Web Exclusive | November 2013 | By Bryan Reesman

Three’s Company?

An upstart franchise company leverages three separate brands to increase franchisees’ chances at success.

Quick serve franchise company offers three brands for franchisees to grow.
Ichor Restaurant Group initially launched in 2006 with Old Carolina Barbecue Company.
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While entrepreneurs behind upstart quick-service and fast-casual concepts usually focus their growth efforts on one brand, a young Ohio-based franchise company has pinned its expansion hopes on three separate brands.

Ichor Restaurant Group serves as the umbrella company for three franchised fast-casual concepts: Old Carolina Barbecue Company, Baja Pizzafish, and Smoke the Burger Joint. With eight Old Carolina units, one Baja Pizzafish unit, and two Smoke locations open, Ichor is hoping franchisees can grow the company by leveraging the diversity of the portfolio in their markets.

"The idea of having multiple brands plays into the strategy of not wanting our [franchise] partners to need to put an Old Carolina on every corner or to stretch themselves to grow through a larger geography," says Brian Bailey, Ichor’s founder and CEO. "We can have partners really get to know a territory and a market in their home community. Instead of growing outside the market, you open another concept like a Baja Pizzafish or a Smoke the Burger Joint into the same area. We wanted to get these three open. Eventually we'll develop more concepts to go into the market."

Bailey says Ichor has executed a strategic growth plan since its inception. It opened two Old Carolina units in 2006 and a third in 2009; had a local, family-run business invest in the company in 2010; and opened two more units in 2011. Baja Pizzafish and Smoke the Burger Joint, both offshoots of Old Carolina's thriving catering business, debuted as their own individual concepts in the last two years.

Bailey says Baja Pizzafish is "fast-casual pizza with a West Coast attitude.” The brand offers pizzas like the Coronado Beach Baked Potato & Ranch and the Santa Barbara Shrimp & Pesto, while also serving fish tacos, rice bowls, and gourmet salads and wraps. Smoke the Burger Joint, meanwhile, serves burgers made with a custom blend of Angus beef, slow-smoked with hickory wood and finished on a grill. Smoke's menu includes a Buffalo Blue Cheeseburger and the jalapeño-heavy Texas Triple Jay Burger.

"The idea of having multiple brands plays into the strategy of not wanting our [franchise] partners to need to grow through a larger geography.”

Ichor started franchising in 2012, and this year stepped up franchise sales efforts, which has included searching for franchisees who want to develop a market with multiple Ichor concepts. One franchisee will begin construction next month on an Old Carolina in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and also has plans for a Smoke unit in that area.

"We wanted to have a strong foundation first," Bailey says. "When we opened up the first franchise, I had one person dedicated to supporting the franchising model. We've put the resources first because we're not in the business just to sell franchises. A lot of companies choose that model and think that they'll take royalties off of whatever model they sell and get rich. We want to build a brand that lasts, so we had to choose partners that are in it for the long haul and make sure that they're going to be successful."

Not every franchisee is taking the option to franchise all three brands, however. Todd Schafer, president of Hospitality Partners Inc. (HPI), plans to open 10 Old Carolina locations, five of which will open on the east side of Cleveland by 2016. HPI was the first of four franchisees to sign on with Ichor in 2012 and will open its second Old Carolina location in Mentor, Ohio, on December 11.

Schafer says Ichor offered him the chance to get on board with the other two other franchises, "but we want to find how to continuously perfect this [Old Carolina] brand. I'm not a pizza guy, I'm not a smoking burger kind of guy, I'm a barbecue guy. That's the product that I'm going to stick with."

Schafer adds that he is focused on ensuring that his Old Carolina locations are as eco-friendly as possible. "I wanted to start making ourselves accountable for creating not only an authentic product, but to preach to our customers that we could be authentic and responsible in our own little world," he says. "I wanted to be energy efficient. I wanted to create some kind of guidelines that not only us, but all future franchisees and the corporate stores could hold ourselves accountable for."

David Kincheloe, president of National Restaurant Consultants, says Ichor's strategy to expand on the backs of three brands is a good way to grow and earn exposure for each of its concepts.

"That way, they keep the same management structure and don't have to re-create their whole franchisor type of structure," Kincheloe says.

But Kincheloe adds that Schafer's desire to stay with one brand also makes sense. "My philosophy is to keep it simple and do it really well,” he says. “When you start getting into multiple things, especially if you don't have a lot of experience from a restaurant standpoint, you start to get convoluted and the concept starts to suffer. I think he is doing it the right way. He's focusing in on one thing, and he's going to try to do it very, very well."