Jim Mizes joined the Freebirds World Burrito chain as president when it had about 54 units about a year ago, and since then the number of units has almost doubled.
The fast-casual chain positions itself as a burrito brand with a “rock n’ roll attitude” and is known for its variety of ingredients. Customers can choose from those ingredients to customize burritos in four sizes, as well as bowls, salads, nachos and tacos.
Expected to reach 92 units before the end of the year, with another 20 company-operated locations in the works for 2013, Freebirds has been growing rapidly since it was acquired at 19 units in 2007 by Emeryville, Calif.-based Tavistock Restaurant Group. A multi-concept operator, Tavistock owns about 35 full-service restaurants across the country among 16 concepts, including restaurants absorbed when the company bought the former Back Bay Restaurant Group and E Brands Restaurants.
Earlier this year, Freebirds launched a franchising program, and the first franchisee, FB Midwest Development, signed on to bring 27 Freebirds to Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Their third franchise location is scheduled to open next week.
With its expansion, the chain is also building its infrastructure. In August Freebirds hired Chris Cheek, former vice president of franchise development for Le Duff America Inc., as the vice president of franchise development for Freebirds.
Mizes recently spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News this week about Freebirds World Burrito's move forward.
What are you looking for in a franchise partner? You’ve said you’re looking for franchisees willing to open a minimum of 10 units.
What sets us apart is we’re looking for the right partners. Wherever those partners are is where they would grow, because they’d know market inside and out. Ideally they’d have a number of existing restaurants with another brand and have maxed out their ability to grow with that brand and that territory. Rather than take on new territories, they could build with the Freebirds brand in that territory they already know well.
Most folks go out and say we want to franchise this or that market and they list what those markets are. We’re really targeting those franchisees who are successful with another brand and know the business and want to grow with another brand. It’s a different strategy.
Our goal is to end up, in an ideal world, with a dozen partners who have 25 to 45 restaurants each. We have the luxury of growing with the right people versus at someone’s pre-determined pace.
We’re talking about domestic growth, right? Or are you looking internationally as well?
We will eventually get to international, but we will spend the next year or two in domestic growth before we jump to the rest of the world.
There’s been a lot of noise about Taco Bell stealing market share from Chipotle. Has Freebirds felt any of that?
We’re focused on what we do well. There’s no doubt there’s always going to be pressure from fast feeders like Taco Bell.
We play in our niche. We have a differentiated product. We give guests freedom to create the burrito their own way with more choices than anyone in the category. We try to create an emotional connection with our one-on-one service. We have a unique, rebellious, “not normal” environment highlighted by music. That’s how we choose to play within this market. So we haven’t experienced a loss (of market share) to fast feeders yet.
How are sales trending?
Our comps are single-digit positive year to date, and that’s how I can make that statement about not feeling that impact. I’m not going to reveal our average unit volumes because we’re a privately held company.
What innovations have you been working on this year?
We’ve spent most of the year focused on putting in place fundamentals to continue to accelerate our growth, like strengthening back-of-house systems, strengthening training systems for existing restaurants, as well as how we open new restaurants. We’ve worked on improving throughput. We have a new prototype opening in December in Northern California to enhance throughput for guests online. And we’ve made our box economically stronger with respect to build-out costs and returns with the focus on systems and driving throughput.
Another key thing is building catering, which was a substantial piece of business that grew almost 100 percent this year with an investment in our catering sales force and improving catering systems within the restaurant, and our marketing and outreach.
Tell me about the new prototype.
Working with operational engineers, we believe — we’re going to test and learn — that with the same labor we can drive more transactions in an hour and still deliver that one-on-one unique Freebirds service. We have added a back line for online orders. Currently, we have one line in most stores, so if during peak period we have hundreds of guests in line, but we also have 25 online orders, we have to process those orders through the line, bobbing and weaving through. It’s not too efficient. So we’ve added a back line — a separate line that will just handle online orders. We’re able to process it much faster.
You’ve been building the chain’s infrastructure with the hiring of Chris Cheek as vice president of franchise development. Who else have you brought on?
Dmitri Fagel came on as director of operations support in July.
We are looking to add a corporate. That was a shared resource within Tavistock, but with our growth, we’d like to hire a corporate chef who can help us get better with our existing products, be more consistent, but also to build and add limited-time-only opportunities — either ingredients, new products or flavor extenders — to enhance the brand.