Cover StorySeptember/October 2020

Serving Quality with Care

How three quick service food franchises are adapting and innovating in response to the current economic crisis and pandemic

By Jessica Burgess

There is no doubt that economic distress is being faced around the world as the COVID-19 crisis continues, leaving many businesses facing difficult decisions and navigating unprecedented scenarios. Here, three quick service food franchises – BeaverTails, Mary Brown’s Chicken & Taters, and OPA! of Greece – share how they’ve been adapting to these challenges and making their way forward with strength and optimism.


BeaverTails has been serving up a bit of “classic Canadian” fare since 1978, when they began offering their unique pastries at a craft fair outside Ottawa, Ontario. Since then, the company has grown steadily, particularly in the tourist market. Given the current crisis around the world, this has of course been a source of stress for quick service food franchises all over who rely on seasonal influxes of customers.

“Travel and tourism stopped … and non-essential restaurant consumption was also steeply curtailed,” shares CEO Pino Di Ioia, adding that the company was forced to pivot to their less-traditional markets. “Suddenly, instead of servicing music festivals and major fairs, our food trucks were parked at local grocery stores and Canadian Tire outlets, serving our delicious gooey happiness to Canadians.”

“We are also expanding our community shops programs,” continues Di Ioia, “so that our guests don’t have to visit a tourist area to enjoy the pastries that made us famous. Going forward, you can expect to see us in more local communities, allowing our community shops to be beacons of happiness in communities.”

BeaverTails is also uniquely poised in the market with its competitive costs, small footprint, and simple takeout operations going strong. “These are all directions we were actively developing before COVID-19,” Di Ioia says, “but we will more aggressively develop them in the months and years ahead.”

Franchisee Patrick Marcovecchio seconds Di Ioia’s sentiments, adding, “Given the current economic climate, our profitability has not taken much of a hit. I think once we fully understand the new avenue with the food trucks, not only will it stay a part of the business, but it will allow us to increase profits as well.”

Indeed, Marcovecchio has already invested in another food truck unit for the summer, given the increased demand. “Through the power of social media,” he continues, “we are actually doing quite well.”

Furthermore, BeaverTails head office continues to develop its training and support systems to reflect the changing world. “We have an active franchise advisory committee, which will continue to be integral in influencing our priorities. In addition, while we have used remote video conferencing technology for years, we are envisioning increased use of software to facilitate long-distance communications and learning for our franchisees,” says Di Ioia.

The top priority is the well-being of franchisees. “We need our franchise partners to be happy individuals,” Di Ioia continues, “who truly enjoy serving our guests and sharing our uniquely delicious joy with each individual guest.”

Marcovecchio agrees: “Our clients have an attachment to us, so we want to make sure their experiences are over the top all the time.”

And as people look to find small moments of joy in what is a stressful time, it’s clear that quick service restaurants have a key role to play, and are eager and willing to adapt to better serve customers all over the country.

Mary Brown’s Chicken

Mary Brown’s Chicken, which got its start in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1969, has a rich history to draw on as the franchise moves forward in today’s world. “This crisis has shown us that we are proactive and agile,” shares Jeff Barlow, VP of marketing. “We can quickly change procedures and policies when needed. We believe we have the trust of our guests and franchisees to do what’s best. That trust is the foundation of where we go from here.” Guests can continue to look forward to the quality food and service that they know and love, including product launches, like the new Spicy menu.

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The new menu includes the launch of the Spicy Big Mary Chicken Sandwich and the Spicy Signature Chicken, both of which have plenty of heat, flavour, and kick. Darlene Giles, creative director for Mary Brown’s, adds that the company is confident these new menu options will appeal to a growing customer base hungry for spicy options. “In a marketplace filled with spicy fast food options, especially spicy chicken sandwiches, we believe we have crafted the one to beat!” Giles says.

The company wants to continue to serve their customers regardless of how the service itself must change given the times we’re in.

“We’re still opening stores; we’re still growing as a franchise,” Barlow explains, adding, “Post-crisis, we intend to continue with that trend.”

During the crisis,” he says, “our franchisees have been supported across all functional areas – operations, finance, marketing, development, and beyond – with expert guidance and financial relief where needed. We rallied behind our franchisees to give them the tools to continue to operate successfully. Financially, Mary Brown’s has provided a tier-based royalty reduction plan on sales results, giving the greatest relief to the stores needing it most – notably, those without delivery and/or drive-thru.”

As well, a top priority is taking care of their own – franchisees and their communities. “Take care of your staff,” says Barlow. “Treat them well, provide incentives, and acknowledge ‘extra-mile’ efforts.”

Part of Mary Brown’s success during the current crisis also comes from a strong marketing approach, with a guest-centric mindset. “We had to do a 180-degree turn and change all our plans, to increase sales but also to do our part to support our guests and all Canadians during this difficult time,” Barlow says of the company’s strategies since COVID-19 measures went into place across the country.

Building on that, Barlow adds: “Our brand is known for philanthropy. People remember kindness – it’s a great way to build awareness and attract guests. To help frontline workers, we created ‘Mini Mary Moments’ – food drops to key frontline workers in hospitals, grocery stores, and many more key services,” he shares.

“We also implemented a special family deal,” he notes, “promoted through digital channels, acknowledging that guests are looking for comfort food at a good price to feed their families.”

Barlow’s insights speak to the company’s ongoing commitment to supporting the communities that support the restaurants and giving back wherever possible. “Mary Brown’s is going forward with confidence and optimism!” says Barlow, knowing that trusting their foundation is the way to longevity and future success.


OPA! of Greece

Founded in 1998, OPA! of Greece has been a trusted part of Canada’s quick service food landscape for more than 22 years. The franchise has faced the same challenges as other food service companies since COVID-19 changed the way Canadians are looking at health and safety concerns, but it remains steadfast in its commitment to bringing good food to people across the country.

CEO Dorrie Karras, who has been with the company for 20 years himself, considers OPA! an industry leader in supporting franchisees through these difficult times. “Our shareholders agreed to take a 66 per cent royalty cut during the height of the pandemic in order to ease the burden on the franchisees,” he shares. “We know our franchisees are the heart of our operations, and we do everything we can to support them. I was a franchisee before taking on the CEO position, so I understand the challenges of franchisees firsthand.”

Raj and Pam Chahal, franchisees in Calgary, Alberta, can attest to this best-in-class support. “Our franchisor has been there for us every day, providing us with updates announced by local, provincial, and federal governments, offering us help by providing us with the right material, such as floor signs for social distancing,” says Raj.

“There was a lot of fear in the market about eating out,” he explains, adding that this, along with mandatory closures, meant lower sales, layoffs, reduced hours, and limited expenditures. In response, OPA! head office has worked to ensure the appropriate health and safety measures are being taken across the franchise, and they are also providing economic support when it matters most.

“Our franchisor announced that they would be reducing the royalties from six per cent to two per cent and marketing costs from three per cent to one per cent due to the pandemic, and they have deferred all royalties and marketing payments to help their franchisees with cash flow,” notes Raj.

Karras shares that although the franchise has been impacted by the current crisis, it doesn’t mean that looking to the future has slowed. “Development and growth remain two of our priorities, even during these times. There are several new locations opening in the next year throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.”

Furthermore, OPA! is well positioned to navigate a changing world through innovative technology available to food-service franchises throughout Canada. “Online ordering, third party delivery, and curbside pick-up are some of the areas we will be shifting our efforts to,” Karras says, as they look to provide all customers with the safest, most efficient experience possible.