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If it were easy, everyone would be doing it

January 29, 2021

My mention of Popeye’s a few weeks ago sparked some reactions in my email box. Interestingly, the great majority of them were positive, reinforcing my statement that (in spite of the recent departure of Hooters, Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays) dining franchises and/or chains are still going strong.

Not everyone can be a regular customer at a 5-star establishment. But this shouldn’t leave big families or people on fixed incomes out in the cold. Effective sit-down casual and fast-casual operations know the three keys to success: cost control, service and consistency. Today more than ever, there’s just too much competition out there to risk losing a customer to an equally good competitor.

Not all franchises are burger- and wing-centric eateries. One franchisor that has always fascinated me with the level of control and training exercised over its franchisees is Ruth’s Chris steakhouse. After all, it just seems to make sense that there’s a lot more … shall we say … flexibility … in the operation of a Hooters (average check per person - $17) than there is at a fine-dining brand like Ruth’s Chris (average check per person - $76).

Ruth Fertel, a divorced mother of two, mortgaged her home to buy a tiny New Orleans eatery called Chris’ Steaks. She built a spotless reputation for food and service, and when she changed the name to Ruth’s Chris’ Steak House 10 years later, friends begged her to let them open other locations. That might sound nice on the surface, but could they live up to the standards she had worked so hard to create? We’ve all heard the saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” so how could the hardworking Ms. Fertel ensure that each operation delivered her signature food and service - day after day, dish after dish?

Though she is no longer with us, her iconic steakhouse brand lives on. She is just one example of entrepreneurs who shaped a great idea into a popular franchise. Names like 5 Guys, Applebee’s, IHOP, Panera Bread, Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls and Greene Turtle come to mind, and it’s no surprise that some franchisees do a better job than others. In the spirit of “doing something right and doing it yourself,” many chains such as Cheesecake Factory, Hillstone Restaurant Group (Houston’s), Chipotle Mexican Grille, In-N-Out Burger and, on a smaller scale, even our local SoDel Concepts, Touch of Italy and Fins Hospitality choose to operate their own properties rather than trust them to others.

There are pros and cons to each model, and many of them come down to consistency. Primarily, in the case of a franchise, how does a franchisor (the parent company) ensure that its namesakes don’t stray from the concept that made them popular to begin with? In the case of Ruth’s Chris (the investment group that eventually took over the franchisor dropped the last apostrophe), potential franchisees undergo almost two months of intensive training. Even though the franchisee (the operator of the individual location) is ponying up much of the initial capital, they are required to wash dishes, mop the floor, wait tables, mix drinks and prepare meals under the supervision of corporate trainers. I experienced this first-hand at my most recent restaurant. We ended up parting ways (amicably) with the franchisor before we opened, but not before I was subjected to the most rigorous hands-on education - from dishwasher, to server to line cook - I’d ever had in the food industry.

At Ruth’s Chris, each job position has an assigned “coach” who is responsible for the proper execution of various duties. Servers go through several weeks of training and are regularly evaluated on details such as the appearance of their uniforms, the time frame in which to key an entrée into the computer, knowledge of the restaurant’s ingredients, how to serve a cappuccino, which side of a T-bone steak must face the customer, how to finish a martini at the table … the list goes on and on.

Corporate control over the kitchen is just as strict. Product must be dated and stacked on specific shelves. Each appetizer, salad, side, entrée and dessert is assembled according to exacting guidelines so it tastes and looks like what patrons have come to expect.

Ruth’s Chris actually plays both sides of the franchise/O&O (owned and operated) fence. Some of their approximately 100 locations worldwide are operated by others (franchises) and the rest are owned and operated by the parent company. That notwithstanding, the corporation still feels daily pressure to protect its stockholders’, franchisees’ and customers’ investments by delivering the highest possible value for the money. Locations are visited regularly by “secret shoppers” who report their experiences back to the main office. Patrons are encouraged to offer their comments, both good and bad, which are then forwarded to headquarters and to the general manager.

Corporate supervision isn’t limited to upscale steakhouses. From international behemoths like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, to regional franchises like Red, Hot & Blue and Philly Pretzel Factory, smart franchisors know that the franchisees stand squarely between their cherished concept and the consumer. In order to flourish, franchisors and owner/operators alike can only preserve their bottom line by keeping a close eye on uniformity and quality.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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