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 2023 International Franchise Association Bonny Levine award recipient, Tamra Kennedy. Kennedy worked her way up the corporate ladder from being a secretary for a franchisee, to owning that same company, and now is the recipient of an award that recognizes women leaders who practice mentorship in the franchising sector.
Store count: Six Taco John’s restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul
From secretary to business owner
I started as a secretary for the company in 1984, and worked my way up and bought the company after working there for many years. I started as someone answering the phone and then I taught myself accounting, bookkeeping, and all of the restaurant businesses that we had at the time other than Taco John’s. Eventually, I was asked to move to Minnesota from Iowa, and take over the office that ran the Taco John's because the franchisee wanted to retire at some point. I then was asked if I would consider buying the business. My background was all on the administrative side, and the issue was that I didn't know really any of the day-to-day, like I hadn't worked in a restaurant. So, I made this deal that said, I will work in the restaurants at night, and learn on my own time and learn how to make all the food and run the restaurant… I my operation stripes and got a chance to buy the company in 1999.
Not an overnight success story
It took me a long time — 15 years — to get to where I am today… It was all about learning every facet of the business, including the franchising part, which I think is really important for franchisees to understand. You can love the brand and the people you meet, but there are structures that come with franchising that you need to learn about and respect… I had to learn all of the responsibilities that come with being a franchisee. Transitioning to being a franchisee was a bit easier for me because I had been in that world for so long, I had gone to some conventions, and I had worked closely with the franchisor on everything from planning to franchise fees.
Challenges: from the recession to COVID-19
I don't think that we can ever be prepared for the issues we had like the recession in 2008. So much changed in the economy: it slowed down building and growing our footprint. I had restaurants of another brand at the time, and when the recession hit, I had to close them. It taught me that no matter how successful you are, you have to have some strategy for when you can't control the things that come your way. Then we segue into COVID, which is kind of the same situation. No one really was prepared for what that could look like. In the service business, we knew right away that we were going to be challenged. We never closed a single day. In a couple of instances, we were the only source of food in a couple of our communities, because even the grocery stores have closed, but we never did.
Becoming a mentor
I'm so lucky to have worked for so many years with some great young people -- people that worked in my company have gone on to become franchisees for this brand and other brands and onto successful careers as doctors and dancers and all kinds of things…. That is my fundamental reason for continuing in what I do is to give young people a place to start their work life, so that they enjoy coming to work, can learn the things that they need to about working on a team, and learn responsibility in the restaurant business.
Response to receiving award
I don't know why I received the award, but it matters a lot to me. I couldn't do what I do if I didn't have this amazing team here in our little restaurant company. We don't have a big team, but my restaurant managers are my heroes. They go to work every day to serve their community, and each of those restaurants represents me in each of these communities, and so I’m very proud of them…. I mentor franchisors, particularly female franchisees trying to get their business started. I'm proud of the women's franchise network here in the Twin Cities. I think the woman's voice in business is as strong as ever. There are fewer female franchisees and there are some that fail. But I don't ever make that the reason why I keep pushing so hard. I just want to make sure that everybody has a chance. So, I am asked often to make some phone calls or help out someone who doesn’t know how to do something, and I try to say yes as much as I can.
Telling the stories of franchisees
The best thing we can do is tell the story of franchising… education should start early, I don't have a college degree, and did not get the chance to go to college. I had to go to work, but that doesn't mean that it's the end of your story. I think that's part of the narrative that has to change here. There are so many different types of businesses out there that are franchising, depending on what you love, from education and childcare, to technology and service and retail. A lot of the great franchisees that I know are women. One of my friends owns seven hotels, They’re out there. We’re out here. We just need more of our stories told.