New Ethnic Eats
Tony and Katie DeSantis, along with their four kids, in front of their Vitality Bowls restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska. A second location is in the works.
Winner: Vitality Bowls
Finalists: Teriyaki Madness, HuHot Mongolian Grill, The Flame Broiler
While the term “superfood” as a nutritional claim doesn’t have clear scientific backing, its power as a marketing tool is nonetheless mighty as more and more consumers actively seek out healthier meal options and gravitate to brands that align with their lifestyle.
Desire for unique ingredients—in this case acai, pitaya, acerola and graviola—is another motivating factor for diners, and Vitality Bowls hits the mark with its on-trend, upscale food and vibe.
San Ramon, California-based Vitality Bowls emerged as the top franchise to buy thanks not only to the strength of its menu but also its favorable return on investment, low unit closures and a thorough Item 19 in its franchise disclosure document.
Vitality Bowls opened 65 restaurants from 2015 to 2018—including 19 last year—and closed just five during that time frame. Average annual gross sales for 22 franchised restaurants in 2017 were $478,074, with average per customer revenue of $14.28.
The financial proposition, particularly a more manageable initial investment range of $154,100 to $563,500, was only part of Vitality Bowls’ appeal for Luisa Velasquez, who opened her restaurant in December 2017 in San Jose.
“It’s not only about the money,” says Velasquez, “it’s what you’re doing every day. For me, I love what I do, I love going to my store every day.”
On the financial side, she notes, “I’m exceeding my expectations. I haven’t broken even yet but it’ll be sooner than what we thought.”
Originally from Colombia, Velasquez thought about bringing an ice cream concept from her native country to San Jose but decided to explore franchising because “it’s not as risky as starting a business from scratch.” Working with a franchise consultant from FranNet, Velasquez spent almost six months researching various concepts, from spa brands to a kids party service, before her “people-oriented” personality led her to restaurants and Vitality Bowls.
She pored over the FDD, visited several other locations in California and asked those franchisees numerous questions. One franchisee, she says, was even willing to share his rent, P&Ls and sales numbers, and she felt the same openness from the franchisor.
“It’s more like a family oriented business,” she says of the concept that’s been founder-led by Roy and Tara Gilad since its inception in 2011. Franchisees participate in monthly conference calls, and Velasquez notes the corporate office is responsive and open to feedback, even as it’s kicked into high-growth mode.
“That’s something I was super nervous about, that a franchise can get so big that they don’t even talk to you,” she says. “But Vitality Bowls, they know every single franchisee. My husband and I are even bringing an idea to corporate to make the kitchens more efficient.”
Territory size was another question mark for Velasquez, as the brand’s FDD notes a “general rule” of approximately 1 mile around each restaurant as the protected area, though this can vary based on population density and demographics. Since her opening, “five or six locations have opened in the area, but corporate always reached out to me,” says Velasquez. “I know it’s not in their interest to open another one super close.”
Hands-on ownership is crucial to the success of her restaurant, as Velasquez says that makes it easier to get involved in the local community by supporting health fairs and connecting with customers. It’s also necessary to lead by example, she notes, because most of her employees are teenagers and they respond well to a visible owner presence. “I go to my store every day,” she says. “I do the same things my employees do.”
Aside from a basic checklist, store-level training is largely left to franchisees, notes Velasquez, though Vitality Bowls is creating training videos and other materials to support franchisees’ efforts. Velasquez is also looking forward to more help from her franchisor to drive sales and spread the word about Vitality Bowls.
“I want them to improve on marketing and advertising,” she says. “More use of social media, that’s something I’m looking forward to seeing. It’s something that I keep bringing up. They keep making improvements but I think we can do way better.”
Paninis, such as this “Eggnini” (above), expand Vitality Bowls’ menu appeal beyond its signature acai bowls (below).
'Do the research'
In Omaha, Nebraska, “expanding advertising awareness” is also something franchisees Tony and Katie DeSantis want Vitality Bowls to address this year. As owners of the only location in the state, Tony says they would benefit from more polished marketing materials that take advantage of and emphasize the appealing food imagery. And given the fast growth of the brand to nearly 70 locations systemwide, he’s expecting to see “a focus on cost reduction for vendor pricing” that will ultimately help boost franchisees’ bottom lines.
Tony, who spent 20 years in fraud detection roles with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte, and Katie, whose background is in human resources and recruiting, decided to move with their four kids from the East Coast to Katie’s hometown and transition their lifestyle to that of business owners. “Neither of us are huge risk-takers,” says Tony, which is why the franchise model was appealing and, like Velasquez, they worked with FranNet to find the right brand.
Vitality Bowls’ absence from Nebraska was a plus for the pair, notes Katie. “We really did want to be first to market,” she says, and the brand’s growth means there’s opportunity to expand. Their Aksarben Village restaurant is in a high-traffic entertainment and shopping neighborhood, and by getting signage up early and offering lots of opportunities for sampling they were able to generate brand awareness in advance of their September 2018 opening.
“We’re trending ahead of our projections for these colder months,” says Tony, adding they’re active in the store and they recruited a manager and shift leads “we trust.”
“We went into this with a philosophy that we’re not just gonna make a quick dollar,” continues Tony. “You’ve gotta be present.”
A focus on catering helps supplement sales, and Katie points out the diverse menu beyond the acai bowls, with paninis, soups and even waffles, attracts a broader customer base. Vitality Bowls also allowed them some flexibility in their store design to use reclaimed Nebraska barnwood for tabletops and to contract with a local artist to paint a logo’d mural on the restaurant’s brick wall. Those aspects, plus the serving of local kombucha and coffee, add to the community feel Katie and Tony are working to cultivate.
While the actual experience of being a Vitality Bowls ‘zee has aligned with her expectations, Katie adds there’s always a need to adapt as the business evolves, and she recommends an intense focus on recruiting and training weeks before the opening.
“Without the right people, this would be even more of a challenge,” she says. “Do the research and really think through the commitment that you’re making.”
'Zor Awards 10 Categories
Finalists: Teriyaki Madness, HuHot Mongolian Grill, The Flame Broiler, Vitality Bowls
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