Great American Cookies
Executive Q&A with FAT Brands, Quick Service Restaurant Division President and Chief Brand Officer Jenn Johnston
Johnston and the leadership team at FAT Brands, Quick Service Restaurant Division are leading the way in franchise culture, innovation and quick-service restaurant concepts.
FAT Brands, Quick Service Restaurant Division, parent company of some of the nation’s leading quick-service and snack concepts including Round Table Pizza® , Pretzelmaker® , Marble Slab Creamery® , Great American Cookies® and Hot Dog on a Stick®, has jumped into 2021 ready to grow the presence of its unique and innovative concepts in the franchising world.
1851 Franchise caught up with FAT Brands president and chief brand officer, Jenn Johnston to learn more about the company’s award-winning culture and what the future looks like for its robust portfolio of brands.
1851 Franchise: How is FAT Brands, Quick Service Restaurant Division different from other brand-acquisition companies?
Jenn Johnston: What sets FAT Brands, Quick Service Restaurant Division apart from other brand acquisition companies is that we focus on consumer research as the driver for what we do with the business. The moment that we acquire a brand, we immediately ask the consumer what they value about the brand, and where they see opportunities to improve.
In addition to completing consumer research, we do surveys to find out what the franchisees’ satisfaction level is and what they see as gaps in the business. We share these results with franchisees with full transparency; then we collaborate to build a strategic plan to grow the business together.
1851: How does FAT Brands support its franchisees? What has been implemented since COVID to amp up this support?
Johnston: We support everything from site selection and training to ongoing store opening support. One of the things we do that sets us apart is we collect the Profit and Loss Statements (P&L) from franchisees on a voluntary basis, and about 70% of the franchisees send it in to us. By doing that, we’re able to aggregate their data and assist them with benchmarking their progress in comparison to their industry peers. We’re also able to counsel the franchisees and give them accurate information as to how they can improve their performance.
With regard to COVID-19, we developed a task force the Monday after the first U.S. death was confirmed. We were ahead of the game when it came to providing information to our franchisees about COVID-19 and what was going on. We created a weekly newsletter to help the franchisees understand the information that was being provided and give them tools to deal with it, especially around applying for PPP loans and any other ways to help alleviate their burden during that time.
1851: How has FAT Brands gotten to its current level of success?
Johnston: We’ve acquired an impressive list of businesses, and some of them were at one time, mom-and-pop-type operations. We helped guide them to become sophisticated multi-unit operator franchise systems, and many of our franchisees own multiple brands underneath our portfolio. To me, that’s a big milestone, because it says a couple of things: One, it shows the sophistication level of our franchisees, and two, it shows that they trust us enough to diversify their portfolio with us.
1851: What does success look like to you for the group as a whole?
Johnston: I always say that success equals happy, profitable and successful franchisees. If your franchisees are happy, profitable and successful, everybody else is too.
1851: What has been a notable milestone for the brand over the past few years?
Johnston: Round Table Pizza is celebrating its 62nd anniversary this year, Marble Slab Creamery is 38 years old and Pretzelmaker is about to turn 30. These are strong, proven consumer brands in the marketplace and that’s a milestone in and of itself.
Additionally, if you look at what’s happened over the years, there are some really exciting things that stand out. One was co-branding Great American Cookies and Marble Slab Creamery, which has become the largest growth vehicle for both brands. It’s the first time in franchising restaurant history that there’s a truly integrated co-brand experience. Oftentimes you’ll walk into a Dunkin’ Donuts-Baskin Robbins store, but they’re delineated. That’s how Great American Cookies and Marble Slab Creamery were, but now our co-branded stores are completely integrated so the consumer experiences one cohesive brand.
Another exciting thing is the evolution of Pretzelmaker. Last year, we opened a location called Fresh Twist by Pretzelmaker at Troy University. The idea is to take pretzel dough and use that as the bread for all of our menu innovations, which includes breakfast sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas and everything in between.
When Marble Slab Creamery went to unlimited mix-ins, that was a big milestone because at the time, they had undergone multiple years of declining same-store sales. When we launched unlimited mix-ins, we had our first year and then subsequent years of same-store sales increases.
With Hot Dog on a Stick, I feel like every day I wake up, we are on another television show or another celebrity is showing us off. Two weeks ago, I woke up to my Instagram feed and saw Chrissy Teigen and John Legend eating Hot Dog on a Stick at our food truck. That brand is a pop-culture phenomenon, and it’s so fun to see it evolve.
1851: What are some target milestones for the brand this year?
Johnston: I would like to see more Fresh Twists open for Pretzelmaker. Additionally, Round Table Pizza recently opened its first ghost kitchen. We are looking into launching Hot Dog on a Stick’s first ghost kitchen concept this year as well, so that will be exciting for the Brand.
1851: What new opportunities are you looking to pursue similar to your first ghost kitchen from a development, operational, technology or menu innovation standpoint?
Johnston: All of the brands focus on menu innovation to drive traffic and sales. At Round Table Pizza, we recently launched a street taco pizza that is amazingly delicious. For brands like Great American Cookies and Marble Slab Creamery, we’re always thinking about how to bring products together for new menu items.
One breakout product has been the decorate-at-home cookies. As people have been stuck at home during the pandemic, they are looking for fun and engaging things to do, especially as a family. As a result, we’ve seen huge success.
1851: Why do you see now as an ideal time for someone to become a FAT Brands franchisee?
Johnston: One thing that has been proven from this pandemic is that pizza is not only resilient but thriving. During times of trouble, people are always going to crave comfort food delivered to their doorstep. As a result, Round Table Pizza is hot from a development standpoint. People are clamoring to own and operate Round Table Pizza units. We have a development pipeline of more than 200 agreements.
That’s one of the things that all of our brands have in common: We have the best-in-category product, which makes GFG an attractive company to join. When franchisees come to Great American Cookies or Marble Slab Creamery, get the franchise disclosure documents and see the co-brand opportunity, it’s incredibly attractive to them. The two businesses not only generate the ability for both brands to pull customers, but they play off each other really nicely.
1851: What does your ideal franchisee look like, in terms of how they run their business, what personal traits they have, what prior business experience they can claim, what kind of investor model they align with, etc.?
Johnston: Our best franchisees are very sophisticated multi-unit operators with multiple brands in their portfolio. They are people who own or want to own five all the way up to 100 units. It’s people that want to use the business model and the scale of franchising to grow exponentially. Of course, we have our one to two unit franchisees who enjoy running the business as well and they bring a strong operations experience to the table.
1851: What gap do you see FAT Brands brands filling within the industry?
Johnston: Celebration. Most of our brands are in some way associated with celebrating moments in life. Someone recently told me that Round Table Pizza is associated with the California lifestyle of little league games and celebrating with pizza as a family after the game, win or lose. The same can be said of Marble Slab Creamery, Great American Cookies and Hot Dog on a Stick.
1851: How do these brands set themselves apart within the snack industry?
Johnston: The snacking subcategory of quick-service restaurants continues to increase. People are turning meals into snacks and snacks into meals. As a franchise owner, the benefit of snack concepts is a low cost of goods, simple and streamlined menus, easy-to-learn processes and the option to quickly scale units. It’s extremely appealing to franchisees who want to join the snack business. They can own and operate five, 10, 15, 20 units very efficiently.
1851: Why are the brands a good investment?
Johnston: Round Table Pizza is a growing Brand and COVID-19 has been an accelerator. People are going to do more online ordering and delivery, which the pizza business is primed for. It’s not so much about having a dining room right now, so if you open a Round Table Pizza, you're going to open with square footage that’s appropriate. You’re going to get a great cost per square foot, and you are going to not only have the best pizza, but also have a business model that is very sustainable and will continue to thrive for years to come.
1851: What were some learning opportunities that the brand leveraged to get where it is now?
Johnston: Anytime we encounter a speed bump, it often comes down to franchisee-franchisor alignment and ensuring that we’re communicating and collaborating with our franchisees. I think that’s always important.
Another lesson that I learned when we bought Hot Dog on a Stick was not to assume. We thought we should try to make this like a Pretzelmaker and promote various combos. It absolutely failed. When I was able to get the numbers, I was able to clearly see that the leading driver of sales with Hot Dog on a Stick wasn’t hot dogs at all, but lemonade. It's where all the profit is; it’s what the consumer wants. I quickly learned that you have to treat all brands differently and you have to understand the individual brand drivers. You can’t assume that just because these brands are in the same industry you can take and re-apply the same concepts.