Così Inc. has named its largest franchisee, R.J. Dourney, as president and chief executive officer, and also has placed him on the board of directors.

Dourney is the founder and chief executive of Hearthstone Associates, a Hopkinton, Mass.-based company that operates 13 Così locations in the Boston area. Prior to that post, he was chief operating officer of Boston-based Au Bon Pain after a stint with Applebee’s International that included time as the chain’s vice president of franchise operations and development.

Così also said that its previous president and chief executive, Stephen Edwards, will assume the role of executive chairman and continue to serve on Così’s board, which he did before taking over after his predecessor, Carin Stutz, resigned last June.

“I’ve had the privilege of working closely with R.J. since joining Così and have been impressed with his knowledge of the brand and industry, his strong operating acumen, and his passion for building a culture of success,” Edwards said in a statement. “R.J. and his team have achieved industry-leading results with Così, and we are excited to have him carry these results to all of Così.”

While the 121-unit fast-casual brand had a difficult year overall in fiscal 2013, widening its net loss from the prior year to $11.4 million, the franchise system outperformed Così’s company-operated restaurants, with a full-year same-store sales decline of 1.8 percent, compared with a 5.1-percent decrease for corporate units.

The company did warn in its latest earnings release, however, that the severe weather of this past winter has taken a significant toll on its sales. Systemwide same-store sales plummeted 18 percent in January and 13.8 percent in February, due in large part to weather and the reduction in operating hours at some locations. Così also said at the time that it was close to “a financing transaction with one of its large shareholders,” which could include the refranchising of company-owned restaurants to its owner-operators or other third parties, further reductions in general and administrative expenses, or other sources of third-party financing.

In a statement, Dourney called Così a “great brand with tremendous potential.”

He continued, “I am confident that leveraging the culture and operating systems developed at Hearthstone to the rest of the organization is a strong first step in moving the brand forward. I look forward to working closely with the Così team and franchise partners to leverage our collective talent and passion to turn this business around for the benefit of our shareholders, franchise partners, employees and guests. I know what needs to be done and am ready to move the team and the concept forward.”

Deerfield, Ill.-based Così operates 72 company-owned restaurants and franchises another 49 locations in 16 states, the District of Columbia, Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
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