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.
In this week’s installment of Franchisee Spotlight, we spoke with Nancy McKenzie, who in 1991, became Fazoli’s first franchisee, and has seen the brand (and her business) grow up since then. We spoke about her journey to franchising, what it’s like to be a brand’s first franchisee, and the secret to thriving over time.
McKenzie currently has four Fazoli’s restaurants in the Lexington, Kentucky area, though at the peak of her business, she had 13 locations open, but closed some over time to improve her quality of life.
Background in restaurants
“I came [to restaurants] through my father. We lived in a very tiny, remote rural county in Kentucky called Carter County, where the population of the city was 1,200. My father moved our family there from Portsmouth, Ohio… and as the interstate developed outside of our home, they needed restaurants to come in. So, my father became active with engaging and buying up land, but no big chain restaurants wanted to take the money or time to invest off an exit because they didn’t think there’d be enough people to support it. So, he made the maneuver and went to Lexington, Kentucky and asked [a friend] who owned a Long John Silver’s to bring along the brand. They told him no, but asked him to do a car study to see if they could support a restaurant. So he did…and then my dad bought a Western Steer Steakhouse and a Long John Silver and brought it to Grayson, Kentucky. At that point in 1990, [the Long John Silver’s] was one of the largest opening volume restaurants they had, and it has maintained its volume.
My personal involvement was I came back [to Kentucky] in 1990 because of my parents’ health conditions and I became the operator for my dad's business properties in our local land development. So, I joined the company in 1990 and then in 1991, we opened up our first Fazoli’s franchise.
Switch from Long John Silver’s to Fazoli’s
It just took one taste. It's always been about the food. It's always been about the fresh quality. And it's always been about those amazing homemade breadsticks. We live in rural America: we don’t have restaurants that are available in the big cities, so to have an Italian pasta concept that was something akin to a quick-service off of the highway interstate, that wasn’t fried food and people could feel good about feeding their kids, was great…When we had Long John Silver’s, I loved every minute of it, but we were selling deep-fried food during the height of the Atkins diet…. And now we had a chance to feed people something that was a good fit for families.
What it’s like to be the first franchisee
It was an exciting time, but [I was] scared to death. When we opened in Ashland, Kentucky, it was at the time one of the highest volume they had ever opened. At the time, they only had 12 stores open, so we were lucky number 13….We took a risk and a big leap of faith. We were thinking, “what if it didn’t [catch on]? What will we do?” but we never looked back. I always say that the quality of the food sold the food and we didn’t need much more.
Changes over time
The operation has really stayed the same, but the environment has changed around us. We’ve gone through several markets, up and down. We've gone through the fad diet fads like Mediterranean diet, and it was very difficult to operate a concept when Atkins was popular. We were fighting an uphill battle… but [the original concept] was that if you serve freshest quality ingredients, and you do it in small batches, and you make it that homemade feel, then you'll be successful. Even in rural Kentucky. They’ve had one recipe and they've never changed the recipe, and people love it.
Keeping a low employee turnover rate
My mom always said, that daily, make sure you are where your feet are. If you're at work, then be at work, and you have to really genuinely care and show people that you don't feel superior. I am [in this area] that Fazoli’s big boss and when they see my genuineness and see that they have availability to meet with me one-on-one, to express their concerns and give ideas, of the and the one on one, they have availability and time with me one on one, to express their concerns and tell me what they like…We have helped change Fazoli’s over the years. The idea that we have Italian strawberry ice, we used to just have Italian lemon ice, but the kids came up with the idea of putting strawberries in the Italian lemon ice, and [that addition from an employee] has made the most money over the years in our dessert section. If people feel heard, and if you’re competent and genuine, then we can identify that…. That is why we're successful, because we identify that person in Ashland, Kentucky.
[Our biggest challenge is] continuing our success… The way we serve pasta has not really changed; what has changed is the world around us, and the world is in chaos. And we don’t know from day to day, what type of product is going to show up at what price, and what price is going to become the downfall of any operating restaurant. In a rural community, they only have a certain amount of dollars. It’s substantially less here, and they have to make a decision every day to choose me over the guy next door. So it’s very difficult.
Goals moving forward
We want to hopefully allow the people that are working for me the opportunity to grow this brand locally. It was never about doing a third or fourth concept for us, it's about taking this concept here and maybe making our parent company FAT Brands admire us by asking for more locations here locally. We have opportunities now with smaller restaurants in smaller footprints—we can go into malls or airports or gas stations…. We can make it a small footprint place and sell the same pasta and be very successful.