When Jeff and Tim Cohen decided to invest in a Togo’s restaurant together, they saw in the brand an opportunity to establish a family business, something they could grow. Twelve years later, they’ve done just that, bringing on their little brother, Frank, and scaling up to 14 Togo’s locations throughout the California.
The decision to invest in Togo’s was made when Jeff, the middle brother, graduated from UCLA in 2003. Jeff had studied science and engineering, but was not satisfied with the job offers he was finding after school, so he turned his interest toward the business world. Tim was only a year older than Jeff, but he’d saved enough in his one year with a full-time job that the brothers were able to pool enough money together to apply for franchise ownership, and they quickly settled on Togo’s.
“We knew we wanted to work in food-service because food isn’t going anywhere,” said Jeff. “That’s not an industry that is going to die out. Food was safe, and franchising made it even safer. We started looking around at options, and Togo’s just seemed like a really strong brand. The food is great, and it’s a California staple.”
It didn’t take long for Jeff and Tim to start seeing a return on their investment, and they soon decided to purchase a second Togo’s location. In 2007, Frank Cohen graduated from college and joined the team, and the Cohens continued to expand their operations, purchasing a third location.
“In the beginning, we were working very hard,” said Jeff. “We were all involved in everything, and we hadn’t settled into clearly defined roles yet. Fortunately, we are all pretty low-key, so we were able to handle the day-to-day business without too much fighting or getting on each other’s nerves.”
Eventually, each brother’s skillset was revealed, and the Cohens organized themselves into more formal roles.
“We started to see what each of us was particularly good at, and now each of has a pretty clear role in the business,” Jeff said. “Frank is great with tax and accounting, so he’s sort of a behind-the-scenes guy. Tim has another job outside of Togo’s, so he’s a bit less hands-on, but he has high-level input, and I am really focused on the operational stuff.”
These days, Jeff spends most of his time working with managers and overseeing day-to-day operations.
“I spend most of my days at the store closest to my house, mostly just because I don’t like to work from home,” said Jeff. “I’m on the phone most of the day talking to managers and running numbers. We’ll make adjustments based on what I’m seeing and hearing from my managers. Some of my managers have a very clear plan for what they want to do, and others are looking for a bit more guidance. I also spend a couple of days each week visiting other stores and putting in time with the managers and staff.”
Jeff is not solely responsible for overseeing his store-level managers. While he is the official district manager for his area, he also has three other district managers for his stores in Los Angeles, Orange County, and Chico.
The Cohens now own 14 Togo’s locations, including six dual-branded Togo’s/Baskin-Robbins stores, and Jeff said that the Togo’s has always encouraged the brothers to grow at their own pace.
“Togo’s always let us know what kind of opportunities were available,” said Jeff, “but they never put any pressure on us to expand. They leave it up to us, and when we’ve decided to grow, they are there to help us in any way we need them.”
Togo’s president Glenn Lunde said the brand’s corporate team is careful to provide extensive support for their franchisees without interfering in their personal plans for their business.
“We try to keep an open line of communication with our franchisees,” said Lunde. “We want to know how they are feeling about the business, and let them know that when they are ready to grow, we are here to help. The business is built for growth. When an owner is applying the model, they are going to find success, and they’ll be encouraged to grow.”
That freedom to manage the growth of his business has been crucial to Jeff in recent years as he’s started a family of his own.
“I met my wife a few years into this experience,” Jeff said. “That changed the way I approached the business. In my first few years, I was totally hands-on, every day. Now I have kids and more responsibility at home, so I’m not as involved in the day-to-day work at our stores. The great thing about Togo’s is that I was able to make that adjustment easily. I’ve been able to pull back and work more through my managers. I’m happy with my level of involvement, but if I decided to scale back next week, I could.”
Though Jeff has dialed back his personal involvement in store-level operations, he has big plans to keep improving his stores over the next year.
“We are rolling out the pay-first operational model this year, which will be a huge improvement for both customers and our staff,” Jeff said. “Instead of ordering your meal, watching us prepare it, and then paying, we’re combining the order and payment steps. It sounds like a minor change, but there’s some work to be done to prepare the stores, and ultimately it’s going to be a much better experience for everyone. We’re also working on optimizing our delivery options with third-party vendors. That’s something that’s become essential for any lunch concept, so we want to stay ahead of the curve.”
The pay-first model and delivery services have been top priorities for the Togo’s brand recently, and this year will see a system-wide push to roll out both services.
“Pay-first and improved delivery services are cornerstones of our new model for the next year,” said Lunde. “We’ve seen massive benefits with these systems in our test markets and we are excited to extend them to the rest of our stores.”
While those operational improvements are likely to catch the attention of new prospective franchisees, Jeff believes the brand has long provided a uniquely lucrative proposition for franchisees.
“Particularly for people who are new to the industry, Togo’s is a great model,” Jeff explained. “If you are the right fit, there is not a tremendous barrier to entry. You don’t need a ton of capital to start. Plus, Togo’s allows their owners to stand out in the brand. You’ve got to follow the model, but you can really make your store your own. People in California have their favorite Togo’s, they have their Togo’s, and that’s because each has a bit of personality. You don’t see that in many other franchises."