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Some QSRs bank on one-dish wonders


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Sushi Freak of San Diego applies a Chipotle-style approach to raw fish, and eliminates labor issues when temperamental chefs are resistant to molding recipes to American tastes, its founders say.

The Liege waffle, Philippe Wyffels will tell you, is a completely different animal from the plain old vanilla counterpart Americans eat for breakfast.

The co-founder of the franchise Bruges Waffles and Frites said the Liege waffle is dough-based and needs a much heavier iron to cook the waffles under heavy pressure, which then caramelizes the special “pearl” sugar inside. This specialty food with its combination of textures—warm, gooey and fresh—is what Bruges Waffles and Frites serves, just as they are done in Wyffels’ native Belgium.

As American palates get increasingly adventurous, quick-service restaurant franchises continue to move beyond pizzas and burgers, anchoring their menus around one or two specialty (often ethnic) foods. Salt Lake City, Utah-based Bruges Waffles and Frites, which is just getting started with franchising, works off the Liege waffle and complements it with Belgian frites (fries served with traditional dipping sauces based in mayo) and other Belgian delicacies.

Similarly, Tapioca Express, a franchise headquartered close to Los Angeles, anchors its menu around boba tea and adds Taiwanese specialty foods such as crispy chicken to provide some diversity. Also Kolache Factory, based in Katy, Texas, serves the East European sweet yeast bread, kolache, filled with a variety of sweet and savory ingredients.

Frites

Bruges Waffles and Frites offers frites, above, along with the Liege waffle.

Singular appeal

Do these QSR franchises that work with just one food item as their anchor risk crumbling like Crumbs, the cupcake bakery whose fortunes haven risen and fallen?

On the contrary, “there’s a big-time advantage to focusing your menu on just one thing,” said Chris Conner of Franchise Marketing Systems. “People in general like specialists, they like people that focus on something and that are good at it. If I put my sign up and say ‘food for sale’ odds are that not many people would be interested in it, but if I tell you I am great at this one thing and have done it for years and here’s my background, that’s compelling and intriguing,” Conner said. “From a branding perspective and market awareness perspective and carving out a niche, showing you’re a leader, it’s good to focus on a product.”

That explains Chicken Salad Chick’s success. While not particularly “ethnic,” founder Stacy Brown has worked one food specialty she knows, chicken salad, and developed it with flavors on trend such as spicy jalapeno.

At the same time, “you don’t want to be too narrow. You’ve got to be sure you have a few things around that core product so that people don’t come in once a quarter and they’ve tried everything on the menu. It’s good to have some ancillary items that you can maximize ticket price and keep customers coming back,” added Conner, advice that franchises such as Sushi Freak, Vitality Bowls and others follow.

Problems arise when franchises don’t follow basic business rules. Franchise concepts, ethnic or otherwise, have to be scalable with a minimum of specialty expertise needed on site. Conner sees Indian food as ripe for the QSR franchise market, for example, but would-be franchisors have to figure out a way of standardizing recipes and making the business model scalable, he said.

All-American recipe

Ethnic foods such as liege waffles and kolaches are all fine and dandy, but QSR offerings are more successful if they can find a way to “Americanize” their menu as a way of drawing customers in. “We have traditional fruit flavors but we have also added many American flavors like Jalapeno Popper, Philly Cheese Steak, Bacon Egg & Cheese and so on,” said Dawn Nielsen, vice president of Kolache Factory.

Kolache Factory takes an ethnic pastry and fills it with tastes familiar to most Americans. By all indications that recipe has been successful: Kolache Factory has more than 28 locations, including one that recently opened on the East Coast.

It’s not just the flavors that can be Americanized; it helps if the QSR delivery vehicle is similar to an existing model. For example, Sushi Freak, headquartered in San Diego, works with a Chipotle-like process applied to sushi: customers pick a wrap (seaweed or soy), a protein, fillings and sauces to create a custom sushi roll or sushi burrito. This systemized approach, said co-founders Michael Broder and Jenifer Duarte, has eliminated labor issues related to temperamental sushi chefs who are often resistant to molding time-honored recipes to American tastes.

“If a product is presented in a QSR package, that is critical for it to work,” Conner said. “It’s gotta be fast, gotta be convenient, but still good quality food with a little bit of culture and adventure to it.”

In the QSR market, as in others, brand positioning matters. Just ask Tara Gilad, founder of Vitality Bowls. The San Ramon, California-based franchise sells acai bowls offering a variety of permutations and combinations with acai and other superfoods. Positioning the bowls as meal replacements instead of treats has paid off well for the franchise, which has 40 units sold so far.

Sushi Freak positions itself as a healthy alternative to burgers and pizza that can also be eaten on the go, while Jessica Ho, franchise manager at Tapioca Express, said the franchise “strives to broaden our brand image as ‘beverage expert’ instead of ‘tea master’ only.

“Our research and development staff care about our customers’ feedback and experiences, and based on those, they create new drinks and food items every year to address customers’ request,” she said. “For example, we launched our fruit tea lemonade this summer and received tremendous customers’ endorsement.”

An appetite for trends

While foods such as kolaches and liege waffles might not see an immediate problem with market saturation, the question of longevity especially with fickle consumer palates is a legitimate one. After all, that was one of the reasons behind the fall of Crumbs where the popularity of gourmet cupcakes started to ebb and took Crumbs down with it. Crumbs has since begun to rebuild after new owners bought the chain in 2014.

While all franchises should worry about saturation, Conner doesn’t see it as a particular problem in this specialized industry. “People run into markets when they see opportunities and these things fizzle. Frozen yogurt is a good example,” Conner pointed out. “After things stabilize a bit, we’re still going to have a much bigger market than we did 10 years ago. The players who win are still the ones who looked at the economics, paid attention to the details and figured out how to deliver economically.”

What’s more the novelty in new tastes is something that has been around for a while and something that will continue to expand, said Nielsen. “Americans have always been eager to try new things and the more diverse we become, the more options we have and the more we are willing to go outside our comfort zone,” she said.

“Maybe it’s globalization, but people want more culture in what they’re eating. The consumer has evolved and they don’t want everyday American fast food any more. They want something that will give them an experience,” Conner added.

When it comes to niche ethnic foods in the QSR market, the winner, the Steady Eddy, sells the food and the experience. “We are culturally loaded,” said Wyffels of Bruges Waffles and Frites. “We offer the warm feeling of European culture that is welcoming, fun and enjoyable.”

Just don’t ask for syrup with your Bruges waffle. “We joke in Belgium that it’s against the law to put maple syrup on these waffles,” Wyffels said with a laugh.

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