The aging of the population is taking its toll on franchises. Older operators who came into the business in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s are retiring in droves. Many are selling their restaurants. Some are handing them down to the next generation.
In their place, a new group of young operators is cropping up. Companies are recruiting younger franchisees while welcoming second-generation operators and their base of knowledge with open arms.
This generational shift should not be underrated. It is changing the franchise business, injecting energy into brands while adding a new perspective that can relate to the younger consumers many brands crave. But they also don’t have the experience and access to capital that their predecessors did.
“We’re getting ready to hit a fork in the road,” said Craig Slavin, a franchise consultant and president of Franchise Central. “We used to talk to Baby Boomers. Now we have to start talking to Millennials. And they’re buying for totally different reasons.”
The new generation brings to the table a fresh set of ideas. They are more tech-savvy and are quicker to remodel locations and try new things.
“We’re a 52-year-old brand,” said Christina Chambers, vice president of franchise development for Huddle House. “We have some operators — one is 82 — they have one perspective. When you bring in younger operators, they bring a different perspective. They can infect some of these older operators with these newer ideas. It can really energize some things, especially from a marketing perspective.”
Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with several young franchisees, some of who are new to the business, and others who have grown up in the restaurant industry. All of them bring with them their own ideas and perspectives, and have enthusiasm for the brands they bought into.
Brian Fairbanks was 22 years old when he answered a Craigslist ad to work at a Marco’s Pizza outside of Cincinnati. He’s moved up the ranks quickly ever since.
Fairbanks was hired for an entry-level position, and was promoted to shift manager within a couple of months. He ended up becoming a general manager.
Four years later, in 2013, Fairbanks was a franchisee of Marco’s Pizza, after buying a location with his father.
“He was looking for retirement income,” Fairbanks said. “I was interested in a career. We decided to dive into Marco’s.”
He hasn’t stopped there, actually. While Fairbanks has just one location, he’s working toward his second, and has a deal to build four restaurants. He was also recently elected to Marco’s six-person franchisee advisory board, where the now-29-year-old can bring his perspective to a broader reach.
“Honestly, I think I bring, as a younger person, energy and insight,” Fairbanks said. “As a Millennial, I’m into what drives that age group. I bring to the table that younger point of view, somebody who has a connection to the age group.”
He also believes he can be an example to that generation, proving that they can operate their own business.
“A lot of my age group doesn’t think it’s possible to be in the position I am in, to own your own business,” Fairbanks said. “A lot of people think that you have to be an old, stodgy guy who has a million dollars and hires a lot of people to run it for you. It’s extremely important to realize that it’s possible to do. It’s much more fun to work for yourself than for somebody else, anyway.”
And a lot of people who come into the restaurant don’t realize he’s the owner when they first see him.
“They’re surprised,” Fairbanks said. “They come in and ask, ‘Who owns the store?’ When I say it’s me, they’re like, ‘Really?’ It would be silly for me not to take pride in that.”
Carissa Rose, Culver's
Four years ago, Carissa Rose was working at her dream job at a marketing agency in New York City when she opted to move to Arizona to do something she once vowed she’d never do for a career: Work in a restaurant.
Rose spent her early years in rural Wisconsin. Her father was a dairy farmer. Her mom was a nurse. And then when she was 10 years old they told her they were going to buy a Culver’s restaurant — in Nebraska.
“I was totally blindsided,” Rose said. “Culver’s was the restaurant we’d go to. And then they said they were moving to Nebraska to open one and I’m like, ‘What?’”
But by the time she was 14, she was working at the restaurant, and after some early teenage misgivings she “immediately fell in love with it.” In particular, Rose liked working up front, taking orders and making Concretes.
She worked her way up to supervisor and continued to work at the restaurant while attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
After college, however, Rose left the family business to work in New York.
Rose’s parents, who thrived as Culver’s operators, later wanted to open a location in Arizona, and needed an operating partner. Culver’s requires owners to be in the restaurants most of the time, thus opening the door for Rose to return to Culver’s — this time as an operating partner.
So four years ago, at just 25 years old, Rose became a franchisee. Rose does the same things she did as a teenager.
“If you come in, I’ll take your order and make your Concrete,” Rose said. “I do the same thing I did when I was 15 — but with some add-ons.”
Rose has brought with her the marketing expertise she learned in New York, and works to make every local marketing campaign memorable. She also brings a youthful energy as she works alongside her employees, many of who have been there from the start. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that she was them.
“It makes me a little more relatable,” Rose said.
Shameet Desai, Huddle House
Shameet Desai always knew he was going to be a business owner. He just had no idea it would happen so soon.
Last December, during a family visit in Atlanta while on break from the University of Houston, Desai was talking with an uncle who also wanted to get into business ownership.
The two looked around and came across Huddle House. Like most would-be franchisees, he liked the company’s numbers, profits, and current expansion and redesign. He also liked that customers in Atlanta, where he wanted to live, knew about the brand, and that there were locations where they could open a restaurant.
But he also liked something else: Assistance.
“They were right there, 30 minutes away from my uncle’s house, and an hour from where we were going to open,” Desai said. “When we talked with them, they sounded like they were willing to help.”
Desai, after all, is young — just 22 years old. And neither he nor his uncle had any restaurant experience.
“This is a big change for us,” he said. “That help aspect is very important.”
They signed a three-year deal to open three locations in Georgia, with Desai as the operating partner. So while his college classmates were taking office jobs, Desai started working for himself.
The first location is expected to open in four to five months. And while Desai does not have restaurant experience, he isn’t sitting on his hands, either. He found an online class about restaurant management that he can do at home when he has down time.
And while he may not bring restaurant experience to the table, Desai does bring that youthful exuberance and a willingness to work hard.
“I’m younger,” he said. “I don’t have a family. I’m on my own. I have no problems running around to different places.”
Justin Ramsey, Schlotzsky's
Justin Ramsey doesn’t like to tell people that his parents owned a Schlotzsky’s, just like he does now.
The reason is that Ramsey didn’t inherit the family business. Nor was he automatically given a top job as a kid in the 1990s.
“I was a bus boy,” Ramsey said. “I worked five hours a week, bussing tables, washing dishes, things like that.”
Nor did he automatically get a top job when he went back to work for the family business after graduating from Oklahoma University. He was an assistant manager for a year, then a store manager and then a general manager for three years before he was promoted to district manager. In other words: He had to work his way up, like everybody else.
And then the company came in and bought the eight restaurants his parents owned. Ramsey went to work for Schlotzsky’s.
“He was always straight with me,” Ramsey said. “He said, ‘You’ve got to earn everything you work for, and work hard for it — especially your position.’ I understood.”
After spending four years working with Schlotzsky’s, he and his wife, Hortencia, decided to become franchisees themselves. They bought a trio of Schlotzsky’s last year, on their own.
And so while Ramsey may be a new franchisee, he is hardly inexperienced. Having worked his way up through his parents’ company, and then with the franchisor, he learned all there is to know about Schlotzsky’s.
“I’ve done just about everything there is to do at a Schlotzsky’s,” he said. “If I have to make a sandwich, I can make a sandwich.”
He also knows the key elements of running a strong business.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is to consistently recruit good employees,” Ramsey said. “You’re always going to make mistakes. But if you make a mistake and hire somebody who is not a good fit, cut them immediately because they bring the whole team down.
“And I know it’s a cliché, but it’s the damn truth: Customer service. My saying that I tell my team every day is that the answer is yes, what’s the question. We do whatever it takes to make you happy.”