Alongside Firehouse’s overseas push, it plans to take on Canada (RBI’s main HQ). The chain has 63 Canadian units presently, with 100 percent of those in Ontario. Hancock says Firehouse has ample room to keep spreading out from that base, as well as target Western Canada and Atlantic Canada (there are nearly 3,000 Subways in the country). “It’s a great market for us in general,” he adds, noting the momentum from Tims in Canada carries over. “We have excellent franchisees there. Really, really strong operations and the folks working with us to help us grow further throughout the country are some of our top operators.”
The challenge and intrigue for Firehouse outside of the U.S. comes down to this infant stage of growth. Burger King, for instance, is generally going to have a store within 500 miles of wherever RBI wants to drop it.
Headed into its purchase of Firehouse, RBI totaled 27,667 units, with close to 17,000 existing outside the U.S. It touted more than 500 outposts in China (1,620), Brazil (928), Spain (897), Russia (792), Germany (744), and the U.K. (538); and over 400 in Mexico (450), Australia (443), South Korea (425), and France (416). Firehouse has zero restaurants in any of those places.
Additionally, excluding Spain, where there are only 51, a sandwich chain not named Firehouse boasted at least 384 stores in every one. In Australia (1,221), the U.K. (2,211) and Brazil (1,641), there are significant strongholds.
“For us, we’re almost having to recreate the brand in certain markets,” Hancock says. “That’s the challenging part. The thing that I think really gives us a ton of opportunity and why we’re really set up for success, is that our products translate really well everywhere we’ve tested them. We did probably one of the largest testings, or research, we’ve done with any new brand across many, many countries with our products. And everywhere we went it scored extremely well with our existing menu.”
Firehouse will likely tweak its menu as it scales, but generally, the core holds up. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the team that’s been here for a long time. The founders, Robin and Chris [Sorensen], and what they’ve been able to build. I don’t think you see that with all brands,” Hancock says.
The aforementioned foundation has helped give back north of $80 million to first responders and public safety organizations in the U.S. and Canada. “I think we’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how universally first responders are respected and revered across so many countries throughout the entire world,” Hancock adds. “So for us, we really have two major links there: it’s a product that translates really well everywhere we go, and a big piece of our brand is how we give back to our communities and our mission, and that translates really well across the entire world.”
Shifting to the U.S., half of Firehouse’s current system (over 400 franchisees in total) are single-store operators. It’s a reality that inspired Hancock and RBI to invest roughly $20 million into new development with existing franchisees. The chain just launched the biggest incentive program it’s done as a brand, Hancock says, which is designed to spur growth from within. The 2023 Development Incentive Program is available to operators who agree to develop and open at least two new Firehouse restaurants in 2024 and 2025 (unless approved otherwise). It’s only available to existing franchisees.
Operators are being asked to sign the area development agreement by March 21, 2024. If franchisees agree to add a store, the DIP contribution is $50,000 per restaurant. That lifts to $75,000 if they sign on to build two, and $100,000 if it’s three-plus. “This incentive program is actually going to be done in the form of credits. When folks commit to building restaurants as they get close to actually opening up their restaurants, they’re able to receive these credits, Hancock says. “It’s very unique in the way it’s structured. It’s an enormous investment from us and it’s because we think there’s so much growth and so much upside ahead of us within North America.”
Again, Hancock sees similarities to Tim Hortons and its fleet of smaller, local franchisees. “It’s part of your life and it means so much more when it’s not some big corporation operating restaurants. These are local operators who are in there every single day,” he says.
Hancock’s focus these days, in addition to growth, is profitability focused. The more money franchisees make and feel good about the ROI, the likelier they’d get on this rocket ship, he says.
Coming under RBI’s purview has helped Firehouse negotiate and bring down some commodities as well as thread technology throughout the chain. It recently launched a new app with a fresh interface a more personalized features. “That’s the first step I’d say of many steps of how we’re going to hope to bring more value to our franchisee system,” Hancock says.
Furthermore, Firehouse opened a new concept restaurant in July in Jacksonville, Florida, that features a newly designed kitchen layout, with an updated steamer and toaster equipment. Both aim at boosting service times and ensuring consistency. Franchisees will have the opportunity to retrofit existing kitchens to the package.
The concept doesn’t adjust the look and feel of Firehouse from the outside—it’s still the “community design”—and doesn’t materially change square footage. The Loretto Road opening is a bit smaller, but the kitchen upgrade works in any Firehouse build, Hancock says. “Something that we’ve received plenty of feedback from our guests on is how Firehouse is not always the quickest concept,” he says. “So what improvements can we make to ensure that we’re a bit quicker for our guests who don’t have 20 or 30 minutes for a lunch experience? We’re really excited about this new opening. We’re hoping to get a lot of learnings from it and hopefully in the not-so-distant future, we can apply those learnings to other restaurants.”