Franchising | August 2010 | By John Morell

Quick-Serve U.

Fast food concepts and vendors are establishing training centers that take potential franchisees and users back to school.

There’s a Wingstop in Dallas where the counters aren’t so neat and the owner drips batter onto the floor, and when tongs fall into the deep fryer, managers stare inside thinking of ways to get them out.

Welcome to Wingstop U. Not a real store, but a mock-up Wingstop that’s part of the company’s headquarters, where training of new franchisees takes place. 

“Our stores have a tiny footprint, from which we sell a ton of chicken,” says Mike Sutter, vice president of training for Wingstop. “We teach people how to maneuver efficiently through the small space. And here they can make mistakes that we don’t want them to make at their locations.”

Wingstop is one of many quick serves that have started a university-style training program to teach and update the skills of their franchisees. Once seen only at megachains, such as McDonald’s renowned Hamburger University, bringing in new franchisees for extended periods to learn the business is becoming the norm. 

“It’s definitely what we’ve experienced,” Sutter says. “A long weekend of training can’t cover all you need to know to run one of our businesses.”

Of course, franchisees in nearly every industry need a solid background in how to get an outlet up and running. But the main focus of many corporate universities is the basics. 

“What we’ve found is that many new franchisees need back-room training,” says Chris Dull, president of franchise management at NexCen, which runs NexCen University for its quick-service brands, including MaggieMoo’s, Marble Slab Creamery, Pretzelmaker, Pretzel Time, and Great American Cookies. “Learning the products and how to run the store is critical, but just as important are topics like how to manage people and how to make smart business decisions.”

Some believe this is because there’s been a change in the typical new franchise owner. “You’re seeing people who are making a career change and entering this field with no previous restaurant experience, which differs from the new franchisees of the past,” Sutter says. “The joke is that we’re taking airplane mechanics and turning them into wing slingers. We’re teaching basic business skills, covering topics like the cost of sales and inventory management.”

At NexCen University in Atlanta, franchisees start their 10–15-day training with a business basics course. “No matter what brand they’re going into, they take that part of the training together since the principles are the same,” Dull says. Next, they move on to lessons in a mock store to train in the particulars of their brand.

After the classroom training, most “universities” give franchisees a chance to experience what they’ve learned at a real store. “We have what we call ‘training-certified stores,’” Dull says. “We compensate them for their time and they host new franchisees to give them real-world experience at operations. These people will give new franchisees advice on the ins and outs of running the business and they help mentor them to be successful.”

At Wingstop, the philosophy is that the franchisee gets one education at its headquarters and another in the field. “We use mentors and we really walk with them through the initial stages of owning a franchise,” Sutter says. “They start out at our training center, but the training doesn’t end when they’re done and go home.”

“The key is really immersing the individual in the culture of the company and the brand,” says Chad Black, senior training manager of beverage solutions for Chicago-based Sara Lee Foodservice. “It’s about building a cohesive unit of people who may usually be spread out across the country or the world through education.”

Sara Lee shows that training schools aren’t just used today for quick-serve concepts, but also for food and beverage providers. The company operates two Cafitesse Academies, which showcase the corporation’s Douwe Egberts coffee brand. The academies are used to train sales staff and business partners about how coffee is made and what makes the brand stand out. 

“It’s a three-day experience and the people who come through there have a truly different outlook on the product and coffee in general,” Black says. “We teach people the brand so that they can be more effective selling it.”

Classroom training is even more important when dealing with international franchisees. 

“We have stores in 40 countries, so it’s critical that we show them how we do things here since communication can be a hindrance,” NexCen’s Dull says. A contingent of managers and owners from Angola recently went through extensive training at NexCen University to establish a number of outlets in that country.

“We have a training regimen for what we call Master Franchisees that’s more extensive,” Dull says. “They are taught how to manage multiple units and how to franchise other stores in their country.” The staff at NexCen U. speaks 15 languages, which means there’s rarely a language barrier. 

Costs for training are generally considered part of the franchise fee, but amenities like travel, lodging, and food are usually extra costs for the franchisee. “Our franchisees know that training is a part of the cost of opening a business,” Sutter says.

Reducing training costs is always on every manager’s mind and many are turning to the Internet for follow-up and continuing education. “We’ve designed programs for companies like Papa John’s that allow training to be done on the manager or employee’s own pace with a thorough learning management system,” says Joe Scullion, president of WestNet Learning, a Wheat Ridge, Colorado, company that creates interactive corporate educational products. “It’s possible to reach out and teach almost any subject through this type of system.”

Sutter agrees. “Many of the new franchisees we meet would be very comfortable learning everything through their computers and iPods,” he says. “That day will eventually come.” 

However, some believe that there will still be a need for the company “university.”

 “Online training as it is now can only go so far,” Black says. “It’s not like being in the same room with an individual. I would think that if two people took the same course, but one learned online and the other learned in person, the one who learned in person would have a better experience and would retain more of the concepts taught.”