By Kym Wolfe
Home-grown, established food brands offer appetizing franchise opportunities.
Canadian-owned and Canadian-founded restaurant franchises are cooking with variety and flavour! Whether the food is picked up, delivered, or enjoyed in a restaurant or food court, these brands serve millions of meals to Canadians every day.
Restaurants were forced to quickly adapt to the challenges that COVID presented, but franchisees were uniquely positioned to access support and resources from their franchise systems, instead of navigating those challenges on their own. Digital platforms became more robust, brand-specific apps were created, and third-party delivery services were engaged. Franchisees shared strategies, celebrated successes, and helped provide moral support to their peers. Many of the changes they were forced to embrace have become the ‘new normal’ for operations.
Franchise Canada talked to a few of these Canadian food service brands, and learned that although challenges persist, there is a sense of confidence and many opportunities for growth across Canada. The benefits of belonging to a franchise system are more valuable than ever, from volume purchasing power as the cost of food escalates, to strong brand recognition and effective marketing initiatives.
A&W Food Services of Canada Inc.
Best known for its burger family and signature root beer, A&W has expanded its menu significantly since it entered the Canadian quick service restaurant (QSR) market in 1956. The Canadian-owned chain now has more than 1,000 locations and operates as a distinct entity, entirely separate from its American counterpart.
This year, A&W Canada will continue to open new locations primarily in Ontario and Quebec, but also in small markets and communities across the country. “We are going where Canadians are,” says Ryan Picklyk, senior director, real estate & franchising for A&W Food Services of Canada.
“We have always adapted to deliver on what Canadians expect,” says Picklyk. He cites the company’s switch to only grass-fed beef, and the evolution from the carhops on roller skates—“The definition of convenience at the time,” he adds—to drive-thrus, which were a huge benefit for A&W franchisees who continued to serve drive-up customers during the pandemic.
“The ideal A&W franchisee is someone who understands, first and foremost, this is a people business,” says Picklyk. Create a great work environment for your team, and they will create a great experience for your guests, he says. “Our very best franchisees understand the connection between the two, and live it every day.”
Experienced franchisees help with the onboarding of new store owners, which begins with eight weeks of initial hands-on training in an existing restaurant. They’re also an ongoing resource to be tapped. “They know the business best, and have embarked on the very same journey that a new franchisee is beginning,” says Picklyk.
Prior to the hands-on training experience, new franchisees complete online training modules. Afterwards, the corporate A&W training and support team works at the new franchisee’s location, prior to opening and throughout the store’s opening, and then continues to provide ongoing coaching and resources as needed.
“There is so much knowledge within the system. I always encourage new franchisees to ask for help,” says Picklyk. “Most issues that arise are not unique. Chances are really good that, either at the corporate or franchise level, there is someone who has experienced the exact issue and can provide some perspective on it.”
Mary Brown’s Chicken
Mary Brown’s has been serving up its Signature Chicken since 1969. The brand is beloved by Canadians from coast to coast, especially in Newfoundland & Labrador, where the company got its start. There are 42 Mary Brown’s in that province alone. “It’s an iconic brand for people who grew up with Mary Brown’s over the past 53 years,” says Hadi Chahin, the brand’s president and chief operating officer.
“Canadians care about what they eat, and when it comes to fried chicken, Mary Brown’s definitely leads the pack,” says Chahin. Locally sourced chickens are handcut, marinated, and hand-breaded at every store, and the company’s exclusive cooking technology allows for minimum oil absorption, while retaining juiciness and flavour. “The demand for quality chicken meals is rising; we did extremely well during the COVID crisis and today, our growth is still continuing.”
“There is still a lot of white space in QSR chicken brands,” Chahin adds. Mary Brown’s is on track to open 50 stores in 2022, mainly in Ontario and B.C. The brand will launch into Quebec next year with at least five stores scheduled to open in that province in 2023.
An ideal Mary Brown’s franchisee is an owner/operator with restaurant experience, or an investor whose team members have that expertise. “We look for franchisees who fit our culture and values, operators who care about their teams, their guests and their communities, and who have the hospitality ‘gene’ and a drive to grow and succeed,” notes Chahin.
“We want all new franchisees to understand the brand’s roots and culture,” he adds, so initial training—three weeks hands-on and four weeks in-classroom—takes place in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador. Then, new franchisees will have a corporate team on site for the first two to three weeks in their own store—typically three trainers who will ensure that they can handle all aspects of the operation. Follow-up support is offered both individually and virtually through LearnMB, a 24/7 platform that is used for regular communication and staff training.
Whether it’s with Mary Brown’s Chicken or a different food service franchise, Chahin says, the recipe for success is simple. “Follow the system, take care of your guests, and you will succeed.”
Founded in 1883, Recipe Unlimited is Canada’s largest full-service restaurant company, with 20 brands and a total of 1,223 restaurants under its umbrella. “We operate some of the most recognized brands in the country including Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s, St-Hubert, The Keg, and Montana’s,” says Kate Harrison, director, creative & communications.
To ensure its franchises survived government-mandated closures during the pandemic, Recipe committed more than $40 million of direct financial support in 2020 to more than 800 franchise partners through several initiatives. The launch of the Recipe Rent Certainty Program (RRCP) and the Recipe COVID Support Program (RCSP) saw to it that 483 eligible franchise partners received direct financial support resulting in $33.1 million in 2020 alone.
Now the company is focusing on growth, and Mark Eaton, chief development officer, says Recipe has different strategies for its different brands. The company will have conversations with aspiring franchisees to explore the opportunities that might be the best fit for them.
There are mature brands like Swiss Chalet and East Side Mario’s that are currently repositioning or rightsizing their restaurant space to provide more efficient customer service. There are also younger brands like The Burger’s Priest, which is projected to triple in size in the next five years, or Blanco Cantina, a taco and tequila concept that will grow from its current five locations to more than 35 in the next three years.
“There is a lot of white space for a good Mexican product,” says Eaton. Between the emerging and established are more than a dozen other brand opportunities. For example, New York Fries is set to expand its presence country-wide in universities, airports, and transit hubs.
Regardless of the brand, Recipe looks for franchisees with business experience in a hospitality chain, who enjoy serving people and creating excellent guest experiences. “Our franchisees come from a wide range of backgrounds,” says Eaton. “They are passionate and have the get-up-and-go to keep themselves and their teammates engaged every day. They are also committed to the long term and understand they are not going to get rich overnight.”
Once they move forward, all new franchise owners undertake eight weeks of hands-on training in a training restaurant. Each brand has two designated training locations, one in Alberta and one in Ontario. Afterward, the training transitions to the franchisee’s location, with two weeks of on-site support from the corporate training team, then monthly in-person visits from their region’s business development manager.
Eaton recommends anyone who is exploring franchise ownership to speak to existing franchisees as part of their due diligence. It’s a practice that’s required for all Recipe franchise candidates when they’re researching various brands. “We mandate that they speak to their peers to get a true picture of what they can expect, including the challenges,” says Eaton.
Few Canadian institutions are as recognizable as Tim Hortons. Launching as a coffee-and-baked-goods shop in 1964, the iconic brand has now grown to more than 4,000 franchise locations across Canada. The brand has also expanded internationally, with locations in the U.S., the U.K., China, India, and Mexico, while still retaining its maple-leaf-laden flair.
“One of the greatest things about being a part of the Tim Hortons family is that the brand is so intrinsically tied to the DNA of Canada,” says Axel Schwan, president of Tim Hortons. “Even our values mirror those of Canadians—being humble, hardworking, and kind. We’re a brand that people instantly recognize.”
Schwan adds that franchisees recognize the sense of pride that comes with being a local ambassador for the country and guests in their community. “Tims restaurants are often a home away from home for our guests, where they can sit down and catch up with friends and family in a familiar and welcoming environment.” It’s what leads to great service and what draws in new franchisees consistently, he adds.
For prospective restaurant owners, Schwan says Tim Hortons is always looking to partner with those who exude the values of the brand, and believe in the products they offer. Furthermore, a commitment to excellence and to the team members they employ stands above all. That commitment shines through the myriad of community programs they have in effect, including Camp Day to support sending youth to Tims Camps from underserved communities; Smile Cookie, supporting community groups; and a sustainability platform, Tims for Good.
“There’s no shortage of opportunities for a restaurant owner to become a core part of their community,” says Schwan. “It’s something Tims owners live for.” That commitment of doing good is part of what makes Tim Hortons such an exciting opportunity for potential franchisees, along with the significant brand potency.
Schwan also says the brand made significant pivots during the pandemic, introducing innovative investments in restaurant operations, including revamped drive-thru services. “We also expanded our delivery service for guests, both through the Tims app and through third-party partners.”
While technical progress was essential during the pandemic, Schwan also notes that success continues to be built on the foundation of individual operators upholding the values of leadership in their communities.