Striking While the Tortilla Warmer is Hot

October 5, 2016

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By David Farkas
http://restfinance.com/Restaurant-Finance-Across-America/October-2016/Striking-While-the-Tortilla-Warmer-is-Hot/

Mendocino Farms co-founders Mario Del Pero and wife Ellen Chen have put their money where many mouths are. Last month, the couple invested an undisclosed sum in Dos Toros, a 11-unit New York City-based taqueria chain that plans to expand to Chicago next year. “There is an unbelievable runway for them [to grow],” Del Pero declared in a recent interview.

The timing of the investment is no accident. Investors have been scouting for a viable investment vehicle in the category given the troubles at beleaguered Chipotle Mexican Grill. “I think that with the decline in traffic to Chipotle, the opportunity for other restaurants to capture share and support their desire for flavorful Mexican fare is very high,” Technomic Inc. President Darren Tristano told the Monitor. The market research firm expects Mexican fast-casual to grow 8% overall in 2016.

Del Pero and Chen invested alongside Managing Director Nick Marsh of GrowthPoint Partners, which last month made a $10 million minority investment in Dos Toros. Marsh, an early investor in the Studio City, Calif.-based premium sandwich chain, is also CEO of Chopt Creative Salad Company. “He’s a close restaurant friend that we trust,” Del Pero said.

Although Del Pero declined to reveal how much capital the couple put up, he acknowledged it was their own money. Still, he added, he sought permission for the investment from private equity firm Catterton, which has a substantial stake in 13-unit Mendocino Farms. “We made it very clear that we’re just investors, though we are a sounding board for Leo and Oliver,” Del Pero explained.

Brothers Leo and Oliver Kremer founded Dos Toros (“two bulls” in Spanish) in 2009, slowly opening units in Manhattan and Brooklyn until they added a second line in store in a busy Manhattan food-court two years ago. The addition has allowed new units to serve 450 people an hour.

Del Pero wouldn’t comment on Dos Toros AUVs or unit economics but claimed Dos Toros unit sales rivaled Chipotle’s. Before the chain’s food-poisoning problems, CMG reported volumes of $2.5 million. Dos Toros reportedly rang up $20 million in 2015.

He also said the couple would likely offer Dos Toros advice on catering and procurement as the brand scales outside New York City. “We think there is opportunity in catering. So that’s one of the things we can help with,” Del Pero offered.


Why new sports bars are blitzing Dallas for a piece of the action

September 28, 2016

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By Karen Robinson-Jacobs
http://www.dallasnews.com/business/restaurants/2016/09/21/sports-bar-operators-look-gain-yardage-north-texas

When The Park, a small sports bar chain, began looking to expand beyond its Austin birthplace, it bypassed Houston and headed straight for Big D.

With its confluence of marquee sports teams across every major league and its never-say-die fans, North Texas has become a magnet for game-focused restaurant chains and independents.

All are hoping to score.

“I don’t think there’s a better sports town anywhere in the country than the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” said Eric Dunahoe, director of operations for The Park, which hopes to open a North Texas location — its first outside of Austin — by late 2017. “If we’re going to be the Texas-owned-and-operated sports bar, we need to be in the city within the state of Texas that’s the best sports town and that’s Dallas.”

The sports bar occupies a unique, if amorphous, niche within the casual dining segment.

There’s no strict definition of what makes sports bars. Generally, they include TV-festooned venues where more than 40 percent of sales come from alcohol and the draw is the love of the game. (Think Buffalo Wild Wings, Dave & Buster’s and Twin Peaks.)

The growth of sports bars — both in number and in sales might — comes as the broader casual dining segment has struggled.

Chicago-based Technomic tracks sales at the Top 500 U.S. restaurant chains. In the 2015 list, about 13 percent of casual dining sales were at “sports bar” concepts.

Sales at sports bars on the Top 500 list grew 7.7 percent in 2015 to $7.3 billion, compared with 2.9 percent sales growth for the broader “varied menu” category, Technomic said.

The top sports bar chains grew their location count by 4.6 percent in 2015 while major full-service chains overall grew at a rate of 0.9 percent.

“I would say this is a fast-growing niche in the full-service industry,” said Technomic president Darren Tristano. “Although independents place higher emphasis on food quality, the chains tend to have the largest consumer attraction due to the size of the locations, variety of adult beverages, affordability of shareable food, comfortable seating and availability of televisions to view a variety of sports.”

North Texas is one of about a dozen U.S. markets with all four major sports leagues — NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB — along with soccer and numerous alums from powerhouse college programs.

And it’s increasingly a draw for migrants from other major sports towns, who bring their viewing loyalties with them.

That makes North Texas fertile ground for expansion-minded sports bar operators.

It’s also home base for several of the major chains including Twin Peaks, Boston’s and Dave & Buster’s.

Dave & Buster’s was born in Dallas in 1982 as a hybrid restaurant/playground that enticed guests to “Eat. Drink. Play,” with a focus on food and electronic games. In 2011, the Dallas-based chain added “Watch,” as part of a full-court-press designed to include a branded “D&B Sports” area near the restaurant bar.

Today, all 86 U.S. Dave & Buster’s locations include amped-up “sports viewing packages.” About 80 percent are officially branded with D&B Sports sections that bring the restaurant TV screen count up to about 40 (compared with 20 pre-sports push).

That includes two or three 180-inch screens, according to Sean Gleason, chief marketing officer for Dave & Buster’s.

The sports theme has helped Dave & Buster’s appeal to millennials, who gravitate to the communal dining spaces and party-like atmosphere.

On a recent football Sunday, manager Don McDougall presided over the dimly lit but highly animated scene at the Dave & Buster’s on Central Expressway — a restaurant that promises the “ultimate sports watching experience.”

The bar shows every NFL game on Sunday.

As the Cowboys battled the New York Giants, the chatter among the sports fans was constant. A taunt here, a high-five-punctuated boast there. Cheers and groans were interrupted by the occasional “Over here” as patrons vied for attention from a worker lobbing Dave & Buster’s T-shirts into the crowd.

“We try to make it just like tailgating, with prizes, a T-shirt cannon,” said McDougall of the 4-year-old location. “We try to make it as close to being at an actual game as possible.”

Near the center of the bar area, Brad Cotton, 33, and his wife Donna, 42, of DeSoto said they can be found at a sports bar any given Sunday, unless family members are hosting a watch party.

“Going to the game is a little expensive,” said Brad, who was wearing a No. 82 Jason Witten jersey. “So that’s once a year if we do that. This is affordable, but you’re still around die-hard fans. You want to be in the atmosphere with other fans, that’s going to turn up like you turn up.”

Donna noted that the uniform of the day was predominantly blue and white.

“When we walk through the door, just because we have Cowboys gear on, everybody becomes friends,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”

None of the sports fans interviewed were surprised that North Texas is home to a growing sports bar scene.

“Sports are big in North Texas, whether it’s NASCAR [or] football,” said Daryl Hope, 47, who is moving soon from Forest Hill to Rockwall.

Hope prefers his perch at Dave & Buster’s to stadium seating because it allows him to watch multiple games at once.

That’s important, he said, since he’s big into fantasy football. Try 14 leagues big.

The introduction of fantasy football to younger consumers and mainstream consumers, including women, has given the sports bar segment a nice lift, Tristano said.

Despite the fan enthusiasm, North Texas remains a challenging market as operators compete for both consumers and investors.

In 2000, when the Canadian-based pizza and sports bar chain Boston Pizza began investing in a U.S. expansion, it headed straight for North Texas. The U.S. headquarters is in Dallas and a corporate restaurant that doubles as a training center is in Irving along busy Interstate 635.

Three more franchised locations were added locally through 2007. Then the company was hit with a blitz known as the great recession. From about 60 U.S. locations, the brand dropped to about 25. No additional locations have opened in North Texas in the past 9 years.

Nationally, the brand gained some yardage and is now back up to 29 locations. And while the company has found a franchisee to grow in West Texas — two locations will open in El Paso next year — the company has yet to find the right local combination of investor and real estate for North Texas.

“There’s lots of competition,” said Ken Phipps, director of franchise development for Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, the U.S. arm, as the lunch bunch watched highlights from the weekend’s sports matchups.

North Texas “is and will remain one of our target markets to find the right franchise partners to help us grow.”

“It’s a very expensive market as far as real estate,” he added. “It retained its real estate value post-2008, and it’s gone nothing but skyward. Especially locations like Frisco, Plano, Arlington, with all of the new big developments like the Cowboys’ The Star.”

Three different franchisees own the three noncorporate D-FW locations. Now the company, like many major chains, is looking for large investors who can open more than one location.

“It’s a big investment,” he said, “We look for a net worth of $1.5 to $2 million and liquidity of $500,000.”

“We really want to grow our D-FW market,” said the North Texas native. “It’s our home. It’s our backyard for the U.S., and if we find the right partners we could easily add 15 restaurants in the next five years. This market can easily handle that.

“I’m grinning about the opportunities here in Texas,” he added, after showing off the restaurant’s 160-inch drop-down screen. “It’s very exciting.”


Eatery digests patrons’ feedback

June 6, 2016

Arkansas-based fast-casual restaurant chain Slim Chickens, known for its tenders and wings, is rolling out a chicken-breast sandwich for taste-testing.

Testing is underway at Slim Chickens’ three Fayetteville locations, its Rogers store, and in Broken Arrow, Okla., near Tulsa. The restaurant chain is offering cayenne ranch and buffalo chicken sandwiches in Northwest Arkansas and cayenne ranch and Cajun chicken versions of the sandwich in Oklahoma.

Customers who select the sandwich are asked for feedback in a survey that takes about a minute to complete. That information goes straight to a few select Slim Chicken executives. So far, customers’ feedback has already resulted in changes to one of the sandwiches. The process is expected to continue for the next several weeks.

“Early indicators are positive,” said Sam Rothschild, Slim Chickens’ chief operations officer. “This is why you test.”

While the chain has offered sandwiches in the past, this is the first one made with a whole, premium chicken breast. Rothschild described the test sandwiches as being made from high-quality chicken and “fully dressed” with Slim’s sauce, pickles, lettuce and onions.

“We want our sandwich to stand out,” he said.

Slim Chickens has 35 restaurants — 25 are company owned and 15 are franchise operations — in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee, with 21 other stores under construction. With the new stores, Slim’s is expected to have more than 50 restaurants open by the end of the year. The company said it hopes to have 600 stores in the United States by 2024.

Slim Chickens competes in the fast-casual segment, where operations focus on an enhanced dining experience compared with fast-food operations. While they don’t have a wait staff, fast-casual restaurants typically deliver patrons their food after ordering.

According to information provided by Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm focusing on food and food service, sales at limited-service chains among the top 500 U.S. restaurant chains grew 5.5 percent to $211 billion in 2015. Sales at limited service chicken restaurants was up 9 percent. Limited service chains include fast food and fast-casual concepts.

Sales in the fast-casual segment alone were up 11.5 percent, and unit growth was up 9.6 percent in 2015, according to the report.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, said that portability, in the form of a sandwich, is something that consumers are looking for, and that adding a sandwich helps fast-casual operations compete with more traditional fast food’s convenience factor.

“One hand on the wheel and the other on a sandwich,” he said.

He added that Slim Chickens’ efforts to test the sandwiches locally are wise.

“They are getting consumers to validate the quality of the product,” he said. “It’s what successful brands do but not what everybody does.”

Rothschild said the sandwich sells for $3.99 by itself or as part of a combo meal at $6.49. Slim Chickens’ lowest cost combo meal, pre-sandwiches, was $6.99. He said that puts the Slim Chickens’ sandwich and combo meal close to fast food on price.

“We want people to come to us when they want chicken,” Rothschild said.


McDonald’s All-Day Breakfast Sparks a Fast Food Fight

May 9, 2016

by Leslie Patton

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-03/mcdonald-s-breakfast-push-sets-off-morning-scramble-in-fast-food

Fast-food joints aren’t hitting the snooze button anymore.

McDonald’s Corp.’s decision to start selling Egg McMuffins all day long last year — meant to help sales during lunch and dinner time — has boosted its morning business as well. That, in turn, has kicked off a scramble among its rivals to find new ways to combine eggs, potatoes and meat for a tasty breakfast.

The latest example is Burger King’s Egg-Normous breakfast burrito, which is being introduced in the U.S. on Tuesday. It’s stuffed with sausage, bacon, eggs, hash browns, cheddar and American cheese and served with picante sauce. The home of the Whopper, which still serves breakfast only during morning hours, also recently added a supreme breakfast hoagie and got rid of slower-selling English muffin sandwiches.

“We’ve invested more in breakfast,” Alex Macedo, head of Burger King North America, said in an interview. “The environment is very competitive.”

Along with adding and deleting items, Burger King tweaked its smaller egg burrito earlier this year, removing green and red peppers and replacing them with hash browns.

Skillet Bowls

Taco Bell revised its morning offerings in March to include $1 options such as skillet bowls and sausage flatbread quesadillas. Subway Restaurants just announced buy-one-get-one subs for the month of May. The catch: They have to be purchased before 9 a.m. And Dunkin’ Donuts revamped its menu boards to focus on all-day choices and started advertising $1.99 Coolatta drinks that are sold at all hours.

The changes come as more U.S. consumers grab eggs and coffee outside the home, according to a study by researcher GfK MRI published by EMarketer.com. Last year, more than 34 percent of Americans reported buying breakfast at fast-food restaurants, an increase from 32.8 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, fewer consumers said they’re dining out for lunch and snacks. Dinner increased less than 1 percent.

McDonald’s all-day breakfast in the U.S. has helped turn around its worst sales slump in more than a decade by drawing more customers throughout the day, including the morning. The plan is surpassing its goals.

Exceeding Expectations

“It’s still exceeding our expectations,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook said on a conference call in April. “Whilst we clearly added incremental visits and incremental spend across rest of day, our breakfast business has also prospered.”

Items like Egg McMuffins and hash browns fueled a 5.4 percent U.S. same-store sales increase at McDonald’s in the first quarter. That’s stronger than the most recent quarterly gains posted by Burger King, Dunkin’ and Taco Bell.

“It’s helped drive success, which they haven’t seen for several years,” said Darren Tristano, president of industry researcher Technomic Inc.

After losing customers to McDonald’s all-day Egg McMuffins, Jack in the Box Inc. has been advertising a triple-cheese and hash-brown breakfast burrito. Same-store sales at company-owned Jack in the Box locations may be down as much as 3 percent in the recently ended quarter, the company said in Februar-1x-1y. The chain also is adjusting and improving other breakfast items, CEO Lenny Comma said during a conference in March.

Dunkin’ Donuts said last month that its new menu boards are helping drive breakfast-sandwich sales. It’s also focused on introducing mobile ordering and will start a 1,650-store test in metro New York in May to get customers their morning meals even faster. CEO Nigel Travis says McDonald’s push has actually helped Dunkin’ in the breakfast battle by highlighting that the doughnut chain has the same menu all day. Still, the change has increased competition for diners’ dollars.

“Clearly, the value war is pretty intense,” Travis said in an interview.


Snacks are having a moment and food makers cashing in

February 26, 2016

Samantha Bomkamp
Chicago Tribune
February 22, 2016
http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-snacking-boom-0223-biz-20160219-story.html

The market for snacks, sold at Walgreens and other retailers, is growing rapidly, analysts say, and manufacturers are working to cash in on the popularity. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

The market for snacks, sold at Walgreens and other retailers, is growing rapidly, analysts say, and manufacturers are working to cash in on the popularity. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Three squares are so passe. Snacking is having a moment, and — you’re driving it.

You could be a 25-year-old Instagram-loving foodie, who shares daily updates of your homemade mini-meals and trendy restaurant tapas. Or a 33-year-old budding entrepreneur, who opts for smoothies and meal replacement bars because you don’t have time to shop, but have no time for junk food, either. Or a 41-year-old father, who indulges in a daily Starbucks run with co-workers. Or a 65-year-old retiree who isn’t up to preparing dinner anymore and opts for a bowl of popcorn or ice cream instead.

Consumers are driving food industry players — manufacturers and restaurants — to introduce items that satisfy a rapidly growing appetite for smaller meals that can be consumed on the run, even though it may not be the healthiest way to10 eat. Whether the fear of calories posted on restaurant menu boards is causing us to order smaller meals or hectic schedules are driving us to this new kind of eating, major food companies have caught on in a big way.

“The tradition of a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts as a snack — those are still there, but overall the definition of a snack has dramatically changed,” said Technomic President Darren Tristano.

Snacks spell big opportunity for food companies because they tend to be more expensive than traditional meal components. And one look around a grocery store shows that retailers like their potential too, as snacks get more prominent space on shelves, with some healthier fare being stocked in the produce department.

At cereal powerhouse Kellogg, whose brands include Pringles, Cheez-It, Keebler and TownHouse crackers, snacks have gone from 20 percent of its business in 2000 to almost 50 percent today.

This year, the company expects brands that have been struggling, like Kashi and Special K, to lead the growth. Both saw strong sales in the early 2000s, but fell out of favor when consumers steered away from “diet food,” Kellogg CEO John Bryant said on a conference call last week.

The brands have been revamped, and boxes include buzzwords like “nourish” instead of “diet,” and Kellogg is focusing the brands on hand-held forms, instead of just cereal by the bowl. “The expectation of consumers in the snack market has changed,” he said.

But Kellogg also expects brands like Pringles and Cheez-Its will be strong, and it is hurrying to develop more single-serve packages for its snacks so they become a grab-and-go item in a convenience or drug store.

At Hormel, whose meat brands including Jenni-O and Spam, it’s Wholly Guacamole that’s stealing the show, particularly in single-serve containers, according to CEO Jeff Ettinger. Hormel also recently introduced Skippy PB Bites with either a crunchy peanut butter or pretzel core.

Oak Brook-based TreeHouse Foods used to count beverages as its biggest category, but a 2014 acquisition propelled its snacks category to No. 1, and it now says it’s the largest private-label trail mix maker in the U.S.

Even health care companies are entering the snack market.

Abbott Laboratories, maker of Pedialyte, Ensure and Similac formula, earlier this month launched a line of snack bars called Curate aimed at adults seeking healthier alternatives to chips or cookies.

And last month, Chicago-based Hillshire Brands introduced a line of snacks aimed squarely at the young Instagram-addicted foodie, launched at a VIP event in New York with a former “Top Chef” contestant and Bravo’s Andy Cohen. The snacks include chicken bites with sauces like mango habanero and spicy chipotle and “small plates” of salame, cheese and crackers.

“Consumers are shifting away from this traditional snacking definition to include a more expanded variety of options to satisfy a more sophisticated food palate,” said Jeff Caswell, vice president and general manager of Hillshire Snacking. “This evolving definition is being spearheaded by millennials. … They have a passion for food exploration and like to try new flavors and push boundaries.”

He said sales of the new line have exceeded expectations.

Millennials, the largest segment of the U.S. population, are driving the snacking industry to create more fresh, healthy and protein-packed options, but other generations are partaking as well. People tend to snack more as they age, in part because older adults don’t have young families to cook for, said Darren Seifer, an NPD Group food and beverage analyst. The biggest snackers are those 55 to 64, NPD’s research shows.

But more snacking doesn’t always mean hitting the vending machine for a bag of M&Ms. Americans are eating fewer sweet snacks, choosing to save them for an evening indulgence, Seifer said. Their consumption fell about 5 percent in the past decade, compared with savory snacks like chips and beef jerky, which grew by 7 percent in the same period. Meanwhile, so-called “better-for-you” snacks like yogurt and cottage cheese cups have grown 25 percent.

“We start off the day with the best of intentions and then about 8 p.m., after you put the kids to bed, we’re allowing ourselves a bit of indulgence,” he said.

Deerfield-based Oreo maker Mondelez has seen both sides of America’s snacking obsession. Spurred by slowing sales of sweet snacks, it introduced Oreo thins to cater to those who want a healthier version. Mondelez, which also makes Ritz crackers, Cadbury chocolate, Sour Patch Kids and Honey Maid graham crackers, says it’s also focusing on smaller sizes for its brands to cater to snackers.

The company already derives 85 percent of its sales from snacks, up 10 percent from a year ago, and it sees a great deal of growth potential this year.

“Why do we like snacks so much? Quite simply, because of their growth potential. Snacking is a $1.2 trillion market, and it’s growing everywhere around the world,” said Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld at a conference last week.

Smaller, more frequent meals may appeal to many Americans, but they’re not necessarily the healthiest option.

“Snacking or frequent eating tends to be less satisfying to your brain,” said Georgie Fear, a registered dietician and author of “Lean Habits For Lifelong Weight Loss.” “It’s hard to feel like we’ve eaten if we’ve just unwrapped a bar.”

In general, frequent snacks lead to “more dishes, more calories, and they’ve also hampered people’s decision-making abilities” because people can use snacks as an emotional crutch, Fear added.

There is a place for healthy snacking, Fear said, but she recommends sticking to options like whole fruit and yogurt. “Many people have gone out of their way to shift to smaller, more frequent meals. And then they (get more information) and think, ‘I’ve been washing that much Tupperware and it’s working against me?’ “


Fazoli’s closes only Las Vegas restaurant

February 24, 2016
Jennifer Robison
Las Vegas Review-Journal
February 17, 2016
http://www.reviewjournal.com/business/fazolis-closes-only-las-vegas-restaurant

1004922526_fazolis_021716_3.jpgThere’ll be no more free breadsticks on North Town Center Drive.

Italian fast-food franchise Fazoli’s has quietly closed its lone Las Vegas eatery. The restaurant, behind the 7-Eleven at Town Center and Covington Cross in Summerlin, shut Feb. 8, 15 years to the day after its 2001 debut.

The closure defies broader market trends, as big, national chains including Chick-fil-A and Cracker Barrel prepare market launches for late 2016 and early 2017.

“Las Vegas is definitely a growth market,” said Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based restaurant consultant Technomic.

So why did operators shutter Fazoli’s?

Company spokeswoman Janet Ritter deferred to the franchisee, Las Vegas-based Glencoe Management, and Glencoe Management didn’t return phone calls. The company’s website said it owns 21 local Burger Kings, including one at 1280 Town Center Drive, next to the former Fazoli’s.

But Ritter said Fazoli’s, a Kentucky chain with 217 U.S. locations mostly in the Midwest and South, “would like to have a presence in Las Vegas, and we are seeking franchisees to open units in the Las Vegas area.”

The Fazoli’s closure capped a market foray that never really picked up steam.

Ritter said she had no information on number or dates of operation of prior local stores, but at least two other Fazoli’s franchises — one on Ft. Apache Road near Rhodes Ranch and another on Eastern Avenue in Silverado Ranch — opened after 2001 and closed years ago.

The 28-year-old company had as many as 300 U.S. restaurants before it began pruning locations in the recession. Each restaurant typically employs 30 to 40 people, Ritter said.

Competition has hurt Fazoli’s, Tristano said.

The U.S. market is saturated with chains, including Panera Bread and Noodles & Co., that serve pasta and pizza. Plus, Fazoli’s straddles a blurry line between fast food and the more upscale fast-casual segment, which includes operators such as Chipotle and Au Bon Pain.

“That’s not a terrible place to be. The problem is, you’re lumped in to some extent with fast food because of the drive-thru and the price points, but the quality is not at the level of a fast-casual restaurant,” Tristano said. “That’s not to say it’s not good quality, but there are so many concepts with customized, prepared-to-order food.”

It didn’t help that Fazoli’s had just a handful of local stores. A franchise needs 20 to 25 locations in a big market to build loyalty and brand awareness, Tristano said.

Still, Fazoli’s seems to have righted its ship: The company said in December that same-store sales were up in 65 of the prior 68 months, including a 3.1 percent jump year over year in November. It opened 10 new franchises in 2014 and 2015.

And restaurant operators continue to salivate over the Southern Nevada market, Tristano said.

“Las Vegas has the demographics and growth that many chain brands are looking for,” he said. “Not all of the markets in the United States are growing, but you’re seeing housing development and population growth there, and that’s a big deal. Chains tend to be prioritizing growth markets.”


Jimmy John’s Growth Fast-Tracked

September 25, 2015

20150918-175928-pic-444050051Debra Pressey
(c)2015 The News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.)
http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2015-09-20/jimmy-johns-growth-fast-tracked.html

CHAMPAIGN — It was the “Slim 5,” a sandwich of salami, Italian capicola and cheese, that Seth Hobbs found himself ordering most when he was a college student and eating Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches “all the time,” he recalled.

Since he’s made the switch from customer to hardworking owner of two Danville Jimmy John’s franchises, his new favorite is the Italian Night Club, he said. That’s one of the heftier items on the menu, a genoa salami, capicola, smoked ham and provolone cheese sandwich topped with lettuce, onion, tomato, mayo and homemade Italian vinaigrette.

But it was more than just love of the food that drove Hobbs, a 27-year-old former ballplayer for the Joliet Slammers, to become a Jimmy John’s franchisee three years ago.

“It’s one of the fastest-growing chains out there,” he said. “And it’s one of the best profit margins for what you have to put into it.”

The chain Jimmy John Liautaud founded when he opened his first sandwich shop in Charleston in 1983 has been steadily adding locations and climbing national industry rankings.

Since 2007, the chain has quadrupled its number of shops, from 500 to more than 2,000, with most of them franchises.

Some recent industry accolades: Last year, Jimmy John’s was ranked No. 5 in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Franchise 500 list and No. 8 in its fastest-growing franchises list.

Nation’s Restaurant News 2015 Top 100 report ranked Jimmy John’s the nation’s seventh-fastest-growing restaurant chain, with 307 new locations added in 2014 to boost the total to 2,109. That was as of last year. A 2015 total wasn’t available from the company.

Keys to the chain’s growth have been simplicity, including speed of service, sports connections and consistent leadership, according to an NRN report.

Jimmy John’s remains far behind the global sandwich behemoth Subway, which has more than 27,000 U.S. locations, and more than 44,000 shops worldwide. But Subway’s sales declined about 3 percent last year, and it fell from second-largest to third-largest in both the NRN’s Top 100 and food industry research firm Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report Restaurants this year.

Meanwhile, three fast casual sandwich chains — topped by Jimmy John’s, Firehouse Subs and Jersey Mike’s — grew, according to Technomic.

Jimmy John’s, which leads that fast casual sandwich category, has “been moving at a very rapid pace,” Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano said.

While Firehouse Subs and Jersey Mike’s don’t rival Jimmy John’s in unit numbers and sales, they’ve also been growing fast. Jersey Mike’s, the fastest-growing chain in the NRN Top 100, had a 29.3 percent growth in the latest year and third-fastest-growing Firehouse Subs saw its domestic sales grow 24.8 percent.

Tristano looks for Jimmy John’s to continue to do well because it offers comfortable dining environments, good food and a delivery service that sets it apart and boosts sales, he said.

Jimmy John’s caters to both college students and a more affluent customer in the Millennial generation, he said. Those college students who dined on Jimmy John’s while they were at school: “Most of them have grown up, and they’re continuing to eat at Jimmy John’s.”

Cost: $323,000 to $544,000

Hobbs graduated from Ball State University in construction management in 2011, started work on a master’s degree, then left to play professional baseball. Being an athlete prepared him well for the work and dedication the restaurant business requires, he said. As a franchisee, he puts in 75- to 90-hour work weeks.

With Danville being so close to Champaign, home to Jimmy John’s headquarters and multiple shop locations, he said, the name recognition for the brand was good in Danville, and his first Jimmy John’s shop at 3120 N. Vermilion St. did well “pretty much right off the bat.”

After opening his second shop at 306 W. Fairchild St., the first one took a bit of a hit in traffic, he said, “but we’re hoping it will bounce back.”

The North Vermilion location will be getting a new drive-through soon, he said, and he’s interested in adding more locations.

The initial investment in a Jimmy John’s franchise, not including the real estate, is $323,000 to $544,000 — including the $30,000-$50,000 franchise fee payable in a lump sum upon signing the agreement, according to the chain’s website.

That’s substantially more than the cost of opening a U.S. Subway franchise, which is $116,000 to $263,000, including the $15,000 franchise fee. But a Subway franchisee will pay the company more in royalties and kick in more for advertising a year, a total of 12.5 percent, compared to 10.5 percent for Jimmy John’s. And that 2.5 percent difference can be substantial for a franchise owner, Tristano said.

Firehouse Subs has an even potentially higher cost of initial investment for a new franchisee, from $131,150 to $928,405, with a single-unit franchise fee of $20,000, according to that chain’s website. And a franchisee can expect to fork over 9 percent of sales to the company a year, 6 percent in royalties and 3 percent for advertising.

Freaky working conditions

The speedy service hailed as one of the keys to Jimmy John’s success isn’t necessarily great for the company’s workers, according to one former Baltimore employee, Isacc Dalto, who was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World/Jimmy John’s Workers Union campaign in that city.

Both that campaign and an IWW campaign in Minneapolis went public in 2010, and both continue even after a union election that lost by a hair in Minneapolis that year.

Dalto, 25, worked for Jimmy John’s for one year before his hours were cut to one day a week, which, he contends, was in retaliation for union organizing, and then he quit. He continues to organize Jimmy John’s workers even though he is no longer an employee, he said.

Dalto said he has issues with Jimmy John’s “poverty wages,” sick day policy and a lot more.

“I was called in to work for a three-hour shift sometimes. You’re not allowed to call in sick. You are responsible for finding your own replacement. If you cannot find a replacement for yourself if you are sick, you are written up,” he said. “I was personally asked to work when I had pinkeye, which is not good for the public or customers, and beyond that, there’s a lot of issues with the flow of work and the pace of work. A sub is supposed to be made in 30 seconds on the assembly line.”

The company’s reference to subs “so fast you’ll freak” doesn’t make for such great working conditions for employees, Dalto contends.

“Comparable businesses, like Subway or Potbelly, don’t push workers at this breakneck pace. Aside from being miserable, it’s also very unsafe. People cut themselves when they’re doing this,” he said.

The Minneapolis IWW campaign included workers employed by one Jimmy John’s franchisee staging a work stoppage and picket, thousands of posters about the sick leave policy being posted and six employees being fired. The National Labor Relations Board ordered the employees reinstated in 2014, but they have never returned to work, according to the IBB.

Mum’s the word

Jimmy John’s seems to love social media, but the media maybe not so much?

Some 3.1 million people like a Jimmy John’s Facebook page, and many people post on it, some lovingly about the food, and the chain replies. Jimmy John’s also has more than 389,000 followers on Twitter and more than 34,000 followers on Instagram.

But news stories — which have been numerous as the chain has increased its footprint across the U.S. — often indicate the chain declined to comment, and that’s included no comments on everything from reports about an IPO in the offing to a controversial noncompete agreement required for lower-wage Jimmy John’s workers.

Reuters reported this past May that Jimmy John’s Franchise LLC was preparing for an initial public offering that could value the chain at more than $2 billion, including debt.

This past April, a federal judge in Illinois declined to grant an injunction sought by two former and current Jimmy John’s employees seeking to have noncompete agreements nullified, saying the employees lacked standing to pursue their claim because they had never been injured by the noncompete agreement.

In June, two U.S. senators, Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced the Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerable Employees, or MOVE Act, that would ban noncompete clauses for employees earning less than $15 an hour or $31,200 a year or the minimum wage where they live.

Liautaud wasn’t available for an interview for this story, and didn’t respond to questions that were emailed to him. A company spokeswoman solicited and received a list of questions from The News-Gazette on Sept. 9 after a local Jimmy John’s franchisee who was contacted for an interview contacted her, but in subsequent inquiries didn’t respond to any of the questions or requests for interviews, saying she hadn’t been able to reach the right people.

Several franchisees who were called and asked for interviews didn’t call back. One out-of-state franchisee who did answer his phone cut off the conversation after inquiring about whether there would be any negative references in the story about the Jimmy John’s chain. Another said franchisees aren’t encouraged to speak to the media.

Jimmy John’s: From 1 shop to 2,000-plus

1983 — Jimmy John Liautaud opens his first sandwich shop in Charleston, with the help of a $25,000 loan from his dad. He later opens stores 2 (Macomb) and 3 (Champaign).

1994 — Liautaud begins franchising.

2002 — Jimmy John’s is a 160-store chain.

2007 — 500th location opens.

2010 — The year store No. 1,000 opens, union organizing campaigns go public in Minneapolis and Baltimore. A vote in Minneapolis is 87-85 against union representation.

2011 — Liautaud and his wife, Leslie, pledge $1 million toward the construction of the new Stephens Family YMCA and Larkin’s Place play space. He also donates $50,000 to Promise Healthcare to help add a dental clinic.

2011 — Liautaud applies for Florida residency and says he may move his chain out of state because of tax increases.

2014 — With 2,000th locations, Jimmy John’s is ranked the sixth-fastest-growing chain by Nation’s Restaurant News, with sales of $1.5 billion.

2014 — U.S. Reps. Joe Crowley and Linda Sanchez ask the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Labor to investigate the hiring practices of Jimmy John’s. This comes after reports that the company requires low-wage workers to sign non-compete agreements “that severely impact workers’ rights,” Crowley says.

2014 — Reuters: Jimmy Johns Franchise LLC is preparing for an initial public offering in a deal that could value the chain at $2 billion-plus. The company declines comment.

2014 — The National Labor Relations Board orders a Minnesota franchisee to reinstate six Jimmy John’s employees fired for exposing company policies the IWW said could expose customers to sandwiches made by sick workers.

2015 — Some launch a Jimmy John’s boycott on social media with pictures of Liautaud posing with dead animal bodies. A new hashtag is born: #BoycottJimmyJohns.

2015 — NRN Top 100 ranks Jimmy John’s the seventh-fastest-growing U.S. chain, with sales of $1.8 billion.