When chef Tom Ferguson sold his better-burger concept Only Burger several years ago, it wasn’t the end of his restaurant aspirations. After a tour around the country tasting doughnuts and biscuits, he designed a new concept that would pair both breakfast staples.
The first Rise Biscuits & Donuts launched in Durham, North Carolina, in 2012. The brand has since grown to 13 units, with help from franchising firm Fransmart. Now locations are popping up in nearby Virginia and as far afield as Texas and Florida.
“We knew we were going to do something, whether we did something on our own or more stores through franchising,” Ferguson says. “When Fransmart approached us, we really liked what they had to say, and they gave us some good guidance right off the bat.” The firm also helped vet potential operators.
Built on a menu of chef-inspired doughnuts and biscuits, Rise capitalized on the breakfast daypart by opening daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Ferguson says the brand’s slowest time is between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., so Rise began offering its biscuit toppings on potato rolls, as well as salads, to capture lunch crowds.
Guests can create their own biscuits and sandwiches, starting with hearty meats such as fried chicken, bacon, fried bologna, and country ham and then adding in a mix of typical and atypical choices, like a runny egg, pimento cheese, pickled jalapeños, and honey. Rise also offers customers a set menu of biscuits that rotate every three months, with recent selections including the Cubano with roast pork loin, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, as well as the Seared Rare Yellowfin Tuna with quick-pickled watermelon radishes and a cucumber-wasabi mayonnaise. But the meat-forward brand doesn’t leave herbivores out in the cold; it also offers fried eggplant “bacon” and biscuit specials such as mushroom and rosemary gravy.
Doughnut flavors span three categories: Old School, New School, and “Our School,” which Rise develops into a master list for all locations, with input from operators. Old School doughnuts capture the classics (like a cinnamon twist or a simple glazed doughnut), while New School includes combinations like the maple-bacon bar or a crème brûlée–filled doughnut. But it’s the Our School category where Rise’s creativity really shines. Past renditions include a doughnut made with the North Carolina soda Cheerwine and, at one time, a doughnut with foie gras icing.
Despite such fancy flourishes, Rise works to keep its offerings at an affordable price, which many customers have come to expect in the biscuit and doughnut categories. Ferguson says the average ticket price at the restaurants is between $9 and $11.
Rise Biscuits & Donuts
FOUNDER: Tom Ferguson
HEADQUARTERS: Durham, North Carolina
YEAR STARTED: 2012
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 13
FRANCHISE UNITS: 10
As Rise looks to build even more units in the future, Ferguson says, culture becomes increasingly important. The company focuses on supporting its employees. “We don’t have a lot of turnover,” he says. “People are paid fairly and treated with love and respect, and I think that shows to the customer.” Ferguson started a Facebook page for employees, as well as an internal podcast that covers topics like the history of Rise and more personal matters like dealing with addiction or alternative medicine.
“We’re trying to not be superficial; we’re not adding bean bags and free sodas to the mix,” Ferguson says. “We honestly want to be there. If they want to go off and achieve a goal in their life, I want to nurture that. And I want to build that into the company’s culture. I want the company’s culture to be one of achieving your life goals, and we’ll be a stepping stone for that.”
There’s also a company-wide dashboard that lets franchisees connect with each other and monitor other locations’ performance metrics. If a franchisee isn’t performing as well as expected, Ferguson says, the brand avoids an iron-fist approach to management and instead helps operators find their own path to improvement. He adds that the process follows the “Toyota Way”—a philosophy developed by the car company that holds continuous improvement and mutual respect as its most important principles.
“When a store is struggling, we don’t want to go in and say, ‘You’re doing everything wrong; you need new management.’ We wanted to give them a chance to turn stuff around on their own, so when they turned it around, they were proud of what they did instead of us doing it,” Ferguson says.
With 13 total units—10 of which are franchised—Rise is set to grow exponentially over the next five years, with more than 100 units planned. Franchisees who sign on with Rise pay a 6 percent franchisee fee and 2 percent marketing fee. Build-outs can range from $400,000 to $600,000. While the prototype store is about 1,400 square feet, each store varies depending on its space.
“I don’t have any limitations on what we do. I’ve taken my foot off the brake and put it on the gas because I feel really confident in where we are right now,” Ferguson says. “I really want to drive this off of how I feel the culture is. That’s so important to me, and I’d rather be involved in a company that had great culture instead of it just being something I try to flip to make money.”