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Desert Moon prexy asks franchisees to ‘dance in the rain’ to grow brand

Despite a rich and varied foodservice career, Gary Occhiogrosso sees himself more as a franchisor than a restaurateur. He grew up in an Italian-pastry bakery, became an entrepreneur in the candy business, and over the course of 25 years has worn both hats in the franchisor-franchisee relationship. He was a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee and the franchise brand developer for Ranch 1, a New York City-based chicken chain. Now he is the president of Desert Moon Fresh Mexican Grille, a 13-unit, Valley Cottage, N.Y.-based fast-casual burrito concept with a healthful bent that is reviving its franchising initiatives after an 18-month lull.  

Why start franchising again in this economy?

My staff and I ask ourselves that question every morning. One of the most influential and inspiring books I’ve read is by Michael Gerber, “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Fail and What To Do About It.” One of the takeaways I got is that when things are tough, you can’t sit around waiting for the storm to pass. You’ve got to be able to dance in the rain.

Sounds good, but why now?

There are operators out there who are still looking to expand their businesses, who want to diversify their revenue streams, and we think we have one of the perfect vehicles for doing that. The other thing is there is just a lot of great real estate out there right now and landlords are making deals. They are in a much more negotiable mood than they were even two years ago.

So is your ideal candidate a veteran operator of other brands?

Yes, but there’s more to it. Naturally, we’d like to recruit multi-unit guys with deep pockets or some downsized national brand manager who understands business. Our ideal candidate is not someone who wants to run a burrito concept, but someone who sees Desert Moon as a vehicle for cash-flow generation. Our approach is they should see this as working on the business, not in the business. This is why I often say I see myself as a franchisor and not a restaurateur.

Why is that distinction important in your approach to the business?

A franchise is like a three-legged stool. In no particular order of importance, one leg is the concept itself, the other is the location and the third is the operator. Now a franchise concept should not be too people-centric. A franchised restaurant system needs to be systems-centric. The great Ray Kroc never saw it as the hamburger business. He saw it as a system that delivered hamburgers. Most small businesses fail, as Gerber points out, because they become people-centric and not systems-centric.

What is your immediate strategy for unit growth?

Our goal is to become the No. 1 regional brand in our segment in the Northeast. We want to grow between Boston and Washington, building up markets through concentric circles.

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