Company ProfilesIconic BrandSeptember/October 2022

Iconic Brand: The M&M Evolution

How franchisees and store overhauls keep M&M fresh (and frozen) in customers’ minds

By Daniel McIntosh

There’s a timeless adage about the nature of life and business: the only constant is change. It’s a line that Dan Vukovich, the senior vice president, international development, legal & franchising for M&M Food Market, leans on when explaining the brand’s development from a traditional meat locker into a forward-thinking franchise operation. “We’ve evolved so much and really accelerated the changes over the last number of years,” says Vukovich. M&M Food Market began as a family-owned operation in Kitchener, Ontario in 1980. M&M Meat Shops, as they were previously known, offered butcher-style service, as an alternative to pre-packaged, grocery quality meats.

With growth on the horizon, the founders of M&M turned to franchising as the mechanism to carry out the growth of their modernized butcher shop concept.

Today, M&M Food Market maintains 315 storefront locations and 2,600 express locations within retail stores across the country. Although the look and name have changed, the goal of providing restaurant-quality meats and dishes has stayed the same—in fact, they’ve expanded their offering to keep up with changing times.

“A big transformation is the rebranding of products that we offer so we reflect the tastes and changes in consumer habits of our customers,” says Vukovich.

Delicious developments

Although frozen goods and convenience are still the core pillars of the business, everything from the packaging to the shopping experience has changed in the brand’s 40-year lifespan. For example, the menu is constantly evolving to cater to customers’ increased focus on nutrition. “We’ve worked very hard on eliminating artificial flavours, colours, and sweeteners from our menu, and introducing sustainable seafood options to reflect consumer preferences,” says Vukovich.

The shopping experience has also undergone significant changes. The company did away with the counter service, where employees showed and sourced selections from a store freezer. Instead, M&M Food Market stores now rely on a personalized, one-on-one shopping experience, “where you can get assistance when you want it and are able to shop at your convenience.”

The brand also consistently rolls out new products to align with changing tastes and ingredient guidelines, courtesy of the food innovation team that experiments to keep the products fresh. “I don’t want to jump the gun, but every year we have new offerings coming in, and we’re pretty excited about it,” says Vukovich. “So, the next launch of our products will be in the fall and will be focused principally around the holidays.”

Franchisee focus

To keep new M&M products top of mind for consumers, Vukovich relies on the brand’s partners to effectively promote and roll out new marketing in-store, as franchisees are actively involved in their communities and have a strong understanding of their customers’ needs. “Franchisees give the organization roots in the communities in which we’re expanding into,” he notes. “In our case, with M&M being a family-oriented company, many of our franchise partners are family-owned and operated.”

To keep franchisees up to date on all relevant information, including new products, internal expertise teams guide in-class and on-site training for new franchisees. Field area managers guide franchise partners and team members on a day-to-day basis.

M&M has also redeveloped the training for incoming franchisees. It begins with a two-week virtual program, followed by a week in-store, assisted by a corporate team member. They also make use of the cloud-based training platform, which provides daily, actionable insights that can be immediately implemented in-store.

For franchisees like Heidi and Terry Kugler, M&M presented “the perfect job” for the young family when they started as meal advisors 19 years ago. When their Spruce Grove, Alberta location was up for sale, they jumped at the opportunity to become partners. Now, the Kuglers say the franchise system allows them to reap the rewards of owning a small business.

Despite nearly two decades in service with M&M, they note that their partnership training introduced them to tools that they still use today. “The onboard learning program that we use a company has the tools we need for our businesses and is incredibly useful on a daily basis. If it’s not there, then the training team at head office is there to help the franchise partners.”

Grant Assman, who frequented M&M as a customer before becoming a franchisee in Mississauga, Ontario’s Erin Mills neighbourhood, says the revamped store aesthetic and product line impacted consumer awareness, increasing in-store traffic and margins at his location. “The investment that [M&M] made in the rebranding had a major impact on store profitability,” he explains.

The Express locations, stationed within the freezer section of partner retail locations, also help to position the brand in front of communities without a traditional store. “It’s given us a strong presence in communities and has really helped with building and reinforcing the brand across the country,” says Vukovich. Delivery and a new online shopping platform round out their methods for meeting customers where they are.

Among the other changes were those implemented in response to COVID-19 measures. Vukovich says that even though he was pleased to be deemed an essential service—being in the grocery sector—there wasn’t a playbook for handling COVID. Beyond implementing new sanitation requirements, M&M doubled down on pre-existing delivery options and focused on internal communications between head office, franchise locations, and consumers.

Investing in success

The brand also invested in an e-commerce platform in 2021, which allows customers to prepare orders online and franchisees to provide curbside pickup.

Assman says their frozen supply created a silver lining during the COVID crisis. “Our struggle was to keep up with the demand, as consumers realized that quality frozen food was a good alternative, as they could limit their potential exposure to COVID by buying frozen food which doesn’t spoil.”

Shoppers who were stuck at home during the COVID crisis stocked up on frozen food, resulting in supply concerns. Vukovich says the corporate team strengthened relationships with suppliers to make sure that products were available where they were needed. “We were adapting and innovating on the fly, too, just to make sure that we continued with the quality, products, and service that consumers were expecting.”

Jake and Jessica Dyck, franchise partners from Leamington, Ontario, note how interactions with the corporate team keep them informed throughout their daily operations, which was a definite asset as they faced supply concerns. “We have bi-weekly conference calls as a group with our area manager and our franchise advisory council representative to ensure we are operating at the best level possible,” Jessica explains. “Need help with a specific topic? We have experts in all areas that are an email or phone call away.”

Assman is also the president of M&M Food Market’s franchise advisory council, and he sees issues raised by individual franchisees addressed by the corporate team in real time. “The support that the franchisor provides the franchise body is a definite benefit of the M&M system,” he says. “That support comes in many forms, not just support from the area manager, but in development of new products for consumers, understanding consumer trends and needs, marketing, human resource issues, and IT.”

As for prospective franchisees, M&M seeks a passion for the social interaction that goes into building relationships with customers. “Based on the roots that we had, and the way the brand was developed, we’re looking for franchisees who have community commitment in their DNA,” says Vukovich. “We typically have locations that have deep and long-standing roots within the community, and we look to develop that as one of our brand strategies.”

Assman adds that passion for the business of food is a great asset. “Although it’s a franchise, you’ll be a small business owner, so be prepared to invest time in your business to make it successful,” he says. “Also, your employees are the face of your business. Ensure that you invest in great staff and allow customers to develop trust
and loyalty.”

Vukovich concludes with a reminder of that very support system that’s made M&M a name brand. “With all the tools that we have available within the franchise system that we’ve developed over 40 years, and the work that we’ve done with numerous franchise partners, we want to minimize the challenges,” he says. “It just really comes down to individuals wanting to engage with their customers and love what they do and working within the system to achieve success.”

For successful franchisees like Heidi Kugler, nothing compares to the feeling of building something of your own, with a strong brand behind you. “Every day I walk across the parking lot and look at the M&M sign, I have to remind myself that it’s ours,” she explains. “I get to watch it grow with hard work and determination.”