Franchising | February 2014 | By Tamara Omazic

Lights, Camera, Franchise

Celebrities of all kind have thrown their weight into the quick-serve industry as franchisees, and their brands are getting creative with how they leverage the partnership.

Famous celebrities invest in fast food industry through franchise partnerships.
Memphis locals gather in front of the area’s newest Wingstop location to take pictures of its famous franchisee, rapper Rick Ross. Wingstop
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Outside a new Memphis-area Wingstop, a small crowd of locals gathers for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening. The restaurant looks like most others in the Texas-based brand’s portfolio—a modest sign with a signature dark green sans serif type protrudes from a beige concrete exterior, aviation paraphernalia reminiscent of the ’30s and ’40s brings an air of nostalgia to the interior, and the menu boasts a selection of classic and boneless wings with 11 different sauce options.

But there is something markedly different about this opening, and the crowd is quick to capture it on their smartphones and digital cameras. The subject of their photos is this location’s franchisee, William Leonard Roberts II, better known by his rapper stage name, Rick Ross.

In these images from Ross’s store opening in November 2013, the bearded musician poses for pictures decked out in cream-colored pants, white kicks, and sunglasses alongside his mother, Tommie Roberts. Along with his sister and business partner, Tawanda Roberts, Ross runs Boss Wings Enterprises, which has six Wingstop units under its umbrella: three in Tennessee, one in Mississippi, and two in Florida.

“[The] first time I tried Wingstop, I was wowed,” Ross says in an e-mail. “I love chicken wings to begin with, but everything from the chicken to the sides was always fresh, and the wings perfectly seasoned.”

The brand’s Lemon Pepper wings were such a hit with Ross that he rapped about them on multiple songs. Wingstop quickly became one of his favorite hangout spots, he says, and he eventually had the urge to look into the brand as a business venture.

Celebrity franchisees like Ross are nothing new in the quick-serve industry—countless lists on entertainment and gossip websites outline the high-profile names behind mainstay brands. But, unlike Ross, most celebrity franchisees are not very involved with the business or visible to the public.

“Generally, if there is something that attracts a celebrity to a particular brand, it raises the interest level of consumers because people want to know what they saw in the brand that brought them to the table,” says Lynette McKee, a franchise industry veteran who runs her own strategic advisory firm, McKeeCo Services LLC. “To be visible, particularly at an opening where you’re bringing consumers in, drives more business to the brand because people want to see a celebrity interacting with that environment. The celebrity becomes more of a real person to consumers, even though he has the term celebrity behind him.”

Endorsements and marketing deals with celebrities of all different professions can build buzz for a quick serve for a brief period of time, but a franchise agreement is a sustained partnership, and one that must be tended to carefully, McKee says.

“What the brand has to think about is if they have an image of who they are and what they want to portray to the consumer, and they can’t become so tied in with the celebrity that the celebrity becomes the brand,” she says, adding that both parties have to be on the same page of an agreement. “The challenge is a balancing act.”

While evaluating a celebrity by the same standards as any other franchisee is important, a company can’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach to all franchise deals, says Bill Dunn, president and CEO of Auntie Anne’s. The international soft pretzel brand with more than 1,400 locations counts Ed Muransky, a former NFL player who Dunn says is one of the brand’s largest franchise partners, as well as retired NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal among its franchisees.

“Shaq’s mother was a passionate fan of Auntie Anne’s, and he and his mom are very close, so he was familiar with the brand,” Dunn says. “I think that’s where the partnership started, and now he has an interest in 17 Auntie Anne’s stores.”

Celebrity-owned franchises are often simply one part of a bigger investment portfolio, which is the case with O’Neal’s Auntie Anne’s partnership; Dunn says the basketball legend isn’t involved with day-to-day operations. But he has a team of partners in the venture that keeps the units running.

“One of the things you shouldn’t overlook is the certain influence celebrities have. A lot of the high-profile ones have smart people like managers working for them and can bring in a good group of people,” says Dan Rowe, CEO of Fransmart, a development group that’s helped brands like Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Qdoba Mexican Grill expand through franchising. “Even a celebrity who may not have a ton of business experience has access to a lot of very smart people who do. It’s definitely a value to have someone like that.”

That value and business acumen is something Dunn says he appreciated about O’Neal, and it was more important than the name recognition that came with his involvement. “Shaq’s name might have brought about a little bit of notoriety, but at the same time, I don’t feel like it’s necessary to leverage the power of a Shaq or somebody like that,” he says. “I let the business speak for itself.”

Auntie Anne’s support system, Dunn adds, is what keeps franchisees like O’Neal satisfied with their experience. “We have to make sure that we’re consistent on our training and our support, so we want to ensure all of our franchise partners are successful, and their profitability is important to us, too,” he says.

Most recently, Auntie Anne’s added former NBA player Mark Blount to its roster of business partners. Blount signed up to open two units in his home of West Palm Beach, Florida.

“I was able to meet with Bill Dunn and some other Auntie Anne’s executives at an event, and I was able to talk to them about how I wanted to do something,” Blount says. “For me, with my personality and desire to not just sit around, franchising seemed the right route and Auntie Anne’s was a place that offered a lot of involvement.”

The Professional Basketball Alumni Association hosted the event. Dunn says Auntie Anne’s often has a presence at such events in an effort to invest in retired athletes’ careers.

After exploring his options, Blount settled on a franchise agreement because it allows him to be as involved as he wants to be.

“I’m able to be hands-on with my stores,” he says. “I can be there every day, be there for the employees, and be able to get things done to make the store successful.”

Dunn says he and his executive team welcomed Blount’s desire for heavy involvement. “This is where the one-size-fits-all thing doesn’t apply,” he says. “I think you can be successful like Mark or like Shaq; it just depends on the direction you want to take to grow your enterprise value.”

Articulating that direction is vital to ensuring an agreement with a celebrity franchisee and a quick-serve brand thrives, McKee says, and it’s important to do so early on. “There needs to be good, healthy conversation, and brand owners need to make sure any written agreements have very clear expectations,” she says. “If the relationship is established that way, the partnership can be absolutely wonderful.”

When Rick Ross approached Wingstop, he was asked to participate in a franchising Discovery Day to ensure the brand was a fit for him, says Dave Vernon, chief of development for the wings brand. “Discovery Day is what we do for all prospective franchisees,” he says. “We appreciate that Rick took the time out to do that like we require everyone to, though most franchisees don’t come with a bodyguard.”