(Ambrosio’s note: Sandwich concepts are consistently popular among prospective franchisees because of the category’s relatively simple operations and widespread consumer appeal. While most sub shops compete on price, there’s an emerging brand that is generating buzz for the superior quality of its offerings.
With customer favorites like Chicken & Apples (Chunky Chicken Salad, topped with crisp Granny Smith apples, hickory-smoked bacon and a dollop of blue cheese dressing), Killer Blue Turkey (oven-roasted turkey breast topped with crumbled blue cheese, hickory-smoked bacon, hand-sliced vine-ripe tomato and Thousand Island dressing), and Spicy Cuban (Mojo-marinated pork loin, Black Forest ham, spicy pepper jack cheese, tangy jalapeños and yellow mustard; all grilled on Cuban bread), it’s hardly surprising that Rising Roll Gourmet has been Zagat-rated “excellent” for food quality 12 years in a row, a feat almost unheard of in the food franchise industry.
For anyone interested in opening a food franchise business, this is a brand definitely worth looking into. It’s my pleasure to share you with my exclusive interview with Mike Lassiter, President of Rising Roll Gourmet.)
Mike Lassiter serves as President of Rising Roll Gourmet and President of Franchising Concepts, a franchise success company. His role at Rising Roll Gourmet includes oversight of all aspects of the growth of this emerging brand including menu ideation, franchisee development, site selection, strategic planning and corporate social responsibility.
Mike’s franchising experience is extensive. He has launched seven new franchise companies and/or franchise-related companies and has successful multi-unit management experience spanning almost 30 years. Mike has been a franchisee, master franchisee, area developer, and franchisor. This experience on all sides of the franchise model gives him a perspective few can claim.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Can you tell us how Rising Roll Gourmet got its start?
Mike Lassiter (ML): The brand was started by a “father and son” team from the Bronx, New York. They received great customer and local press validation from the beginning and we partnered with them to launch the franchise initiative in late 2003. My company (Franchising Concepts) put in half of the money necessary to launch the franchise entity and the founders invested the other half; both parties had a 50 percent ownership. The founders focused on concept development, training, support, and the operations manual and we assumed all other responsibilities for the company. We began selling franchises in 2004 and stopped selling in 2005 to focus on helping our initial franchisees with site selection and development while working with the founders to change and reposition the company to a franchise organization. In the summer of 2007, we acquired the company from the founders and have made a number of system enhancements to put our franchisees in a great position to be successful.
ML: We make many of the products we serve on premise “from scratch.” These products include Chicken Salad (made with 100 percent whole muscle breast meat), Tuna Salad (we only use albacore white meat tuna), Potato Salad (we only use redskin potatoes), Egg Salad, Cole Slaw, Pasta Salad, and Carrot Salad. All of these items are made fresh on site; none of our salads come out of a carton or are pre-made. We add no preservatives to our product and we use them for 48 hours only. Also, we have a huge menu of great breakfast and lunch (gourmet sandwich) items.
FC: You seem to have a far more extensive menu than most other sandwich shops. How are you able to streamline operations and keep food costs down?
ML: We conduct menu ideation with our chefs every other year. We want to continue to stay “cutting edge” with current flavor profiles, which constantly change. Even though we have a large menu, many of the recipe variations result from one additional ingredient. We really watch the number of products we inventory and work hard to keep the SKUs down. Unlike many concepts that position its brand around one protein (like chicken), we have several alternatives on our menu. Let’s say if chicken prices skyrocket, we are able to promote other gourmet sandwiches with other proteins, helping lower food cost.
ML: We have an outstanding product that sets us apart. We have been ZAGAT rated “excellent” in food quality for the last 12 years. We do not know anyone else in our category that can make that same claim. Many of our stores display all 12 ZAGAT plaques within their restaurant(s).
FC: Can you describe the ideal franchisee for a Rising Roll Gourmet restaurant?
ML: The ideal franchisee (for us) is an individual that loves to serve people. We can show our franchisees how to make great food products, help them find a great site, but we can’t change their personality. They must sincerely enjoy speaking with customers and selling our brand within their trade area.
FC: What is the ideal neighborhood and territory for a Rising Roll Gourmet restaurant? In what regions of the country do you see the strongest demand for your restaurants?
ML: The ideal location for a Rising Roll Gourmet is an area that has strong daytime population providing the opportunity for great in-store volume and catering. This site will include office square footage exceeding 5 million square feet within a 3 mile radius. Also, our best sites have other traffic drivers in their market including regional malls, universities, hospitals, etc. Our top two locations have every site component noted above, with an above average residential community also within their market.
ML: Our top franchisees market at every opportunity. Grassroots marketing is critical for an emerging brand like ours. Becoming a part of the community is a must. They must also be willing to go out to the businesses in their trade area and let the community try our high-quality products. External marketing is important. Also, the franchisee should be positioned in the restaurant (when possible) during the busy lunch rush — meeting customers and introducing our catering services to every customer.
FC: What are some of the things you are doing to help your franchisees become profitable?
ML: When the economy went south, many companies either cut portion sizes or went to a discount strategy to help improve margins. We did neither. We focused on ways to enhance our franchisees’ investment in their business — our plan was to focus on a “multiple distribution strategy.” We created a distribution channel of satellite (express) units and Grab & Go kiosks. The goal here was to create low-cost channels of distribution to enhance sales from the original store location.
In addition to our multiple distribution strategy, we helped many of our franchisees secure more favorable lease terms by renegotiating with their landlords. We also have engaged a purchasing consultant to oversee and negotiate food and paper pricing, which helps to minimize the food and paper costs for our franchisees.
We also completed a menu ideation with our chef to help bring cutting-edge, new products that are affordable and have good profit margins.
ML: The initial investment will depend on the actual site secured by the franchisee. The big variable is the build-out cost. We know our retail stores (of average size) have an equipment (FFE) cost around $110,000. The other major cost will be the build-out. The actual build-out cost will depend on the site condition of the space leased and what type of tenant improvement (TI) contribution the landlord will make. There will be other costs like signage, permits, franchise fee, insurance, etc.
We have seen stores cost around $300,000 for a full kitchen retail location. We have also seen the cost as low as $20,000 for an Express unit.
FC: What are your goals for Rising Roll Gourmet in the next few years and how do you plan to grow your business?
ML: Our number one goal is to help put our existing franchisees in the best position to be successful. We also want to grow the brand through new franchise operators and non-tradition locations, including airports, universities and hospitals.
ML: Find a business that you love, that you truly have a passion for. In our business, you must understand the service model and enjoy serving people. It is all about service. We can show you how to make incredible food products but we can’t change your personality.
FC: Is there anything else you wish to share about Rising Roll Gourmet?
ML: Rising Roll will be one of the top gourmet sandwich concepts in the country. We may not ever be the largest, but we want to do a great job at every location in the system. We want our customers to say “the food is awesome and the staff really takes great care of you.”