The newest executive chef on the Focus Brands payroll, Mark Gabrovic, has been laboring for the last two years to overhaul the menu for Jamba, the latest brand under the umbrella after the Atlanta-based parent of Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s acquired it in 2018. “The selection of the ingredients is so central,” he said while offering his latest products for a day of extreme taste-testing in the enormous test kitchen at headquarters.
Standing alongside six other chefs, one for each brand and each with one or two research and development specialists plus assistants, he walks the line between pleasing legacy customers while attracting new. There’s Mango A Go-Go, a sickeningly sweet classic from the olden days of Jamba, formerly called Jamba Juice and founded in 1990. “It’s a classic product of ours if they need a treat that day,” he said about customers.
But he’s more interested in blending up super-foods with pea protein, oat milk, turmeric shots or Apples n’ Greens, that last one gloppy in texture but deliciously fresh. He offers a product line of turmeric, ginger and wheatgrass shots, sold in six-packs and meant to be a health booster. “Shake ‘em and shoot ‘em,” he said with a laugh, encouraging his visitor.
Sorairo Cozy is his proudest offering, patterned after Jamba’s wildly popular Vanilla Blue Sky in the United States but adapted for Jamba’s international push. “When we opened up Japan our franchisee wanted to add some local tastes,” he said. Fermented rice gives the drink its umami, salty flavor, while blue algae offers color plus nutrition. “We had lines out the door” in Japan, he said. As of late last year, Jamba had just under 70 international locations, in South Korea, Thailand and Japan, and was gearing up for a major push abroad.
Like his fellow chefs at Focus, Gabrovic stands out with a rich and deep background, most recently working at Panera Bread and helping to create its clean-foods menu. He has a culinary degree and a food science degree, and spent many years in food manufacturing. A former U.S. Peace Corps worker as a community nutritionist, he put in stints at Cargill, Outback Steakhouse and Ventura Foods. He also owned and operated a small chain of Mediterranean bistros, a boon when developing menus for a franchise chain. “I feel like I can see it from what an operator would feel. I’ve had the sleepless nights,” he said.
‘There is need for scale to survive’
These days at Focus Brands, the pressure to perform comes from a new CEO, Jim Holthouser, a former Hilton executive who took the job in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit home in the United States, and his management team with many new faces. Kat Cole is the most famous to leave.
The longtime chief operating officer exited in December 2020 after a 10-year career, as the new CEO gets ready “for this acquisition tear that we’re going to go on,” she told Franchise Times. “He said, let’s architect through this together,” Cole said about her new boss since he arrived in February. First, the two leaders had to get the company, its franchisees and employees through the urgent early months of the pandemic crisis. Then, she turned attention to diversity and inclusion efforts as racial justice protests began around the world.
In the last 90 days of her tenure, Cole said, she and Holthouser focused on naming executives key to embark on an aggressive acquisition strategy, and he ultimately decided not to replace her role.
In an interview last December, Holthouser reflected on a busy year, sitting in a glassed-in conference room at headquarters, meant to be see-through as a sign of transparency and looking into a spacious lobby with movable chairs for hanging out (pre-COVID) and brightly colored signage for each of its seven brands. “We’ve had a great year, got a lot done,” he said, pointing among many other things to a restructuring.
McAlister’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Schlotzsky’s are now in the newly created restaurant group, and Holthouser said McAlister’s and Moe’s Southwest Grill have the most potential for growth. Erik Hess, former president of Moe’s and a former McDonald’s executive, was promoted to president of the group last September.
Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon and Jamba are in the new specialty brands group, with Jamba being the growth star there. Kristen Hartman was named president of the group; she joined Focus in 2012 and held the president role at Cinnabon and Carvel. Holthouser said he was also looking for efficiencies by, for example, moving the Northeast-based Auntie Anne’s to Atlanta headquarters.
Holthouser detailed an ambitious acquisition strategy last October, telling Franchise Times he wished to at least double the roughly 6,000 units under Focus Brands, to 13,000 or 14,000 units. “We need a great burger brand. We need a chicken brand,” he said at the time, adding to his wish list tacos, pizza, coffee and perhaps “health-conscious” brands like salads or Mediterranean.
“There is a need for scale to survive, and COVID has done nothing but accelerate that,” said Holthouser, who noted foodservice is “eerily” like the hotel business was 20 years ago, with many, many regional and local players that have today consolidated under a handful of mega-hoteliers.
In franchising in general, “the size of the ad fund, they need to be bigger,” he said. “In the 21st century it’s all about digital and mobile platforms, and it’s about data analytics, and it’s all powered by technology. Marketing in the 21st century is a lot more expensive. How do you pay for all that stuff?”
One answer is a surcharge that Focus Brands was planning to launch in January, in which customers will pay 30 cents or so for an order through its own digital apps or website. Holthouser did not want franchisees to bear the cost. “It’s hard to go back to owners” during a time like COVID-19. “It ends up being a small percentage. We tested it for many weeks,” he said about passing the charge to customers.
Through March of this year, however, no acquisitions had happened. “A lot of people are chasing deals,” said CFO Mike Dixon, who looks at a few opportunities a month. “We’ve got our targets.” In the meantime, both executives look at Focus Brands’ extensive culinary operation, with seven chefs and their attendant R&D teams, as something they will duplicate with any new acquisition, especially to keep franchisees of legacy brands happy.
There’s no point buying and developing unique brands if you’re going to turn them into commodities, in their view. And yes, the culinary operation is costly and extensive, Dixon said, declining to provide numbers, but innovation is imperative. “It’s ongoing. It never stops.”
New flavors built on the old
Back in the R&D center, Jennifer Holwill is holding up a 3-foot-long stick of cinnamon, horizontally. Wearing a white lab coat, with striking silver hair and black glasses, the executive chef and VP of research and development for Cinnabon explains why that piece of bark is the star of the show. “It’s really the cinnamon,” she said, in this case Makara cinnamon from Indonesia.
When you mix water with Chinese cinnamon, for example, it’s just watery. “But in our product it becomes very ooey-gooey,” she said, due to the high cellulose content. “They spent years finding the right cinnamon and the right dough,” she noted about Cinnabon’s early chefs. “There’s a lot of magic” in a Cinnabon.
There’s a lot of hard work, too, which includes finding an alternative source for the cinnamon, now that the families who farmed the trees and passed them down are moving on to other endeavors. “We want to have a contingency plan in place. They’re more into the tech jobs,” she said. She’s also busy creating LTOs, for international only, such as honey pistachio and lemon coconut. As for the classic roll, “We don’t tweak it,” she said. “We opened 35 years ago just on cinnamon rolls. People like to know and go back to that same product.”
Other projects include a launch with Walmart for CinnaBiscuit and Cinnapastry rolled out in 2020; a Cinnabon ice cream with Breyers; Cinnabon mini rolls for Pizza Hut, plus another 11 items ready for 2021. “It’s a brand with a lot of play and good global recognition,” she said.
Joining the taste test via Zoom is Auntie Anne’s chef for the past 20 years, Melanie Auxer. She’s based in Pennsylvania, where the brand was founded in 1988, and said she was unsure whether she would make the move to Atlanta.
She was working on a February 2021 rollout of pretzel rollups with meat and cheese, including turkey cheddar and bacon cheddar. Auntie Anne’s has more than 1,900 locations, about 730 of those international. She also shows off Almond Cream Cheese Stix with caramel dipping sauce, with a lovely crunch but super sweet.
A few stalls over, in person, is the Carvel team. Carvel is the oldest Focus brand, 87 years old this year. Tom Carvel borrowed $15 for an ice cream truck from the woman who would become his wife. Then he got a flat tire and some melting followed. “He realized soft ice cream does really well,” said Dave Fender, senior director of culinary R&D for Carvel. Carvel was founded in 1934 and became the first to franchise a retail ice cream shop in the United States, in 1947.
Fenner shows off two other Tom Carvel inventions: Fudgie the Whale and Cookie Puss ice cream cakes, the latter with a big nose and the former with a whimsical tale. His job, he believes, is to take the classic chocolate and vanilla flavors that started Carvel and create new, like Ghirardelli Nutella Biscoff Cookie. “We talk with the chefs” at those brands whenever he does a collaboration, inviting them in for taste-testing, “and then I built the portfolio,” he explains.
He loves the history of Carvel. “It’s multi-generational. You hear memories about going to the prom dance and stopping at Carvel’s afterward,” he said.
‘The best job in the building’
Caroline Morris, vice president of menu management for Moe’s Southwest Grill, is a chef and food scientist who started in fine dining and education before getting a master’s degree. “I’m a subject matter expert in proteins,” she said. “Food science allows me to come in and say, what’s going on with chicken?” and how much moisture is in it. “It needs to be able to hold up for an hour on our line.”
When she joined Moe’s Southwest in November 2019, the food needed a rescue. “Our franchisees were saying our food isn’t what it used to be,” she said, citing as one example the trend toward low sodium in menus. “All of a sudden we have drift. We’re taking it back to what it used to be,” but with modifications.
For example, they had seven seasoning mixes, many with artificial ingredients and low sodium, but she strives for a balance. The former tortilla had 890 milligrams of sodium; another version had 350. Her compromise solution: 550 milligrams.
She gestures toward a huge array of products, offering each for sampling. “Here’s our queso that we hang our hat on,” she said. A loaded steak and potato burrito is a recent limited time offer. “We sold 154,000 of them in a four-week LTO,” she said. She even asks her assistant to demonstrate the proper way to roll a Homewrecker burrito, a signature Moe’s item that only stays together with the proper technique.
A few stations over is Jennifer Keil, executive chef of Schlotzsky’s since 2017. The impossible-to-spell brand started in Austin, Texas, in 1971, by Don and Dolores Dissman—not the family name, in other words. “The man who started it was with a child and playing with blocks, and that was the name on the top row,” explained a PR person.
Bread is the focus of the restaurant, a sought-after staple during pandemic times. “They’re packing the carbs, that’s for sure,” Keil said with a laugh. “Carbs make people happy.” Every store has a baker in-house, and in late December they were trying LTOs including cranberry pecan bread.
Keil owned and operated a slider restaurant called Slideways Public House, which she founded with her brother. Before that she was with a fine-dining group with 10 restaurants. Before that her family had a Southern restaurant called Thomas, her maiden name. “It was definitely a big transition” to Focus Brands from independent operator, but she believes her background serves her well in the kitchen. “This was my first time in a franchise operation. Owning a family business, you get a feel for what it’s like for franchisees.” Plus, “It’s a little easier to leave” at the end of the day. With your own business, “You take it to your pillow,” she said.
A bread with hot sauce is her latest experiment. “We try to take favorites and put a fun spin on it, put a bold spin on it,” she said, but notes that 50 percent of sales are of The Original sandwich. “It doesn’t mean that’s bad, but you do have to dial it back. It’s finding that balance between what’s the bold flavor but what’s not too funky.”
Dressed in a sharp black chef’s jacket, McAlister’s Deli Executive Chef William Eudy is showing off his latest LTO, a steak and mushroom sandwich that’s a monster, with 13 layers of ingredients, plus a homestyle chicken noodle soup. “This is a big, indulgent sandwich,” he said, which is an understatement. If that’s not enough, a Godiva Double Chocolate Cheesecake made by Cheesecake Factory can top it off.
“We think about our guest first, so familiar with a twist,” is his mantra at McAlister’s. “We take something familiar and McAlister-ize it.” He also offers McAlister’s signature tea, sweet or unsweetened, but starts by asking where I’m from. When I say Chicago, he replies. “Then, unsweetened.”
Eudy has been in the restaurant business for 30 years, including nearly six years with McAlister’s. He used to work in Chicago with Lettuce Entertain You, “like everybody,” he said, adding developing new menu items is “a team effort,” with his culinary director and fellow chefs at Focus Brands. “We talk about food, we experience food,” he said. “Nothing’s really new anymore, unless you’re doing molecular gastronomy. It’s a take on what’s been done before.”
Focus Brands has a rigorous process to introduce new menu items. First, concepts are described on “white papers,” sent out to guests on just a piece of paper. Second, online screeners get feedback, such as, “Would you order a cheesecake at McAlister’s?” Third, internal discussions start, with chefs developing products based on the online feedback. Fourth, focus groups with up to 120 people sample the product. Finally, products are tested in small markets, and only the top performers go companywide. It’s 18 to 24 months from start to finish, he said.
“I have the best job in the building,” he declared, perhaps speaking for all his fellow chefs as well. “We get to play with food every day.”
Fun Facts about 7 Focus brands
- Anne and Jonas Beiler founded Auntie Anne’s in 1988; it now has more than 1,900 global locations.
- The first Cinnabon bakery opened at SeaTac Mall in Seattle in 1985; it has more than 1,600 locations today.
- Father and son duo Rich and Greg Komen founded Cinnabon; Greg is still a franchisee with seven bakeries in Oregon, Washington and Minnesota.
- Cinnabon Cold Brew comes in two flavors, Cinnamon Roll and Vanilla.
- Jamba, with 850-plus units, sells At Home Smoothie kits in seven different flavors; just add water (or milk or juice.)
- Moe’s Homewrecker is a giant burrito stuffed with protein, rice, beans and more, and yes, guacamole is included, from Moe’s Southwest Grill, with 690-plus restaurants.
- McAlister’s Famous Tea is the signature drink at McAlister’s Deli, with more than 470 restaurants, founded 30-plus years ago by a dentist from Oxford, Mississippi.
- Tom Carvel not only founded Carvel, in 1934, but is also the inventor of soft serve ice cream (after his truck got a flat tire.) It has more than 400 locations.
- Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale ice cream cakes are two more creations by founder Tom Carvel.
- When started in 1971, Schlotzsky’s served only one sandwich, The Original, with 13 ingredients and big enough to fill the inside of a Frisbee. It has 300-plus units today.
Source: Focus Brands