In my second year as a franchise owner, I realize that the job really wasn’t for everyone—but that it was definitely for me.
The winter of 2011 was hard. I was in my second consecutive year of operating my Erbert & Gerbert’s at a daily loss, working over 100 hours a week and sleeping at the store on weekends with only four hours off between closing and opening shifts. I saw consistent gains in sales, quality and recognition in our market, but I was trying to make up for two failed attempts in the market by previous franchisees. I was never sure if our increases would outpace our losses, or even if that week would be the final week of operations.
Getting from such a bleak place to solvency was a harrowing, educational, exhausting time that stretched me beyond what I thought were my limits. The recipe for what kept me going through that period included a few cups of preparation, a gallon of effort, a rounded tablespoon of desperation and maybe even a pinch of disillusion. However, what helped me most was having the right personality for being a franchise owner. That this work was a fit for me physically and mentally, with the ability to prepare and execute proper operations, kept me focused and driven and, ultimately, kept the doors open.
By definition a franchisee must be a team player. From the very onset of their involvement with their franchisor they enter into an acquiescent relationship, relinquishing the right of autonomy for the privilege of security. While my store was struggling, one of our most popular items was discontinued from our product line due to poor sales across the system. An independent owner might purchase the item directly from the distributor to increase their bottom line, but a franchisee’s responsibility is to respond to actions taken by the franchise. This cannot be an issue for a franchisee. Acquiescing does not mean you are a sycophant. It means absorbing changes you have no control over and focusing on future gains as a team player.
Being a team player in a franchise system applies both physically and emotionally. I am often enamored and a little bit jealous of individual restaurateurs and what they can accomplish. They are folks who wanted to start their own team instead of joining one. During those 100-hour weeks in 2011, one of my biggest struggles was realizing the potential damage I could do the brand and still being unable to avoid it.
A franchisee must have the guts and determination to sleep on the floor in the break room when needed, but also the knowledge that overextending yourself does no favors to the brand and is just a bad idea. Working hard only works if you work smart as well, and a successful franchise knows and lives that. I was aware I could not afford to pay an employee to work the hours I was putting in and took the opportunity to ensure operational excellence, going heavy on ‘working harder’ but adding in some ‘working smarter’ along the way. The franchisee has a good deal of their daily routine already dictated to them by the franchisor, which frees them up to focus on implementation instead. They are allowed to work worry-free about product prices or what soups are at the distributor, and instead can focus on maintaining the quality of the product in their store and the soups they offer that day.
To put it in comic book terms, a franchisee is Captain America to the individual business owner’s independent Iron Man. Their mission is set clearly to them and they know the protocols for achieving that mission. They can work harder, and by force of personality and determination, can hold sway over the quality of operations, customer interactions, public opinion and goodwill of the business. A good franchisee must be present and active in order to establish and maintain a positive relationship with their community and customers. If the franchisee visits their location only once a week they miss the request from Big Bothers & Big Sisters for a donation to a prize raffle, or from a local shelter for emergency food donations. They miss the upset customer that could have been appeased with an apology and instead will never return. They aren’t around to notice shortcuts being taken in operations or witness failures in customer service in order to correct them.
The team that the franchisee is a part of extends both above and below them; they are obedient to the franchisor above and are responsible for the actions that take place at their location below. If a franchisee simply does not possess key ingredients, ones you cannot borrow from a neighbor when the responsibility of ownership becomes a reality for good or bad.
Joe Prusha is the owner of Erbert & Gerbert's in Milwaukee, Wisc., serving Eastside, Shorewood, Murray Hill, Riverwest and Downtown. As a young man, Prusha worked at Erbert & Gerbert's to pay for college then worked at a variety of restaurant concepts in order to evaluate their strengths and decided to open his Erbert & Gerbert's because they were the best he'd encountered. His Milwaukee location opened in 2009 and has been thriving since.