasional reports of Subway cutting back on the numbers of development agents in the United States and on the lengths of their contracts.

But Grewal isn’t very concerned. Not only is he now Subway’s largest franchise developer, he also has many years left on his contracts with the chain–about 13 years for his Southern California territory and about 27 years on the newly acquired areas.

“That’s plenty of time,” he said. “Enough so that my son can take over for me.”

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