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Charleston Airport’s first Black female franchisee plans major expansion with Focus Brands

Shawnalea Garvin is a first-time Cinnabon franchisee after being in the consulting business for almost two decades

If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.

For this column, we are featuring first-time Cinnabon franchisee, Shawnalea Garvin, who is owner and president of the Airport Employment and Training Center, which serves as consultant company for airport franchisees. In 2021, Garvin became a franchisee herself and opened her first Cinnabon location at the Charleston International Airport in South Carolina. We spoke with her about how she got into franchising and her future business goals.


Store Breakdown:

One Cinnabon store and two licensed Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s trucks


“When I was 14, I went to work for Shoney’s [a Tennessee-based, family-dining brand] and I worked for them through high school and college.  Then after, I went to work for JCPenney for 10 years and then came back to Atlanta to begin volunteering for an African-American museum. One of the board members there was a Wendy’s franchisee and he asked me to represent him in a contract with a restaurant at the Hartsfield Airport. My job was to represent the disadvantaged business enterprise and work with them as they grew in their airport business, including all franchisee owners. After our contract ended in 2005, I founded AETC Airport Management Group.”

Why Cinnabon

“I had been a partner in the Charleston airport with nine other brands. And the airport asked me to bring a dessert concept. It took me about a month and a half to decide on which brand because I did look at several, and then I remembered the experience that I had back in the ‘90s with Cinnabon in the And the Hartsfield airport. Once I connected with Focus Brands, it seemed like the perfect fit for me.”

Diversity in Franchising

“If you don't have diversity in franchising, that means it's not in different communities. […] Minority communities don’t want to have to drive 10 miles out of town to find our favorite brands: we want to walk to them and be employed by them as well. […] Culturally, financially and socially it’s important. […] 20+ years in the business and the numbers [of minority owners] are pretty much the same. I think it's an opportunity that we have across all airports and all franchises. I believe there are changes happening as we speak.”

Airport Operations

“An airport has ebbs and flows like a Disney theme park. After you’re done with the ride, people race to get something to eat and it’s the same with an airport: people get off the plane and you get a crowd for about an hour and then it’s dead for a while. […] Experience matters a lot when you open a business in an airport. […] I used to tell people in consulting if you’re had experience on the street, then you can handle yourself in an airport. But you have to be able to handle the stressful highs and low lows.”

Biggest Challenges

“The biggest challenge [for franchisees] is always capital. But in airports, competition is fierce. You need money and creativity, and you need to be able to navigate the politics of airports. Then, of course, you need to know your brand and your people and you need cash.”

Growth Plans

“We’re looking to add quite a few more stores. We want to bid [for a store at] another airport right now, which would be our second location. Then, I’d want to add more trucks and probably go over 10 units. […] I’m in the process of buying another brand in the Atlanta area. Within Focus Brands, I plan on adding a Carvel and a Jamba. I prefer [transportation hubs] but I’m also going to open a Cinnabon at the Martin Luther King National Park [In Atlanta], where I currently run a gift shop. […] I want to have 12 units and four trucks by 2027.”

What Franchisees Need Most

“Flexibility. I brought up the National Park Service location to Focus Brands to say, ‘I know you weren’t thinking of this, but this is what I need from you.’ I think they had second thoughts about it at first, but they agreed. Being from a diverse community, my community might look different from what they think of as a traditional store location. So flexibility in locations, structure and support are important. What Focus might have chosen in the past, like in a mall location, might look different for me. My community is changing and developing and the [Focus Brands location] might not look like the typical mall store.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

TAGS: Operations
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