A chicken lunch changes banker’s life
When Ellen Hui first got into the chicken business, she hid when her former
coworkers came into the restaurant. Today, she’s diversifying into pizza, with plans to someday launch her own concept.
After Ellen Hui left her executive position at Bank of America in San Francisco to run a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits franchise, she'd hide whenever one of her former colleagues came into her store. "I spent about three years yearning for my old job," Hui said.
Today, we bet many of those bankers yearn to be Ellen Hui, who owns six Popeyes franchises, is opening three Extreme Pizza franchises and is developing a shopping center. Someday, she expects to own a franchise system herself.
Ironically, it was those same fellow bankers who introduced Hui to franchising almost 20 years ago. "When a Popeyes opened near the bank," Hui told members of the Women's Franchise and Distribution Forum at the recent Franchise Expo in Miami, "many of them started eating lunch there, but I had no desire to join them. One day a group of coworkers said, 'You're going.' I tried it, loved it and took my (now ex) husband back for dinner that night. I told him I was going to buy the restaurant."
Hui said in a later phone interview that by the time the Popeyes franchisee was willing to sell them one of his locations, she'd just given birth to their first child and it was her partner who really wanted the restaurant. "We needed over $300,000 and he talked his parents into refinancing their house to raise the money," she said.
Ellen Hui needed convincing to go to the new Popeyes near work for lunch. When
Hui and her partner planned to be absentee owners, but within six weeks realized that their manager was cheating them. "Although our agreement was that my husband would run the restaurant, I was suddenly stuck with it," Hui said. "I had to quit my job and get into the kind of work my parents tried so hard to keep me out of." Hui worked 10 hours a day Monday through Friday, eight hours on weekends, "earning a lot less than at my old job."
After about two-and-a-half years of this, someone from Popeyes corporate dropped by and said, "You now have a job that pays you $75,000 a year. If you owned three Popeyes, you'd have yourself a company." "Light bulbs went off," Hui said. After she and her partner paid off his parents, they took over and remodeled a distressed Popeyes in San Lorenzo, then purchased a small parcel of land in San Pablo to build a third. By the time they divorced four years ago, they'd built their multi-unit company to 12 Popeyes, six of which Hui still operates.
Hui's parents need not have worried, because their daughter's MBA was far from wasted. She used her analytical skills to convince corporate (Popeyes is owned by AFC Enterprises in Atlanta) to change some of their practices. "Every quarter, corporate would send out a list of promotional items, like a new fish sandwich or a chicken taco, that we'd have to select for the following quarter," Hui said. "We had no idea how to make these items or what they'd taste like. I finally convinced our regional business consultant to let area franchisees get together to cook up each new item, so we could make a more educated decision." She also brought West Coast issues to the national office, like the need for more healthy items and the importance of 'green' packaging. But when she spoke up about the lack of women and minorities on AFC corporate and franchisee boards, corporate stopped inviting her to join franchisee committees, she said.
By then, Hui was looking for a second concept. "Popeyes is an East Coast company which, especially at first, caused distribution problems," she said. "I wanted to find something local, that fits the California lifestyle." Hui and her three children were fans of Extreme Pizza, a San Francisco-based company founded in the mid-1990's by partners who loved extreme sports, like snowboarding.
"Ellen came up to me at a multi-unit conference in Las Vegas two years ago," said one of the Extreme Pizza co-founders, James Ryan, "and said, 'I'd like to buy your company.' After I told her we're not for sale, we began talking about her joining us as a franchisee. We have 32 franchises in six states and most of them are single units. Ellen signed on to develop the territory around San Jose and Santa Clara and will be our most experienced franchisee. We believe she'll whip us into shape."
Doug Wong met Hui in 2000 when Wong was involved with two other brands AFC owned then, Church's Chicken and Cinnabon. "I've always held her in high regard because she was able to transition her business skills into the food industry and be successful there," he said. Wong, who still works in Atlanta and is now director of franchise sales for Denny's, said he and Hui have become good friends. "We rely on each other a lot, to do gut checks on each others' thinking."
Hui is thinking big. When no one was developing a corner where she wanted to put a Popeyes, she and a partner bought the three-acre parcel around it and are now developing a 27,000 square foot retail center there. And she'd still like to own a franchise company herself. "I've learned so much in the past 18 years, I'd like to use that knowledge to build a whole system," she said.