Heaping plate for Focus Brands’ CFO Mike Dixon
Integrating Jamba Juice into Focus Brands is job one for Mike Dixon, CFO.
As a restaurant CFO for nearly 20 years, Mike Dixon of Focus Brands says the job of overseeing cash flow in the industry has steadily become more difficult because of tougher competition, shifting consumer habits, ongoing real estate challenges and the rise of third-party delivery and catering—but he’s still having fun.
With the ink still drying on the Focus Brands acquisition of Jamba Juice, he’s pleased with his team’s efforts to seamlessly integrate the smoothie concept into a company portfolio that includes McAlister’s Deli, Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Schlotzsky’s.
After the Jamba sale closed on September 12, Dixon said the Focus team is making big decisions about the brand’s future, as everyday operations integration is something the multi-branded franchisor has figured out to a T. Regarding his end of such deals, he hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the direct-to-consumer connection that’s inherent in the restaurant biz.
“Once you get restaurants in your blood it’s just exciting and you enjoy doing it,” Dixon said in an interview during the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in November. “I love the relatability of whatever brand you’re in with the consumer.”
As Focus learns more about the brand through research and experience, Dixon said the goal is to move the smoothie purveyor into a healthier direction that reflects the huge growth in the pressed juice and uber-healthy smoothie categories, which they view as a trend with staying power.
“Whether Jamba is healthy today or not is somewhat irrelevant,” he added. “It has the ability to play in the healthy category, and we’ll continue to expand the menu to move it in that direction without alienating core customers.”
He declined to say whether Jamba Juice customers would notice any radical changes, stressing that future changes would be more evolutionary than revolutionary. With a smaller footprint than the brand had at its high-water mark, most Jamba locations are now in freestanding buildings.
Drive-thru sites are still hard to get in most markets, but Dixon said adding them is a big opportunity for the brand going forward, and one Jamba was researching before the sale. College campuses and other non-traditional locations will be another component of the brand’s growth strategy.
‘A CFO speaking’
As for the rest of the Focus portfolio, the company thinks of its brands in three categories: restaurant brands, snacks and what it calls “a beverage platform” that includes Jamba Juice. Catering has provided a surprisingly strong boost for Auntie Anne’s, which Dixon said is doing incredibly well, as well as its traditional restaurant brands.
Third-party delivery remains an expensive proposition for franchisees, and challenging on a customer data level from a franchisor standpoint. Dixon equated the relationship between franchisors and third-party delivery brands to what happened in the hotel industry, where sales dramatically shifted to third-party websites.
Looking ahead, he feels the restaurant industry needs to work to regain its control of the consumer experience, as well as customer metrics. He also feels consumers will ultimately need to pay more for the luxury, rather than the restaurant itself.
“This is obviously a CFO speaking. I think the consumer should pay for the convenience of having food brought to them—I don’t think they pay enough today,” he said. “In-store traffic is going down, but that side of the business is growing so the consumer wants it, it’s just a question of what are they paying for it.”
As football’s postseason heated up, Dixon was over the moon about Cinnabon’s partnership with Pizza Hut that was a fixture during commercial breaks and brought a significant boost in sales and awareness for the cinnamon roll brand.
“If you watch college football or pro football you see it every second commercial, it’s wonderful,” he added. “That continued recognition of the brand helps all Cinnabon sales—it’s top of mind.”
Switching the topic to McAlister’s Deli, which is one of the fastest growing of Focus’ brands, he expects the brand to grow beyond its 400 locations that are primarily in the Southeast states, with a continued expansion up the Atlantic coast and further north into the Midwest. He said some of the deli brand’s best performing locations are in Indiana, which he said was somewhat unlikely for a southern hospitality concept.
Asked if Focus plans to acquire additional concepts, Dixon said the company is well positioned to bring in additional food or beverage brands that are currently franchised or would perform well in a franchise model.
“We don’t have a Starbucks or McDonald’s in our portfolio,” Dixon said. “But we have seven really strong brands and, if you manage them well the way we continue to do, they can perform exceptionally.”