By Karen Stevens
Ken Otto, President of the Family & Premium Dining Division and the Chief Development Officer of CARA Operations Limited, is a food service veteran. Over the years, he’s taken on a variety of roles within the 133-year-old company that includes brands like Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s, Milestones, Montana’s, Kelsey’s, East Side Mario’s, Casey’s, New York Fries, Prime Pubs, Bier Markt, and the Landing Group of restaurants.
Originally Otto was looking to study business at university, but when he discovered the Hotel and Hospitality program at the University of Guelph, his interest was sparked. “Running a restaurant is one of the most complex and challenging businesses you can get yourself into. Every day is a bit different, and there are so many things all happening at the same time, which makes the business really interesting,” says Otto. “You’re always guaranteed work.”
After beginning his career as a consultant, Otto joined Cara Flight Kitchen-Airline Services. It was a moment at this job that cemented his love of the food industry. From there, Otto gained experience in the industry, working for well-known brands like Boston Pizza, growing his knowledge of food service and franchising, and then returning to CARA to work in different capacities.
What Otto loves the most about his current role is “sharing a vision and a passion for the potential of our businesses.” Along with that passion, Otto harbours a huge sense of responsibility. In franchising, “the challenge is that the decisions we make directly impact someone’s family. I have a responsibility for people’s livelihood,” says Otto.
One lesson Otto has learned on his journey is the importance of communication. “It’s important to remember to look beyond the people who work directly for you and find creative ways to share the story and vision with all of the brands,” he says.
As for communication with the franchisees, Otto enjoys the openness of the franchisor-franchisee relationship. “Usually in a corporate environment, if you’re the boss, people will agree with you, but when dealing with franchisees, they simply tell you the truth,” he explains.
His advice to prospective franchisees starts off with a simple concept: choose something you love to do. While a good franchisor will provide the franchisee with tools and training, the success of the business depends on the work the franchisee puts in. “You simply have to like it,” he says.
“You need to take the vision and the culture of the franchise and apply that to your people,” Otto explains. “The franchisor can’t do that for you: you are the one running your business day in and day out.” According to Otto, a successful franchise is partly the result of the successful model from the franchisor, and partly the work of the franchisee – both are necessary for the franchise’s success.
“This business will throw lots of things at you, despite your best planning and multi-tasking efforts and tenacity,” Otto notes. But, “franchising has a way of bringing out the best in people. Franchisees bring energy, discipline, and creativity to the business every day.”
Adapted from the September/October issue of FranchiseCanada. Check out the current issue of FranchiseCanada, on newsstands now, or you can order your subscription by calling 1-800-665-4232 ext. 224.