Considering the large number of burger chains, coffeehouses and donut shops, one would think the restaurant industry has reached the pinnacle of creativity.
But there are still plenty of original concepts launching each year, some with startling success. While moving from ideation to franchising is no easy task, Lori and Jeff Walderich took those steps in just two years' time. Their Top That! Pizza brand first opened in October 2010 and, just last month, broke ground on its first of many planned franchise units.
The Walderichs, who also own a restaurant marketing and research firm, discussed with us how they went from conception to execution in less than two years, and offer an inside look at the challenges that accompany concept execution.
Alicia Kelso: What made you want to run a restaurant?
Jeff Walderich: We decided to specialize in restaurant marketing because food was a passion of ours and that just transferred into starting our own concept. You have to have a passion for what you're doing or you shouldn't even think about doing this.
AK: What were the first steps you took after making that decision?
Lori Walderich: Make sure we had something that hadn't been done yet. One of the biggest mantras in marketing is to be different. We had to keep a very close eye on what competitors were doing across all segments. Differentiating is so important.
Maybe it's because of our marketing backgrounds, but I think the brand has to be the center point. Once you come up with the concept, what are you going to call it? What is the menu? Design and tagline? Then you can worry about the smaller details.
We also recognized where we needed help. Marketing is our strong point, not franchising. So we contracted Beautiful Brands Inc. to handle that side of things. They have an extensive portfolio and are located conveniently close to us.
Jeff Walderich: Then we brought on a CFO (Jerry Dodson) because that was another area we weren't familiar with. He's been in the industry a long time and wrote our operational manual. You have to recognize the areas where you need help and get team members on board who have a lot of synergy.
AK: How important is the research component when starting a restaurant?
JW: For us, the trends we saw revolved around this burgeoning millennial class of new consumers and their buying power. They're completely unique, they customize and make things their own way. Food is part of their personality. We saw this at Subway, then at places like Five Guys and Smashburger, Chipotle and Moe's. People want to be able to control their own food. That had never been done in pizza. You could build your own, but you'll get penalized with the more toppings you add. By the time you're done adding everything you want, that small cheese pizza ends up costing more than a large.
AK: What were some of the least challenging tasks in the beginning?
LW: We knew if we wanted a strong brand it had to be done slowly and carefully. We wanted to look, feel, sound and smell like an international brand. I think we had an advantage because we were able to bring our marketing experience in.
AK: What were the biggest challenges?
JW: Without question, avoiding temptations. When you're going through this process, you're bombarded by foodservice reps telling you to put chicken wings, lasagna, whatever on the menu to generate higher profit margins. The hardest thing to do is stay focused and keep it simple.
AK: What were steps you took toward creating a franchisable model?
LW: You have to look at a concept that is easily duplicated – that means having relatively simple operations and inexpensive build-out, defined square footage and the ability to be in either a white box or a former restaurant space.
JW: Also, if you want to franchise, how you are going to train and develop and support people – even those without restaurant experience – comes down to keeping it simple and consistent.
AK: What are some tips you have for people interested in starting their own restaurant?
LW: Embrace and learn and use social media. We went from zero awareness when our sign went up on a building, to 730 Facebook followers in six months. There is still a stigma that social media is only good for kids and can't be applied to business. But this is the only two-way communication strategy you can use that's affordable and that gives you instant response from your customers. For social media, it's OK to be creative and establish your brand personality. It creates top-of-mind opportunities and I think it makes your brand more endearing.
Another thing to take seriously is food photography. We eat with our eyes first, but this tends to take a back seat for a lot of smaller companies. If you're going to spend money on something, this is it. It's a long-term investment. At the end of the day, if you're sending out materials and the food doesn't look good or edible, it's not going to sell.
JW: We did a soft opening and I'd recommend that every time. We focused on getting our operations down, making sure our staff was trained and working out the kinks. We weren't inundated with customers in the beginning, but we had the opportunity to build relationships with people.
It's important to be a student and read everything you can. Go to shows, events, talk to people. The key is having confidence and focus. Once you launch, it doesn't matter how much experience you have or how well planned you are, the schedule is grueling and it's one of the hardest things you can do. You can't be unsure of anything.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.