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Adjust but Don’t Stop Franchise Development, Brands Say


Even amid the crisis wrought by the COVID-19 virus, franchises need to plan for future development, says Bryon Stephens of Pivotal Growth Partners.

Bryon Stephens was vice president of new business development at Marco’s Pizza during the 2008 financial crisis when, as he put it, many franchise brands were scaling back growth plans but Marco’s “was the contrarian.”

“Everybody saw us grow during those tough times and they said, if they can continue to grow during that crisis, they can grow through anything,” said Stephens, who was later named president of the brand and helped Marco’s eventually grow to nearly 800 restaurants by the end of 2017. “We got some of the best real estate deals we’ve ever gotten because we were among the few opening new stores.”

The crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is of course drastically different, Stephens noted, but franchises need to be thinking now about how they’ll come out on the other side. “This is the time for smart people … to double down and really become aggressive with what you’re doing,” he said. “Be a contrarian” while others are pulling back.

Stephens is now the co-founder of Pivotal Growth Partners, which focuses on accelerating emerging brands. One of those brands, Florida-based frozen treats franchise Jeremiah’s Italian Ice, is moving ahead with store openings in the coming weeks and is also revamping its discovery day process to be entirely virtual.

“We’re modifying our grand opening programs basically to not include a grand opening event,” said Stephens of expected openings this spring in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The brand already moved to carryout and delivery at all 23 of its Florida stores, along with drive-thru where available, and new store will open with that sales focus.

“Really the only announcement would be to turn on the open sign,” he noted. “We don’t want to drive a ton of foot traffic until it’s safe to do so. And we don’t want any public sentiment to work against us … it’s really about reading the tea leaves in each local market.”

While thus far Stephens said Jeremiah’s hasn’t seen a downturn in lead generation, “we’ve adapted quickly to change our discovery day process” and forgo the usual in-person visit to the brand’s Orlando headquarters.

Using the World Manager platform, a learning management system, Jeremiah’s created a new section specifically for potential candidates that includes all the information and presentations that would normally be provided during the discovery day. A complete reporting dashboard allows the franchise development team to monitor where candidates are at in the process, and video calls using Zoom “mean we can continue to create and foster the relationship,” said Stephens.

“Not being able to move people through the funnel is not an option,” he said.

For acai bowl brand SoBol, which has locations throughout New York plus Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and most recently Chino Hills, California, a built-in emphasis on takeout and delivery is helping mitigate some of the effects of various stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. While sales are still down slightly, Nick Pesko, SoBol’s director of marketing, said all but two of the brand’s 41 locations are open and right now it’s moving ahead with plans to open three locations in April.

One of those stores, set to open in Long Island, is “going to be a unique opening,” said Pesko. “Most likely it’s going to open with only takeout and delivery. They’re next to a hospital, they’re ready to open, their staff is trained."

“We’re not going to let this completely hinder every aspect of our business,” he added.

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at




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