Restaurant franchising isn’t just an option for older, second-career entrepreneurs. Increasingly, franchising is becoming younger and more diverse, helping to evolve the model beyond its traditional roots.
NRN spoke with a diverse group of restaurant franchisees under the age of 40 about their careers and ambitions, and discussed why more restaurants should encourage young, female and diverse business owners to start franchising.
The path from delivery driver to Domino’s franchisee in 12 years
About three years into working as a delivery driver for Domino’s, Kimberly Black discovered that she could be successful at running a restaurant, and not just deliver pizzas for one. She soon began her journey to owning her first Domino’s store in Feb. 2021 in Aurora, Colo., after moving up the ranks from driver to general manager to supervisor and then taking franchising classes and buying a store of her own at the age of 32.
“Around the time I was pregnant with my second child, I decided that I did not want to work for anybody anymore, and I wanted to be my own boss,” Black said.
The driver-to-franchisee pipeline is a common path for Domino’s employees. Black said that Domino’s really wants its drivers to stay in the company and eventually build their own business, and the possibilities of doing so are “ingrained in us.”
Around the time Black figured out this was the right path for her, she began saving up money and working on her credit score. Part of the reason Black stuck around in the Domino’s organization, she said, was because it was not financially impossible for a first-time franchisee to save up to purchase a store, especially compared with other restaurants in the industry. There are also benefits to being a former driver and now running a store.
“I've done every position, so I know what my drivers go through,” she said. “All of my people know that I started where they are. … They know I understand the stressors that they go through, and it makes it easier for them to stick around. That’s why I don't have a high turnover rate. Without them, I wouldn’t have a business.”
Black admits that there are not too many female franchisees out there, and she even sees this gender ratio discrepancy at the store level, where only one-third of her employees are women, including herself. She would love for Domino’s or other companies to start franchising programs geared toward women and younger people to get them interested in the business.
Moving forward, Black hopes to open 25-30 stores, likely outside of the Colorado area, where there is not much whitespace to work with.
How a 24-year-old became a Jimmy John’s franchisee superstar
While franchisees in their 20s are not unheard of in the restaurant industry, seven-unit Jimmy John’s franchisee Maxwell Fulton knows that purchasing his first restaurants at the age of 24 is an unusual story. Fulton has been in the restaurant industry since he was a teenager, working his way up from GM positions at Taco Bell to starting out in corporate positions with Domino’s and Burger King. He purchased seven restaurants in the Baltimore area in 2022 with the goal of expanding the Jimmy John’s brand throughout the region.
“I've always had people wanting to put capital behind me when they saw me moving up in the business, and it just naturally came together,” Fulton said. “Something I excelled at with Domino's was maximizing the delivery staffing to maximize sales. … Jimmy John's stood out by doing in-house delivery compared to using the third-party platforms.”
In getting into franchising this year, Fulton’s strategy was twofold: First was to focus on purchasing faltering units instead of building them from the ground up. Second was to build up Jimmy John’s presence on the East Coast, which is less saturated with the brand. He thinks Fulton Holdings will eventually be able to open two restaurants a year, particularly focused on the Mid-Atlantic region. He also has a development agreement in place to open five more stores in the Baltimore area.
“With today's staffing climate, and the challenges the industry faces, so many [franchisees] have gotten pulled into the business when they don't want to, and they’re looking to make an exit,” Fulton said.
The biggest thing he brings to the table, Fulton said, is simply being there as a business owner for his employees and managers. As labor challenges throughout the industry continue, simply owning a store in name only isn’t good enough to keep staff on-board.
“Five years ago, you can tell a lot of franchisees were absentee and were not really involved at the unit level,” he said. “Staffing isn’t just going to naturally get better. To have that competitive advantage, you have to become an employee of choice. … The future of franchising is going to be a lot more hands-on, operational people who are involved in the day-to-day.”
Husband and wife franchisee team is the Clean Juice brand image
North Carolina-based juice bar and healthy eats brand Clean Juice is one of the few restaurant companies that aims to attract franchisees based on a lifestyle match. Most franchisees are passionate about health and fitness, eating well, and contributing to a community. Many of the company’s franchisees are also couples, much like Clean Juice founders Landon and Kat Eckles, who launched the company in 2015.
No Clean Juice franchisee team fits this description better than Karli and Ben Gloria, a husband and wife who both have backgrounds in fitness (he in personal training, she in dance). They just opened their first Clean Juice location in November.
Before taking over a Clean Juice location in North Pointe, Idaho, the two got their feet wet in tag-team entrepreneurship owning a toys and collectibles shop that boomed during the pandemic. It was only by chance that they stumbled upon Clean Juice, which has a store next door to their toy store, and they soon became dedicated customers.
“Our original plan was to build a location, and then the owner of the store in North Pointe approached us and asked if we wanted to take over the store,” Karli Gloria said. “We thought about it and said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s build this community.’”
The Glorias have already started working with other likeminded businesses in the community, like a local gym whose members come to Clean Juice after working out and vice versa. This community mindset is why they have not been too worried about staffing like many of their colleagues in the foodservice industry. Much like the franchisees, the Clean Juice staff love working there and believe in the mission of encouraging a healthy lifestyle, so they’ve been more than happy to stick around.
“I'm an immigrant from Mexico; I grew up menial,” Ben Gloria said. “A lot of people I knew had a side hustle, so I was always around that entrepreneurial spirit. … I wanted the financial freedom to control the narrative. ... I think that's why young people like us are just taking the risk because it’s so much better than the alternative of giving up our time and value for something we don’t care about.”
How one franchisee made the leap to owning a Dunkin’ empire
While many young franchisees are just starting out in franchising and only have one or a handful of stores, 36-year-old Raj Patel is one of Inspire Brands’ superstar entrepreneurs. Patel is president of the Hari Group, which owns more than 100 restaurants (including 90 Dunkin’ stores plus a few McAlister’s Deli and Dave’s Chicken locations, among others), mostly located in the Chicago metropolitan region, Indiana, and Michigan.
Patel has been in franchising for 12 years, starting in his early 20s when he joined his father in the Dunkin’ franchising world. They started out with eight units, and Patel was able to increase his father’s business by elevenfold over the next decade.
Over the years, Patel has had to adjust from owning a small business to a much larger foodservice empire. The business went from handwriting paychecks to building up a back office and accounting department. After setting it up to grow financially, Patel said the next step was finding the right people to fill leadership positions. Being a people-facing business is about the only thing that has not changed over the years.
“Five to seven years ago, a lot of my interaction was with store managers and making sure that everything was moving right in the right direction,” he said. “Today, it’s about coaching directors to be able to lead. … There really isn't a difference, you're just working with different people, and then as you add in those layers within the organization, it's just coaching differently.”
Patel has plans to grow aggressively in 2023 and beyond, starting with two to three new units opening up in January. The biggest challenges these days for a larger franchisee who builds from the ground up (instead of just acquiring restaurants) are real estate and construction times, which can be backlogged and cause delays in opening restaurants. And of course, specifically for a legacy Dunkin’ employee, adjusting to new ownership can be a challenge as well.
“There's been a lot of change in the last 24 months,” Patel said. “I think we're still adjusting to it. … Overall, we're learning how to work with each other. … I think there are some things that they've implemented that have worked better for us, and some things that haven’t. But I’m optimistic.”
Why a family business is the way to go for this Del Taco franchisee
When Shubegh Bassi began a family business with his father, uncle and cousins, they started out in the convenience store business. But over time, Bassi realized he wanted to get out of the retail business and into restaurants. That simple decision led him to Jack in the Box-owned Del Taco, which he grew up with as a Californian.
The Bassi family opened their first Del Taco location in Melbourne, Fla., 18 months ago, and after the store’s wildly successful launch, the family signed on for 10 more Del Taco units in Florida, with two in the pipeline already.
“I think we were really successful because we emphasized our people — they’re the reason why we were able to do so well from the beginning,” Bassi said. “A lot of people love the Del Taco food and freshness too. It’s what people are looking for these days.”
Of course, one of the perks of going into business with family is being able to know your partners well, especially since they’d already had experience running a business together.
“The biggest pro is the support my family gives each other,” Bassi said. “There are really no downsides because we’ve been in the family business since I was a kid. It’s easier because I know they have my back and we can accomplish anything at this point.”
However, there are stark differences between running convenience stores and running restaurants.
“Restaurants are a much bigger operation; there are probably four times the amount of staff than in the world of convenience,” Bassi said. “Our convenience stores had seven team members, but each Del Taco has 35-40. Also, food costs and not being able to control labor was something totally different.”
Moving forward, Bassi and his family see amazing growth potential for the Del Taco brand, especially in Florida. In the long run, he wants to have 50-100 restaurants and devote all of their time to the brand.