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100% Canadian FranchisesCompany ProfilesMay/June 2024Previous Issues

Homegrown and Locally Owned: Studio Kiku, Mezza Lebanese Kitchen, Ghost Taco

By David Chilton Saggers

Winning franchise concepts aren’t always the shiny, new concepts in major cities—they are often niche, emerging concepts embedding themselves in smaller communities across Canada. These homegrown examples show that by choosing a franchise concept that fits your and your community’s needs, success can certainly be within reach.

Studio Kiku

You’ll find them on arms, legs, shoulders, and just about anywhere else with skin. They’re tattoos, and their ink is usually a lifelong commitment. But for some people, at certain times in their life, some tattoos just have to go.

Their removal is at the heart of Billy DeCola’s franchise system. DeCola, a tattoo artist of 15 years and the founder-owner of Studio Kiku in Vancouver, British Columbia, says he began considering a tattoo removal business when many of his tattoo clients started to ask him about covering up or altering their ink.

Studio Kiku’s laser tattoo removal and skincare services launched five years ago in 2019 when he purchased a laser for removals costing a whopping $200,000. Last year, when DeCola was considering opening a second studio, he decided to franchise. His first franchise is expected to open this spring in Langley, about 50 kilometres from Vancouver. As for further expansion, DeCola says he wants to establish territories across Canada and the U.S., and he’s had conversations with interested parties in Japan, where “the tattoo business is just exploding,” though he adds it’s booming across the globe.

Once Studio Kiku reopened, DeCola began looking for potential franchisees. Among his must-have qualities are a passion for tattoos and tattoo removal, leadership ability, strong people skills, and a willingness to buy into his system. A franchise studio’s sweet spot is 1,000 to 1,200 square feet in a highly visible storefront location. The cost of a franchise depends on whether the franchisee leases or buys a laser; with a leased laser, the cost is $250,000, and it increases to $400,000 if the investor buys the machine outright. Learning how to use the laser takes one to two days with the manufacturer and up to another seven days with DeCola himself. Studio Kiku’s customer demographic is anyone over the age of 18 (who has tattoos, obviously), with the bulk of its clients between the ages of 30 and 45. Removal takes six to nine sessions on average and costs $200 to $800 for each sitting.

As for the benefits of investing with him, DeCola says getting started in the tattoo removal business is difficult, so there’s a clear advantage to joining a franchise. (In addition to tattoo removals, Studio Kiku does permanent makeup removals, to further diversify its services.) There’s also the support of the system itself and the brand recognition that Studio Kiku provides, he says.

Mezza Lebanese Kitchen

Mezza Lebanese Kitchen got its start in 1990 as a family business in a food hall in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But from that modest beginning, and following a rebranding, it has grown substantially, and there are now 20 franchise locations in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Peter Nahas, Mezza’s vice president of business development and franchising, says that another Atlantic province is coming aboard this fall, with a franchise slated to open in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland’s second-largest city.

The first Mezza officially opened in 2012 in Dartmouth, a short ferry ride from Halifax; two years later there were three locations, which grew to six by 2016. Franchising began in 2017, mainly driven by multi-unit owners, and Nahas says there’s more expansion planned for Nova Scotia and P.E.I. this year.

Despite what some may assume, the system’s preferred markets are not the country’s biggest cities. “Our bread and butter has been the smaller communities,” says Nahas, adding that the company will be looking at those sort of locations next year in Alberta and Ontario. Family-oriented power centres and retail strips suit Mezza best, with new builds spanning about 1,500 square feet, which Nahas feels is just the right size. The cost of a franchise is $600,000 to $750,000, and training takes six weeks at head office in Nova Scotia with a further two weeks of in-store instruction supplemented by online learning. “We increased training [time] so franchisees would know everything,” says Nahas.

As for the qualities he looks for in franchisees, he says they should “know and love the brand,” demonstrate great people skills and managerial ability, and be committed to top-notch customer service. Previous exposure to the restaurant industry would be a welcomed asset, but it’s not essential.

Nahas says his current franchisees often partner with a family member or friend in their business ownership: “One brings the money, and one brings the experience,” he explains. The bulk of Mezza’s franchisees are in the 35-to-50 age group, which synchronizes neatly with his target customers. Nahas says they’re usually suburban families with a bit more disposable income who are looking for a healthy, fresh, and affordable meal in a fast-casual environment. As well, Mezza has a consistent lunchtime rush and does lots of takeout and delivery.

Nahas says among the benefits of investing with Mezza are its return on investment, the strong relationship between head office and its franchisees, and that despite being a young brand, it has 35 years of industry experience to draw on.

Ghost Taco

The pandemic was unkind to Samantha Buckley and her husband Grant. It temporarily shut down EVENTMRKT, their event space, as well as their Ground Burger Bar restaurant, both in Newmarket, Ontario. When the second lockdown arrived, however, they weren’t prepared to give up or lay off staff, and the idea of a pop-up takeout establishment using EVENTMRKT’s kitchen eventually emerged. The name of the pop-up? Ghost Taco.

That was in 2021, and three years later, Ghost Taco is back with a permanent corporate location in Newmarket and two franchises due to open elsewhere in Ontario this year: in Peterborough in May, and in Whitby in the fall.

Samantha, Ghost Taco’s co-founder and CEO, says she wants to open at least five more stores by the end of 2024. In keeping with their target demographics, the locations will likely be in the Greater Toronto Area, with some in the heart of the city. Every franchise in the system will be outfitted the same way, she explains, to maintain a “boutique vibe” for the fast casual, counter-service restaurants. Streetfront locations are her preference, and the sweet spot for a store is 1,200 square feet. Interested investors should note that the cost of a Ghost Taco franchise is $550,000, and training takes five days at the corporate location.

As for the qualities she wants in potential franchisees, Samantha says, “We are looking for people who are passionate about the restaurant industry.” Previous business experience isn’t required, but good communication skills are. The majority of those interested in a Ghost Taco franchise are men, she notes, but no matter the gender, franchisees tend to skew younger.

As for customers, the 25-to-35 age range makes up 37 per cent of its base, although those in the 18-to-25 age range are a lucrative demographic key, too. Ghost Taco, which cheekily bills itself as “unauthentically Mexican,” serves a chef-inspired menu, including occasional items such as a “Big Mac” taco.

Despite the brand’s name, which comes from offsite “ghost kitchens,” Ghost Taco prepares everything in-house. “Tacos speak to everybody,” says Samantha. “The food’s quality speaks for itself.” A meal for two costs around $40, and for those who like to pair their Mexican food with something a little stronger, Ghost Taco also has a liquor licence.

The benefits of investing with Ghost Taco are numerous, according to Samantha. The company prides itself on outstanding franchisee support, offering hands-on, in-store help the first week of business. There’s a secret shopper program to keep an eye on things, even at its corporate store, as well as quarterly business reviews. And finally, there’s the product itself. “There’s no one [else] doing what we are doing,” notes Samantha.