Franchise Players is Entrepreneur’s Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email email@example.com.
In 12 years, Steve Sager opened 135 Subway stores. From 1999 to 2011, his office almost doubled average unit sales, helped develop the $5 Footlong and introduced speed ovens for toasting subs. Now, he's focusing his franchising know-how on a lesser-known brand: Persona Neapolitan Pizzeria. Here's why Sager decided to invest in a personalized pizza franchise and how he hopes to help it grow.
How long have you owned a franchise?
I have been in the franchise business since 1985. My first store was a Subway franchise in Miami, Fla. I continued to build stores until I owned 10 Subways in the Miami area by 1990. I went on to become what is called a development agent in the Subway world. First, I owned the Subway rights to Northern N.J. in 1992. I sold the rights in 1997 and moved back to South Florida I bought the development agent rights to South Florida in 1999 and sold them in 2011. During that period we opened 135 stores and almost doubled the average unit sales.
I am very proud of the innovation’s that came from our office during that time. The two most well-known were the development of the $5 Footlong and the use of speed ovens for toasting subs.
There are many reasons. Starting a business is usually an expensive and time consuming venture, and unfortunately the chances for success are difficult as best. With a franchise it takes out a lot of the learning curve. There are built-in policies and procedures that give a franchisee a better chance for success. It starts with the concept that has taken years to develop. A franchisor also assists with leasing, store plans, operation manuals, ongoing support at a store level and at a corporate level, a pooled advertising fund, name recognition, and a lot more.
What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
I was doing my best to get through college! I still regret not being a better student. I strung tennis rackets (great job). I pulled burned restaurant equipment out of restaurants that caught fire (terrible job). I also bartended and managed a full service restaurant. Then, I got into Subway when I was 24.
Why did you choose this particular franchisee?
Subway was really just timing, I was young and saw an opportunity and it worked out. Auntie Anne’s is relatively new for me. I started with Auntie Anne’s because of a joint venture with Subway and attached them to some of my existing Subways I owned in various Walmart locations. For us it was a great success. I really liked the Auntie Anne’s product and staff at their corporate office. So, I made the decision to open stand-alone locations without Subway.
Persona was a much different experience. I went to Santa Barbara to see the first location and wasn’t sure what to expect. All my experience with franchising was with well-established chains that had many locations. My attraction to Persona increased when I walked through the front door and was immediately greeted by Persona founders Joe Baumel and Glenn Cybulski. Their enthusiasm was amazing. They were so excited to show me around the store and see my reaction when I tried the pizza. They got the reaction they were looking for. I truly believe it is the best pizza I have ever had. The fact that it was cooked in 90 seconds in a wood fired oven was amazing to me. I told them that afternoon that I wanted to be part of Persona and bring the chain to South Florida.
How much would you estimate you spent before you officially open for business?
I am estimating my total cost to build out our first Persona location at about $400,000.
Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
I turn to my family and friends for advice. My wife has to reel me in sometimes, but she is a vegetarian and a picky pizza eater and keeps asking me “When are we opening Persona, I love the pizza." I am so lucky to have a great group of friends. Some of them have also taken the cross-country journey and have universally been big fans of the Persona concept.
On the research side, I looked at this area of the pizza segment and I was excited by it. The idea of customizing your own pizza and having a finished product at the customers table in under two minutes is amazing. The reality is there is a lot of completion in the segment, but my personal belief is Persona has the best product and best people.
What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
With Subway it is second nature. After opening over 140 stores there are not many surprises. Persona, on the other hand, will be a little different. Being a new franchise we have to educate customers on a new way to order and prepare a product they have been eating a certain way most of their lives. We will have to prove to them once they have it “the Persona way,” they will be hooked.
What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
Do your research! Pick a franchise that excites you. Enthusiasm is so important, do something you like. Reach out and talk to other franchisees, find out if they are happy with the franchisor, and most importantly, find out if they’re making money! Lastly, you must be willing to work hard. Very hard. Franchisees must understand the best concept and product will still fail if the franchisee either believes or hopes they will be working 9 to 5. That is where the enthusiasm comes into play. You really have to want it!
What is next for you and your business?
Persona is where I am putting my time and energy. I know the customized, create-your-own pizza segment is expanding rapidly. I feel Persona is different. Persona pizza is not machine pressed, but hand crafted. It also cooks faster while still using old world cooking methods. Persona is poised to be leader in the category and I am excited to be a participant in their growth.