It's the pizza at the center of many franchisees' love for Old Chicago.
Winner: Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom
Jeff and Patti Neely operate 23 restaurants in all, in seven different concepts, under their Inspired Concepts umbrella company in Michigan, so they are the perfect mascot couple for the theme of this year’s Zor Awards project: Which hat will you wear? With so many different concepts under their management, they’ve got the process of considering, investigating and then selecting their next target down pat.
Their most recent addition is four Old Chicago restaurants, which they purchased in October 2017. Patti, who handles marketing for Inspired Concepts, said passion for the brand is always the No. 1 criterion.
“I would never franchise a brand that I did not believe in because you have to be passionate about it to be successful,” she says. Adds Jeff: “We have been fans of the brand for the past 25 years. No. 1 we love the pizza.”
Jeff, who heads up operations, says their second major criterion is brand leadership, in this case Mike Mrlik, Old Chicago president, whom Jeff has worked with in the past and who joined the company before parent company Craftworks’ CEO Srini Kumar came on board in 2014.
Both Neelys cite the management as top-notch. “They’re probably the most professional franchisor we’ve had by far,” Jeff says, and Patti adds, “They probably have their act together the most.”
Jeff and Patti Neely have known each other since the seventh grade and were high school sweethearts. “We’ve been together many, many, many moons,” Patti says with a laugh, 37 years to be exact.
So it’s probably fitting that Jeff uses a common metaphor when describing how they investigate different franchises. “Jeff said it best. It’s kind of like a dating, a courting. Will it be a good match?” Patti says.
“I think it’s a 50-50 relationship,” Jeff adds. “Sure, the franchisor wants to look at you and make sure you’ll be successful in their brand, but at the same time we’re looking at them to be sure their values, their culture, their standards, meet what we expect out of the franchisor.”
They both note the ownership is bound to change, especially in this era of private equity flooding into the franchise space. Patti draws on her experience in a long marriage to address that issue, too. “You have to know that’s in the cards. And then there are always adjustments, and then it’s a new dance,” she said. “New owners or new leadership, they too have to find their footing. There’s always a few bumps and hiccups in that process but overall you have to be committed to their brand.”
Amro Samy, who goes by his last name, invested in his first Old Chicago in 2012, in Garden City, Kansas, and now has three stores open and two under construction, all in Kansas, and for next year will add two more in Kansas and one in Oklahoma.
He likes the family atmosphere, and the iPads the restaurant supplies to kids without charge.
He calls the food quality “phenomenal” and applauds corporate “doing new features every other month. It keeps the menu fresh all the time,” he says. Add the beer program, which flows from 40 taps and showcases local breweries, and it’s a “phenomenal formula,” he believes.
Samy is a Choice hotel operator first and foremost, and he has put an Old Chicago next to his hotels in two locations, to great success. Hoteliers from around the country are asking him to partner up with them and do the same, he said. Like any developer, his mantra is “location, location, location,” and he says before choosing a site for an Old Chicago, he likes to send a survey to residents asking about their dining habits and preferences. Craftworks also provides robust assistance on site selection, he says, something that the pre-Craftworks Old Chicago did not do.
“Take your time to pick the right location,” he says, even if it’s more expensive. And own your own real estate. “That gives us the flexibility to build them the way we want. After 10 years, I don’t want a leaseholder to see how good we do," and decide whether to renew or not, "and they always have the habit to increase the lease,” he points out.
And landlords never reduce the rent, right? “No ma’am. No ma’am,” Samy responds with a laugh. “That’s the theory I came up with.”
'Zor Awards 10 Categories
Finalists: Abrakadoodle, Engineering for Kids, LearningRx, Mad Science
Finalists: Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits, Church’s Chicken, Pollo Campero, Zaxby's
Finalists: 1-800-GOT-JUNK, Caring Transitions, College Hunks Hauling Junk, Junk King
Finalists: Kid to Kid, Clothes Mentor, Plato’s Closet, Uptown Cheapskate
Finalists: Another Broken Egg Cafe, Denny’s, Huddle House, Village Inn
Finalists: Nekter Juice Bar, Pita Pit, Saladworks, Tropical Smoothie Café
Finalists: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Golden Corral, Hilton, Ruth’s Chris
Finalists: Rock & Brews, Walk-On's, Wingstop, UFC Gym
Finalists: Cicis Pizza, Dickey's BBQ, Hardees, Taco Bell
Finalists: Bar Louie, Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom, The Brass Tap, Bar Louie
3 ways to choose a franchise