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Wendy’s Sees Best Growth Since 2005

Some of Wendy’s initiatives seem to actually be working. They have modernized their design and led a good marketing campaign around the pretzel bacon burger. I’d be feeling better if I was a franchisee. Wendy’s (WEN) says company-owned same-store sales increased 3.2% in North America during Q3 and franchise-owned stores improved 3.1%. The two-year stack for same-store sales was 5.9% to mark the best growth since 2005. The restaurant operator improved its margins with a favorable sales mix and lower paper and beverage costs factoring in. (PR) Company-operated North America restaurant margin was 15.6 percent, compared to 13.9 percent last year. The margin improvement was due to a favorable sales mix, with lower paper and beverage costs, partly offset by a 100 basis-point increase in commodity costs. From a press release: CEO says “Our Image Activation program, which started in 2011, has accelerated over the past two years, producing increased traffic and higher sales,” Brolick said. “We have developed a standard ultra-modern design with optional upgrades that provide investment flexibility to meet the needs of our diverse system. We are confident our solutions will work for 85 to 90 percent of our franchisees.” The Company is offering an incentive program to qualified franchisees commencing Image Activation restaurant reimages during 2013. About 100 of these restaurants are currently in various stages of active process, and the Company believes most of them will be open or under construction by the end of 2013. In addition to the expected 2013 increase in Image Activation new builds and reimages, the Company continues to expect further acceleration in Image Activation reimages for both Company-operated and franchise restaurants during 2014.

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Macaroni Grill acquiring units

Dallas-based Romano’s Macaroni Grill (a Brinker Intl restaurant) is buying four locations from a bankrupt franchisee. The locations are in San Francisco Bay (3) and Seattle (1). The parent company now owns all but five of its 200+ Romano’s Macaroni Grill restaurants. There has been a movement of public companies selling corporate owned units to franchisees, but now I’m seeing more examples of franchisors acquire units from franchisees. The reason is probably driven mostly by low valuations of the acquired businesses.

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Unintended Franchise Killer – Street and Rail Construction Projects

Imagine you have the perfect location for your franchise near a stadium with lots of pedestrian traffic. You spend $450,000 to get your first franchise built and ready. Opening week was wonderful with sales of $12,000 and subsequents weeks continue on with profits. Then, a major light rail construction project starts out front and blocks your sidewalk. After a few weeks of jack hammers and tarps blocking views, nobody is venturing down your way because they don’t want to deal with the noise and nuisance. The construction project lasts for 8 months. A similar story has happened in Minneapolis, MN in an area called “Stadium Village” near Target Field. Quiznos couldn’t afford to stay open. Independent fast food places such as Hot Diggity Dog and Leo’s Burritos also shut down with no word whether they will reopen. This is a really unfortunate and sad situation. These projects are often years in the making so perhaps the franchisee should have anticipated this development. Nevertheless, with strict operating rules in a franchise agreement there is not much the franchisee can do to adjust operations.

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Franchisor’s Business Coaches

Most franchisors with 20+ units assign dedicated business coaches to franchisees to ensure operating compliance, help solve problems and bolster sales. For example, here is what Jimmy Johns claims to do: 1 coach per 26 stores and they visit for a full day at least once every 30 days. If there are any issues or suggestions they are discussed with corporate if necessary and a written response is provided thr following day. The reasoning goes that nothing should linger and everything is fixed immediately. As comparison, Culvers has one coach for about 20 stores, but obviously they are much bigger stores. I believe Culvers has had only one store closure. A ratio under 40 units per coach is better than average.

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Another Gaming Chain in Trouble

GAME, the European and Australian retail gaming giant with over 1,200 outlets similar to USA’s GameStop and Play n Trade, filed for Bankruptcy. GAME has 600 hundred stores in the UK with a £15 million rent bill per quarter and a £10 million wage bill per month. Would their reach be more effective with only a few marquee retail stores and the rest online sales?  While gaming is experiencial and in store demos and marketing can help drive sales, similar to retail book stores the overhead laden higher prices will push customers to online. Competitors, especially in the gamer demographic, will buy from tye cheapest outlet. Further, many games are downloaded bypassing even online retailers like Amazon. I wouldn’t buy a Play n Trade for those reasons, even though the used game disc market is alive and well.

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[Updated Mar 15, ’12] Pizza Fusion agrees to buyout from Unique Pizza & Subs

Unique Pizza and Subs, a 7-unit pizza-sports bar chain traded on OTC Pink Current tier, has agreed to acquire the well branded Pizza Fusion, an 11-unit organic pizza chain. I think there is more to this story, as Pizza Fusion seems to be a much strong player than Unique Pizza & Subs. It could be seen as more of reverse merger with Pizza Fusion as the driver, whereby Pizza Fusion can now be publicly traded and potentially raise more cash for expansion. [updated March 15, 2012] I found another interesting article about this merger. [more here] It seems there may be some Bacon Raton, FL penny stock promotion linked to this merger, and it’s not the first time Pizza Fusion has flirted with the Pink Sheets marketplace to attract needed capital, as you can read below: Trafford, Pa.-based Unique Pizza, which recently issued news releases about two franchising agreements, also said in January it was in the “secondary stage” of selling its pizza in China. The China announcement, which indicated a financial partner was actually still seeking a distributor in China, was issued by Mirador Consulting via PR Newswire and gave a Boca Raton phone number. Boca Raton is known nationwide as a center of penny stock promoters and penny stock companies, which would include Pink Sheets companies like Unique Pizza. Unique’s Pizza 2007 filing said the company had raised $718,993 of a $1 million offering, so one question is how the current deal will be funded. The news release said the deal is subject to execution of a definitive agreement and other conditions including the availability of working capital. A chart on MarketWatch shows no trading volume in Unique Pizza since January, when the announcement of the China deal and a sports pizza sports bar were made. However, …

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Tim Horton may switch from fresh to premade donuts, judge says

http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2012/02/28/tim-hortons-class-action.html Justice George Strathy of the Ontario Superior Court recently issued a summary judgment in favour of Tim Hortons, dismissing an attempt by some franchisees to argue that the chain was wrongly profiting from a switch in how the company makes its baked goods. Under what’s known as the “Always Fresh Conversion” several years ago, the company stopped making baked goods from scratch in each location every day, and instead started shipping partially baked items that had been flash frozen before final baking in ovens at all Tims locations every morning. The new system has proven very profitable for the parent company, but some franchisees complained it simply downloaded new costs to them while the parent company pocketed the savings. The case also alleged that Tims was requiring franchisees to sell new lunch menu items at break-even prices — or sometimes even at a loss. The plaintiffs allege that’s a breach of their franchise agreements, which states ingredients would be sold to franchisees at commercially reasonable prices. The judge dismissed all aspects of the suit, saying Tims is well within its rights as a franchisor to implement new procedures and technologies to its business model “In order to keep the system healthy and competitive, the franchisor must be permitted to introduce new products, new methods of production or sale, and new techniques,” the ruling reads. “It would not be commercially reasonable to require that the franchisor can only implement system-wide changes … if the proposed change is [demonstrated] to be an improvement that benefits that particular franchisee.” Nearly ever franchise agreement I’ve read allows the franchisor flexibility in specifying what products must be sold, even if this involves a fundamental change in the way the product is produced. I doubt the primary motivation of Tim Horton’s is financial, I’m …

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Burger King tries home delivery

http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/story/2012-01-12/burger-king-delivery/52604104/1 At first I thought Burger King delivery was a dumb idea.  But, after thinking about it a while, it may prove to be a smart move – in the right locations and for the right premium. Burger King is using custom packaging for the fries that won’t trap steam to make them soggy, but it will trap the emitted heat.  The delivery bags probably have a heating element too. I could see delivery being a surprise hit with customers. There no reason pizza should be the only popular delivery food.  Jimmy Johns owes a lot of its success to delivery.

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Taco John’s Tries Lowering Food/Labor Costs w/Workshops

Taco John’s, a “West-Mex” fusion fast food restaurant, held voluntary workshops in most of its territories for franchisees to learn ways to reduce their food and labor costs with a goal of 1% reduction. They were in the form of interactive round tables and discussion about how to streamline operations, and there was lots of networking between unit manager.  Also discussed were ways to better advertise locally. It sounds like a great way to reach out to franchisees.  Hopefully it will help.

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Franchisors at or near Bankruptcy

Here is a partial list of franchisors that have filed bankruptcy, or are reported near filing bankruptcy recently. Perkins Marie Callender’s Old Country Buffet Real Mex Restaurants Giordano’s Cork and Olive Dial-a-Mattress Bally Total Fitness Friendly’s Souper Salad Sbarro Dippin’ Dots The Little Gym Fatburger (A little controversial -Fatburger parent company not part of bankruptcy, but the two subsidiaries accounted for 72% its total revenue in 2008. The bankruptcy came under pressure from G.E. Capital Business Asset Funding, which Fatburger owed $3.9 million for defaulted loans.) Mrs. Fields / TCBY A bit older bankruptcies.  It shows that some brands can recover quite well, especially Denny’s, Day’s Inn, 7-Eleven and Church’s Chicken: Bennigan’s – 2008 Baker’s Square – 2008 Roadhouse Grill – 2007 Ground Round -2004 Boston Market – 1998 Denny’s – 1997 Church’s Chicken – 1991 Sizzler’s – 1996 Krystal – 1995 Day’s Inn – 1990 7-Eleven – 1990

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Giordano’s, You Fool

  What a sad story. Giordano’s is a leader and well-known institution in Chicago’s stuffed crust pizza game. It owns 10 corporate  stores and manages 35 franchised locations in Illinois and Florida.  Somehow this chain, where people (often tourists) stand in long line for an overrated $20 deep dish pizza, owed $45 million to a lender and had to file bankruptcy in February when it stopped paying back a note. Bidders for the company include the parent companies of Gino’s East and Connies Pizza. It sounds like they over-leveraged their real estate acquisitions and didn’t have enough income for debt coverage. Giordano’s was acquired by VPC Capital Partners in Chicago for $52 million.  It’s chairman, Richard Levy, hopes to elegantly apply his legal, bio-pharmaceutical, and energy background into the pizza industry, an obviously natural next step for him and sure to reassure franchisees.  Luckily, the Giordano’s family is going to stick around and collect big salaries to help out.   Don’t the new owners look happy in this picture (pic courtesy of Chicago Tribune) to the right?   They have BIG plans for the brand, hoping to clone the success of Paul Newman’s $200 million grocery business including developing a line of products for grocery stores “similar to what Paul Newman has done for salad dressing” and expanding the restaurant footprint beyond its Chicago and Florida markets.

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Commodity food prices drop, Pizza stocks rise, Pie Five Pizza starts strong

Cheese Average block cheese prices continued to drop last week on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, averaging $1.77 from $1.81 the previous week. Cheese reached its 3-month high of $2 on Nov. 15, but continues to drop on slowing demand. Wheat Wheat prices fell again last week on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, averaging $8.43 from $8.54 the previous week. Two weeks ago, wheat was as high as $9.26. The current multi-month low is the result of a larger-than-expected grain output from China, and a positive jobs report from the U.S. Pizza company stocks Pizza stocks were boosted by lowering commodity prices and an upward trending stock market the past week. Pizza Hut parent Yum! Brands Inc. closed last week at $56.25, up nearly $4 from the previous week, which closed at $52.72. The company hit its 52-week high in August when shares were $56.72. Yum! traded as low as $46.40 in January. Domino’s closed last Friday at $33.56 up from $30.51 the previous week. DPZ hit its 52-week high earlier in the day on Friday, trading at $33.81. Shares remain substantially higher over this time last year when the company traded at $14.72. The company has a P/E ratio of 30.8, above the average leisure industry P/E ratio of 22.4 and above the S&P 500 P/E ratio of 17.7 Papa John’s closed last week at $37.25, up from $35.50 the previous week. PZZA hit its 52-week high earlier in the week, at $38.18. PZZA’s 52-week low was last December when it traded at $25.83. CEC Entertainment Inc., parent company of Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, closed out last week at $33.17, up from $32.35 the previous Friday. CEC hit its 52-week low of $27.42 in September. The company hit its 52-week high of $41.75 in July. Pizza Inn closed at $6.28 …

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Tasti D-Lite acquires Planet Smoothie

I didn’t see this one coming. Planet Smoothie is solid brand with a loyal customer base. I hope Planet Smoothie received a significant premium in this acquisition by Tasti D-Lite, and the existing franchisees have some protections. Tasti D-Lite was acquired by a private equity firm in 2007 majority owned by Jim Amos, who promptly appointed himself CEO after the acquisition. Amos was formerly CEO of Mail Boxes Etc before selling to UPS, former CEO of Sona MedSpa and I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt. I don’t know Amos personally, but from what I have heard he is a classic promoter. He’s likable and has the right persona for a CEO. But, from what I hear he runs his mouth too much and gets into trouble confidently over-promising results and being extremely difficult with existing franchisees. He’s good as selling franchises and controlling the franchisor’s cash flow. He’s had to settle out of court in a dishonesty-related law suits in his previous CEO roles. The hybride ice cream/yogurt pumped by Tasti D-Lite is smooth and creamy thanks to multiple gums and thickeners, but most people only care about the relatively low calories versus full fat ice cream. I understand the strategic benefit for Tasti D-Lite: they can distribute their frozen yogurt through the 100+ existing Planet Smoothie locations, the customer base has a lot of crossover, smoothie recipes can incorporate frozen yogurt, and hopefully per-unit increase sales will increase more than 25%. It looks like the preferred transition option for franchisees is to allow units to co-brand the concept. I’m sure the Planet Smoothie franchise agreement was favorable for Amos. My guess is there is a clause whereby existing franchisees have to at least transition to selling the yogurt menu quite soon, but conversions to dual-branded units probably can’t be …

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Reversal: Franchisor acquiring Franchisees

The trend has been for franchisors, especially for publicly traded ones, to sell more and more of their corporate owned stores. Why? The financial argument has been that earnings are stabilized by managing a franchise operation (simple income streams) rather than managing the nuances of local operating businesses. And, for the most part that makes sense both financial and practically. One company who is bucking that trend is Swisher Hygiene, acquired in 2004 for less than $20 million by Steven Berrard and Wayne Huizenga…the team behind AutoNation, Blockbuster and Waste Management. While their business haven’t all been models of success except for AutoNation, they have grown business fast and made a lot of money. Berrard was also CEO of Jamba Juice. You probably have never heard of Swisher Hygiene. The company sells low cost chemicals and cleaning services to business, especially foodservice and restaurants, such as the 3-compartment sink systems where EcoLab has traditionally dominated. In 2004, it was making an average of $17 per week per customer, with a base of about 30,000 clients. They feel the opportunity in this $9 billion market is in increasing sales to each existing customer and acquiring new ones. Swisher also was an amalgamation of 93 franchisees all working out of their trucks. Now, they acquired most of their franchisees, most recently their Chicago franchisee. The stock has fluctated greatly in the past year when it went from $2 to $10 per share, now it’s back down to about $5 per share. I don’t know if they will succeed, but it will make for an interesting case study one day. Hopefully the franchisees who took a buyout with stock will be better off than they were as franchisees.

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Forum Will Be Back Soon; Blog Posting Will Resume

I apologize for the forum being down for so long. I will install a backup and get it functioning again. There is a lot of great content in there. On a similar note, I had a new son born a few months ago which has absorbed most of my spare time. I will resume regular posting in mid-August. Thank you for your patience and loyalty.

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