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 Sonic and Panchero’s franchisee Dustin Deboer about the importance of community connection and relationship with your employees in the franchising business.
Three restaurants: two Sonic restaurants and one Panchero’s located in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Background and franchising career
I got involved in the restaurant business about 10 years ago. I was actually managing gyms prior to getting into the restaurant business, so on very different spectrums. I used to manage two gyms in Connecticut and my best friend was director of operations for a Sonic franchisee out there. He got me involved in the business because they were looking to expand and grow and build Sonic restaurants in the state. I got involved in 2012 and did it for about a year and a half. I realized how hard the restaurant industry was and how demanding. I went from managing seven employees to 50 and it was kind of overwhelming. I actually took a step back from the restaurant industry after that and thought ‘this isn’t for me.’ I went back to the gym world for about a year and then became fascinated with the world of franchising. Then my best friend got me back into the business I learned how to manage a store. After three months, I became a GM and during that window of time, I became a certified training drive-in, where I trained owners, operators, and new franchisees and I did that while managing a restaurant in Wallingford, Conn. And I’ve been doing this nonstop ever since.
Introduction to Panchero’s
The gentleman that owned the Sonic I worked for opened his first Panchero’s in Wallingford, Conn. I was watching how he was building things. He fell into Panchero’s for many reasons. Number one, the food is phenomenal, authentic, fresh, nothing frozen and nothing fried. The guy I worked for opened up his Panchero’s location, I think it was the second one in Connecticut, I would go there every day for lunch when I was working for Sonic. I always had the carintas tacos. The guacamole was fresh, so I ate it every day for years on my lunch break.
When I became a certified training drive-in, and I was one of the only ones in the Northeast that could train owners operators, new franchisees and one of my first clients is my now business partner. I trained him and three managers who we still have with us today after eight years. Eventually, he opened his restaurant about a year later, and then we became good friends. The gentleman I was originally working for wasn't growing anymore. It’s just such a hard business and it's tough to grow. It’s very expensive, but this guy was growing, and I was very interested in his leadership style and how he treated people. He made me a business partner in his ventures.
What led to Panchero’s
Three years ago, we were looking for new business models and new ventures. We tried all types of restaurants. Panchero’s was the first people we met with, and we kept coming back to them. We're all about relationships, and when you franchise with someone, you're looking at a 10-20 year relationship and you have to like each other. Panchero’s had probably the most honest, transparent people and we liked the vision of the company even though they were small. We thought [going with Panchero’s was the smartest decision we made.
We have a very close-knit group of management that has been with us for eight years. We haven't lost a single manager since day one. The reason is because we are very involved in the business. We have weekly meetings for each brand and we focus on our very specific KPIs. We’re really focused on training and development and building people up. We're always trying to build a bench and have people in the pipeline. We don't cross-manage. We keep it very separate. Each week, we have a meeting where each GM will tell what are their three biggest concerns of the week and then we tackle those as we go.
Unique management style
Our managers are very involved and open to helping people grow in the job and outside the job. Back in the day, it was all about the job: you come into your job and leave your crap at the door. Nowadays, we're all inclusive. If you need to take off to take your driving test, then we encourage that. We encourage people to develop themselves. From time to time, I’ll recommend a management book that they read and I'll buy one for every manager just to keep the philosophy the same. We highly believe that the employees don't work for us; we work for the employees. That’s what's made our companies so successful. We have the number one store in Sonic sales for 10 or 11 months. I think a lot of it has to do with just the way we manage our people.
Our goal is just keep two different concepts going. We are looking to build about one or two more Sonics at the moment. We're actively working on two sites in the Rhode Island market. We are looking to develop two to three more locations per brand in the next couple of years. We just need to find the right place.
Getting the right people
When we get a new employee, whether it's their first job, or it's their second or third job, they should know that we are open and we're here to listen. We take feedback. I think a lot of people aren't used to that. Let’s say we have an employee that doesn’t show up to work one day and then they’re like ‘oh, I made a mistake. They’re gonna fire me.’ So we laugh and ask them what happened, and if they have a good reason, then we understand. I think the biggest hurdle is getting people in the door and showing them how the environment works so that they feel comfortable enough to stay. We have employees that might quit, and nine times out of 10, they come back. They usually come back because they go somewhere else, and the management's not present, or the company isn't run as well as they expect. Then they come back because they realize how good they had it.
**This interview has been edited for clarity and length.