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Franchise Buying Guide

Buying a Restaurant Franchise

Do you have what it takes to be a successful restaurateur? Our franchise expert offers some words of wisdom.
Presented by Guidant Financial
Guidant Financial specializes in helping entrepreneurs purchase new franchises using their retirement funds.

There are many different types of business format franchises, but when most people think of a franchise business, their first thought is of food. The success and growth of the many big brand-name fast-food franchises makes this a logical first stop in the thinking process.

When evaluating restaurant franchises, you must focus on the characteristics of the business from a franchisee's perspective to determine whether this industry is the right one for you. There are some wonderful advantages to having a food business, but there are also some challenges you need to be aware of before proceeding in this industry.

In assessing a food business, the main advantages are typically considered to be:

  • Built-in Demand. Consumers have been trained to look for franchise food outlets, which can represent a big advantage for a startup. You need to make sure the product offering of the food franchise has "staying power" in the marketplace rather than being a fad or fringe product.
  • Ease in Financing. Traditional lending sources are very familiar with the real estate and equipment needs of a prepared food operation, which may ease the challenge of obtaining startup financing. These sources also like the relatively high revenue production of a typical food franchise.
  • Track Record of Success. Many food franchises have multiple units and have been operating for a while, making it fairly simple to determine and verify their track record of success. That can help you make an informed decision about the business prior to getting involved.
  • Prestige. Whether valid or not, many people associate a high degree of glamour with a person who owns a food franchise business. The fairly high degree of status associated with this occupation is important to many prospective franchisees.

In assessing a food business, the main disadvantages typically include:

  • High Initial Investment. Most food franchises require a significant investment to get started. Food preparation stations, sinks, stoves and ovens, grease disposal systems, venting requirements, customer seating and bathroom areas--the list goes on.
  • Zoning and Code Compliance. The government goes to great lengths to ensure that any food business meets numerous codes and guidelines so the food product is safe for the public to consume. Complying with these regulations, both initially and on an ongoing basis, is time consuming and expensive. Virtually any food franchisor will provide extensive assistance to a new franchisee in terms of dealing with zoning, permits, code compliance and all other site-related issues, because the new franchisee probably doesn't have a clue how to do this whereas the franchisor has lots of experience on these matters. If a food franchisor doesn't offer extensive support on these matters (you can determine this during your conversations with existing franchisees), pick a different one.
  • Labor Challenges. Most food businesses require the services of a significant number of low paid employees to conduct their business. Turnover of these employee positions is normally very high, and recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of acceptable quality employees is typically listed as the number-one challenge in any food franchise.
  • Relatively Low Margins. In food operations, the franchisee has both the cost of goods sold and labor costs to contend with in an environment that is very price sensitive, especially in fast-food outlets. The net margins of most food businesses are not nearly as high as other (particularly service-related) franchises, and you're also dealing with spoilage, theft and other issues that you don't find in many other types of franchise businesses.
  • Quality of Life. As mentioned above, many people associate a high level of status with owning a food business, at least until they understand the facts of a typical food franchisee's life. The hours can be very long, as you're often the first to arrive and the last to go home. The labor challenges can be very frustrating and are the main reason owners cite for wanting to leave this industry. Then there's also the issue of what a person smells like after spending long hours each day in a food franchise.

The secret to success in evaluating any food franchise (or any franchise for that matter) is to clearly identify the skills necessary to succeed, then make sure you either have them or go do something else. The food business can be very rewarding to a person who has the special blend of skills and aptitude to make the business work, and these operators are among the most respected in all of franchising because of their success.

The obvious question, assuming you don't have previous experience running a food business, is "how do you know whether you have these skills and aptitudes?" The best answer, and one that is actually required by a few of the most successful food franchises, is to go to work in an existing unit and shadow the present owner until you've gained enough experience to know for sure. This isn't going to be a process involving an hour or two--more likely it'll take at least a few weeks to know for sure. The time commitment involved may seem high, but it is infinitely better for you to find out early (and without risking your life savings) if this business is not for you.

A final consideration related to food franchises is this: Some food franchises run very simplified operations and can provide a business model that avoids a number of the disadvantages listed above. These are typically businesses that don't involve cooking a product, at least not on site. They may use a commissary system to deliver ready-to-serve products, or products that only have to be assembled in order to serve, to the franchise outlet. These types of businesses, like a Subway outlet, can avoid many issues but almost always still have to deal with the employee issues discussed above.

Give some serious thought to the franchisee role in terms of the tasks required in a typical day or week, the hours worked, the investment and the possible returns. Make sure you know what it takes to succeed and that you possess those qualities. Then you'll know whether being a restaurateur is right for you.

Jeff Elgin has almost 20 years of experience franchising, both as a franchisee and a senior franchise company executive. He's currently the CEO of FranChoice Inc., a company that provides free consulting to consumers looking for a franchise that best meets their needs.

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