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More choices improve Bruster’s outlook


An example of an inline Bruster’s, one of three models.

Growth. It’s not a word executives at Bruster’s Real Ice Cream could say with much confidence after the recession took sales from chilled to frozen, following a drop in demand as consumers limited their indulgent purchases. With that came the one-two punch of franchisee closures and a dearth of new operators.

“It was a really challenging time for our brand and a lot of other brands,” recalls CEO Jim Sahene, at the helm of the Bridgewater, Pennsylvania-based Bruster’s since 2002.

But instead of melting away, Sahene, who’d previously helped expand the c brand to more than 3,000 units, put Bruster’s in strategy mode with an eye toward giving current and new operators a different path for growth.

“The question was, how do we reduce the initial investment and how do you broaden the appeal to a different group of franchisees?” says Sahene. The answer revealed itself in the form of two new design concepts for a brand that had previously only offered one: purchase at least a half acre of real estate for a freestanding building with walk-up windows and a $1 million price tag. The endcap and inline options, meanwhile, give operators the choice to lease space and offer indoor seating—and they can be done for $250,000 to $300,000.

Jim Sahene

Jim Sahene, CEO of Bruster’s.

The change has proved popular. Twenty endcap stores are open, and January 2014 saw the launch of the inline concept in Savannah, Georgia, with four others added since. In the first five months of 2015 Bruster’s opened eight new locations, including its first in California, with another six slated for summer. “We’d done more in those five months than in the last five years,” says Sahene of the brand that’s approaching the 200-store mark.

With the additional design options—plus its more aggressive marketing focus and product innovation commitment—Bruster’s has the complete package, says Southern California franchisee Larry Johnson, who opened Bruster’s shops in Cypress and Cerritos earlier this year and is planning four more stores.

“The ability to have flexibility on the store model, especially in this market, is huge,” says Johnson of his endcap and freestanding locations. Given California’s weather advantage, Johnson opted for the walk-up window designs he says offer better exposure and a better experience to customers.

His Cypress store hit $75,000 in sales during its first month and Sahene says the location is projected to do double the sales average of even the brand’s highest performing stores.

“Our goal is to have million-dollar ice cream stores,” says Johnson.

Setting records

Sales overall are churning again as Bruster’s reached $60 million systemwide in 2014, with average unit volumes at $375,000. Though still behind 2008-2009 numbers, when total sales for the company topped out at about $75 million, Sahene points to 10 continuous quarters of same-store sales growth as reason for optimism.

“Forty-five stores set sales records last year,” says Sahene. Bruster’s also recently announced a 10-unit development deal in South Korea, with site selection underway in Seoul and Busan. Bruster’s already operates outside the United States with two stores in Guyana.

In Fort Mill, South Carolina, Scot Reed is keeping a watchful eye on the performance of Bruster’s new design concepts. Reed, a former Pittsburgh resident who often took his children to the local Bruster’s, became a franchisee in 2004 after moving to the border suburb of Charlotte. He’s been happy with his single location but the introduction of different store models has him considering multi-unit ownership.

“What first sold me was having the long-term investment in the property and the cash flow with ice cream,” says Reed, along with what he calls “just fantastic” ice cream products. “We own our building, we own our property.

“Now this could potentially be our home store … I like that the opportunity is there for us to consider different models. We’re watching to get a feel for what type of volume they do.”

Reed credits Bruster’s with developing a growth strategy that doesn’t just concentrate on new store openings but also on existing franchisees, who Sahene agrees are really propelling the company’s growth.

Bruster’s has invested heavily in training, says Sahene, and in providing current franchisees with options for making store improvements such as interior updates and new outdoor seating.

“There’s great consistency across the organization, its training and the reinforcement,” says Reed, who this summer updated his store with the new paint scheme.

“We’ve stayed true to our core. We haven’t tried to be anything else,” he continues. “When people move away from their core business, they get in trouble.”

For Bruster’s, growth, it seems, is as real as its real ice cream.

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