The Cautious Startup of Smokin’ Oak Wood-Fire Pizza
There’s another fast-casual pizza player on the block. Smokin’ Oak Wood-Fire Pizza is expanding with a handful of franchise and area development deals across the country.
The brand is built around a successful concept based in Rochester, Minnesota, called Pi Wood-Fired Pizza. CEO Matt Mongoven said the concept launched in 2009 when one of his best friends started the initial concept. Mongoven, who has a deep background in marketing and branding in the financial services sector, said he wanted to help grow her brand. Alas, the name couldn’t be secured for a national trademark, hence the franchise rebrand to Smokin’ Oak.
At first blush, it’s another fast-fire pizza concept with quick cooking times and expanded offerings of salads, beer and wine. But it has a few key differentiators, notably the real, wood-fire oven at the heart of the restaurant. It’s all scratch dough, sauce and the veggies are freshly cut in house and all the meats are roasted in the oven to flavorful smoky perfection.
“We are truly wood fired. There are a lot of fast-causal players that play up the fire, but they still cook with gas,” said Mongoven. “Wood creates a unique flavor.”
Pi was doing well, reaching a unit volume of $750,000 and guests were asking about franchising early and often. But before launching the franchise offering, Mongoven said he wanted to really take the time and learn how to create a high-quality franchise system. It was a big change from his marketing and branding background.
“How do you create a brand from scratch using the operational system of a really successful one-unit restaurant? That was a really interesting challenge. I knew how to start a business, but the thing that caught me by surprise is how complex franchising is,” said Mongoven.
So as he was recording the operations and updating the branding, he tapped a franchise consultant and tried to perfect the offering.
“One thing I was really focused on was spending the time and the money building a franchise system so that when we launched, they weren’t learning and we weren’t learning on their dime,” said Mongoven. “So we spent 12 or 16 months creating our franchise operations.”
He said it all came down to setting franchisees up for success.
“We now have someone to negotiate leases, brand guidelines, prototype floor plan,” said Mongoven. “Anything that someone needs to open a restaurant and operate it.”
He also learned that vendors had to be flexible enough to scale, but focus close at the unit level, too.
“We didn’t know that having a national real estate firm was really important. Once we learned that we found one that focused not only on restaurants and franchises, but also had a network of local brokers,” said Mongoven. “Same with our marketing company. They’re based in Tennessee, but I chose them because they have a specialty in public relations with franchises and grand openings, which for us is really important. So we looked at different things for each supplier.”
That led to a pretty robust offering, according to some early prospects.
“We’ve had franchisees who have looked at other really well known concepts and said, ‘Gosh the sales process and the tools you have available blow them away.’ We’re proud of that,” said Mongoven.
So far, the concept has one franchise location open in Ames, Iowa. Another seven are in various stages of development—five in Colorado, and one in each Tennessee and Missouri.