Found in the emerging dining space between quick service restaurants and casual dining restaurants, fast casual restaurants are offering Canadians a hybrid dining experience that offers the convenience of quick service, with a more inviting and leisurely atmosphere. Fast casual restaurants feature an ordering counter like in quick service, along with a made-to-order menu, often featuring high-quality, healthy, and fresh ingredients, in a sit-down atmosphere.
This category is winning big with customers who are willing to spend a bit more to ensure a customizable, high-quality dining experience. Here, FranchiseCanada highlights four fast casual food service franchises that are catering to these quality-conscious Canadian diners.
With his smoked meat, knish, and other authentic traditional deli foods, Zane Caplansky has built a thriving business over the past 10 years by providing customers with an authentic deli experience. Caplansky says his brand recognition is more widespread than you might expect of a three-store, Toronto-based restaurant.
Aside from attracting customers with really good food, he credits the food trucks that regularly bring the Caplansky experience to locations outside of the GTA; his Saturday morning radio show “Let’s Eat” on Newstalk1010 that reaches listeners far beyond the city; and ongoing exposure on national television. He’s had three appearances on CBC’s Dragons’ Den and dozens on the Food Network, and is vying with other chefs for the opportunity to develop a new Food Network show with Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives fame.
“With the notoriety, we’ve been able to gauge the kind of interest people have in our concept. We’re very comfortable in the downtown core, but I can see there is a huge amount of pent-up demand for Caplansky’s across the GTA and beyond,” he says.
That led him to a decision in 2014 to grow the business through franchising, starting with two of his Toronto locations. “The first franchisees to come on board bring their own experiences that will influence and help shape the franchise system.”
Caplansky hired a training consultant, believing that effective training is perhaps the most important part of establishing a successful franchise. Initial training takes place at the corporate store, then at the franchisee’s new location, with ongoing training and support resources being web-based. New franchise partners will ideally have restaurant management experience, but more importantly will be “the kind of person who is great at building relationships with guests, while keeping staff happy and engaged. There is no magic formula – you build your business one customer at a time.”
Founded in 1994 in Jacksonville, Florida by brothers Chris Sorensen and Robin Sorensen, both former firefighters, Firehouse Subs® is not your traditional sub shop. Meals are ordered at the counter, then the food is prepared fresh and brought to the customer’s table. The brand prides itself on providing a premium product and a high level of customer service.
The brand was founded on a passion for hearty, flavourful food, heartfelt service, and public safety. In 2005, a little more than a decade after opening the first restaurant, the Sorensens established the non-profit Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation®, and last year, the Canadian branch was able to target donations to assist people affected by the wildfires in British Columbia.
Canadian franchisee Phil Dawson, who is in partnership with two others, including his wife, had his first Firehouse Subs experience many years ago in Florida and recalls, “There was this undeniable ‘wow’ factor in the taste, and in the customer service.”
When he applied to be a franchisee, he was impressed with the company’s rigorous screening process. “There is a ‘Day of Discovery’ in Jacksonville to see if you’re the right fit for the Firehouse family, and a week of training in Oshawa before you even sign the agreement.”
After becoming a franchisee, he went through six weeks of hands-on training, starting at the front lines and learning every aspect of the business. “They took me from A to Z, and showed me where some businesses would typically make mistakes and where you might overspend,” he says. “They care that you are going to be successful.”
Now, Dawson and his two business partners are set to open two more locations in Southwestern Ontario, and have this advice for others who might be interested in a Firehouse Sub franchise. “Make sure you are the face of your business, that you excel in customer service, and that you don’t get sidetracked. Some days are tiring and you work long hours, but nothing grows on its own.”
Paramount Fine Foods began 10 years ago with one full service restaurant serving authentic Middle Eastern dishes. The company has since expanded to include dozens of locations and two different concepts, including Paramount Lebanese Kitchen (PLK). PLK was developed in response to a growing demand for freshly prepared authentic Middle Eastern food in a quick-serve non-traditional dining environment.
“This truly is a hybrid of full service and quick service restaurants,” says Paramount’s Acting Executive Vice President Greg Smith, noting that at PLK customers who are looking for fresh, healthy alternatives to traditional QSR fare can enjoy the tried and true flavours of Paramount Fine Foods, but will be able to get in and out pretty quickly. Since 2015, PLKs have opened in shopping malls, hospitals, colleges, and universities.
Ideally, Paramount franchisees will not be passive investors, but will be fully engaged and committed to working in the restaurant themselves. “The owner must have a finger on the pulse of the business,” says Smith. “We are looking for people who excel in customer service and hospitality, and know how to manage a business.”
Each new franchisee goes through a comprehensive training program, beginning at the Paramount training centre in Mississauga, and continuing through start-up on-site at the franchisee’s new location, followed by ongoing mentoring and coaching. “We are extremely proud of this area – we have a fully integrated training program,” says Smith.
Paramount currently has 55 restaurants worldwide, mainly in Ontario, and in the U.S., Pakistan, and Lebanon. The company recently signed a deal to open 100 locations over the next 10 years in the United States, and plans to expand both in Canada and internationally. The target is to have 100 locations by the end of 2018.
“We are entertaining inquiries from coast to coast,” says Smith “We have potential sites in mind, but if we find excellent franchisees in other locations, we will work with them to find a suitable site in their community.”
He started with Cultures, a quick and healthy restaurant concept; next came the New York Fries QSR concept; then Jay Gould moved into the fast casual category with South St. Burger, offering gourmet burgers and sides made fresh to order.
“Customers are more educated about what goes into their food, but when they pay more, they expect more,” says Gould. “We take a staple product and make it better than the guy beside us. Everything on the menu is ‘best in category,’ and while we can’t promise local and organic all of the time, we can promise it will be fresh and antibiotic-free.”
Since opening in 2005, the franchise has grown to 40 locations across Canada, and one in Dubai. You will typically find South St. Burger in mixed-use developments, with seating for 35 to 75, depending on the location, says Gould. About a third are licensed, offering a more bar-like atmosphere.
The brand is looking to expand across Canada, particularly in British Columbia. “We are looking for hands-on owner-operators, people with a good work history and positive management experience, who are trainable. They need to like our products and our commitment to quality,” says Gould.
“We offer full training, from top to bottom, with ongoing support – we are constantly updating our operations manual. We see ourselves as franchise partners – good training and support are critical for our franchisees’ survival and success, and ultimately for ours. We have won awards in the past for training and franchising excellence, and for being one of Canada’s best managed companies.”
The most successful franchisees are those who focus on the customer, says Gould. “It sounds trite, but without that commitment, it’s a non-starter. If you have that genuine focus, combined with great products, the rest is easy.”
By Kym Wolfe