When Mike Reynolds joined Robeks as chief development officer in June 2013, he came equipped with two MBAs and more than 25 years of industry know-how. Besides working in franchise development and sales positions for brands such as Arby’s, Häagen-Dazs, and Burger King, Reynolds also created a successful chain of bagel franchise stores with 120 locations.
His focus at Robeks is building upon the smoothie franchise’s dedication to creating a legacy brand. Robeks is in the midst of a big upswing. At least 10 new stores are expected to open in 2014, including in new markets. Meanwhile, same-store sales at existing stores have enjoyed 24 consecutive months of year-over-year growth. Inquiries from franchise candidates grew 20-fold from early 2012 to today.
Reynolds explains what the industry can expect from Robeks in 2014, and how he plans to sustain the brand’s momentum.
What will stand out for Robeks in 2014?
I think the introduction of our new store design is very important. I believe it's going to make some waves in the industry just in terms of how our stores are laid out conceptually. We are remodeling our No. 1 volume store here in Culver City, California, and all stores going forward will be the new concept.
Our stores are very warm and they’re inviting—not the standard sherbet colors like many smoothie franchise stores. It’s getting away from the birthday party feel versus a place to go to get real healthy, trusted products.
It sounds like you’re expecting to make a bigger splash in the industry.
Yes, there are a lot of things to be excited about in 2014. We are building 10 new stores next year. It will be a very strategic rollout of our new design and plan. Our marketing is very targeted. We are coming out with a real strong operations and training program. We have really strong people in the management roles—our chief of operations and chief marketing positions, as well as myself. We are all like-minded, and we all have a significant amount of time under our belts working with concepts in the food business. I think we are stronger than anybody out there in terms of our niche in the smoothie franchise industry and having people that have been in the industry a long time.
Another thing that I am excited about is putting together a new landing page for www.robeksfranchise.com . A prospective franchisee will be able to use a form that acts as a very short qualifier for Small Business Administration financing. Financing is one of the biggest concerns coming from potential franchisees, and this allows them to quickly understand their options before they start being asked a lot of questions. We can get right to their real question sooner, which is, “Can I afford to build this thing, and can I really do it?”
So do you feel you are in growth mode and gaining momentum, really moving forward?
Absolutely. I think there is proof of concept now, and it isn’t a hyped thing. We are doing things in a way we believe is correct, and we are seeing the success of it. I believe this is unique in the industry. You are always going to see franchisors saying that they’re going to have 500 stores and more. But they often don’t have the ability to back it up. They don’t have the pieces in place to do it. We have now created all the pieces to grow in a sustainable way. We actually pulled back for a while; we triaged the system. We got rid of what wasn’t working and did the things we needed to do to move forward as a good, strong system.
Tell me about your revamps. Talk about 2013 and 2014 in terms of your menu.
Product methods have shifted to more fresh juicing, so we have some new promotions. We’ve had significant sales increase related to fresh juicing. I see that as a trend, and I think the industry does too. Starbucks is building a gigantic plant out here in Riverside for their Evolution Juice line. Fresh juice is something that we have been doing for nearly two decades, so we have been far ahead of the curve. And we were one of the first ones to bring out items like Greek yogurt for smoothies. We were also one of the first ones to juice kale.
Can you tell us about geographical pockets where Robeks is poised to grow?
Philadelphia fits into our development plans very well, and a lot of it is because we already have such a strong presence in Connecticut and the Washington, D.C., area. It’s a logical progression for us to be in that tri-state area along with New Jersey and New York—all target areas we want to fill in. We have good distribution and top-of-the-line recognition there. We are very strong in Ohio, as well as the Los Angeles market. We are looking at adding probably two to three stores in the San Diego area. We already have seven stores there.
So we are filling in areas where we are already strong, but also breaking into large markets like Philadelphia where we can find sophisticated partners who have an understanding of what it’s going to take to open a franchise as well as the resources to make it happen. Our first stores in Philly are going to be downtown, a block off of Liberty Square at the bottom of an 8,500-person high rise. Visibility is going to be huge. Our next store is about five blocks from that location and in a completely different market altogether that’s surrounded by a huge hospital complex. Both of those stores will open in late March or early April, and more plans are in the works.
You often use the word sustainability in relationship to the Robeks business model—from the product standpoint as well as for the business model. Can you talk a bit about what sustainability means to you?
When we talk about sustainability, there is nothing more sustainable than growing fruits and vegetables from the ground. It’s an ongoing historical legacy that’s gone on since people began walking on the earth. So when we talk about a sustainable food concept, to me, it says we are not looking for the fast fad or fast food, we are looking to get as close to raw, fresh food as possible.
From a business perspective, sustainability is about partnering with people who have the passion and skills to be successful, and working closely with franchisees to make the process as seamless as possible. We work closely and directly with the people who are joining Robeks, getting to know them and understand where they shine and where they may have limitations. Creating this kind of relationship is a big piece of successful franchising, and a lot of the time, franchises don’t spend enough time understanding candidates. We do. I think we have a unique way of selling stores compared to the industry. We don’t want to just sell stores—we want to build stores that will last and be here in the future.
You have so much experience, including quite a bit as a franchisor. Can you think of an important lesson you’ve learned carries over to your work at Robeks?
I started a bagel chain here in Orange County that had 120 locations around the country. In doing that my goal was, first of all, to be as transparent as possible with any prospective franchisees. I really learned not to sugarcoat the commitment level andthe time it takes to be a successful franchise owner. It definitely takes a lot of commitment and hardwork, and that’s something franchisees need to be prepared for. Some people think they are buying a job or buying an income and all they have to do is hire a manager and everything will come up roses. That’s not the way it works. Owners drive the success of the business.
When you came to Robeks you said you want to build on its strength as a legacy brand. What is a legacy brand?
Legacy brands do more than simply satisfy. They go beyond expectations and provide a consistently exceptional experience. Part of the approach to building a legacy brand that some people overlook is finding the individual that has a true passion for the brand to begin with. Robeks is a legacy brand within the smoothie industry, a premium brand. We use whole fruits and vegetables that are either fresh or frozen to deliver. Nothing artificial, no preservatives or flavorings. Of course, this sets us apart and defines us as the best. Robeks attracts people who value that commitment to quality.
Building a legacy brand also means finding a very good match and building upon that relationship. Typically when you have a new franchisee, you’ve got somebody who’s very excited. In building a legacy brand we like to make sure the franchisee understands very clearly that passion is definitely important, and it’s paramount to their success, but also that being as franchisee is going to be a life change, a long-term commitment, and they understand what kind of commitment they need to make to succeed. If we don’t think you are very likely to succeed, we will thank you for your interest, but say no.
What kinds of franchisees are you looking for?
We look for franchisees with business acumen and/or restaurant experience. Our franchisees are equipped to take the uniqueness of our concept and leverage it next to the competition. In our case it’s actually taking the fresh, raw product and turning it intoa drink in front of the customer. You are seeing the actual vegetables and fruit. There is no mystery about what goes in, and it adds tremendously to the credibility of the brand.
Think about it. There are so many smoothie guys out there. You can get a smoothie at McDonald’s, but you don’t know what the ingredients are, and now Jamba Juice is doing the exact opposite of our concept—opening self-serve kiosks, a sort of vending machine smoothie. But the discriminating customers looking for the healthiest and best products are certainly going to go somewhere else. The customer we cater to has some understanding of the benefits ofraw juice, real foods, and the healthy benefits that those bring.
Legacy brands are brands that last. They attract franchisees that last. In our case, we have the ability to demonstrate theobvious components of being real, being healthy. There’s a lot of credibility in that trust, and it’s something people are looking for. It’s lacking in just about every element of people’s lives right now.
Q&A courtesy Robeks.