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.”
Though Ross isn’t involved with day-to-day operations either—Vernon says Wingstop communicates mostly with his sister and business partner—he did aim to be visible and integral to his units. “I like to be hands-on and show my team as much love and support as I can,” Ross says. “When I decided to take on this venture, I didn’t want to be just a name; I wanted to be as involved as I could be.”
For the rapper and record-label owner, that means communicating with the management at Boss Wings—sometimes through a quick text between studio sessions and music video rehearsals—and working on branding initiatives. Ross says attending store openings is one of the most important ways he contributes.
“I always make sure the Boss is in the building to set the tone for success,” he says. “I think it’s important to not only meet the employees, but also reciprocate the support that our guests or future guests show us.” If he’s ever in the area of one of his stores, he makes an effort to drop in for an order of Lemon Pepper wings.
“Whether it’s right or wrong, a celebrity franchisee helps legitimize a brand and gives it awareness, buzz, and credibility,” Fransmart’s Rowe says. “The opposite side of that is when a high-profile celebrity creates a loud thud and something doesn’t work out.”
There is a natural risk involved in tying a celebrity’s name and reputation to a quick-serve brand, Vernon says, but it’s important to recognize someone’s persona versus his or her personality.
“Everybody has their stage persona, and then they have who they are in real life,” he says. “Rick is willing to meet the brand partners and feels he’s a part of the community.” When the rapper was touring the United Arab Emirates, he went out of his way to meet with Wingstop’s new franchise partner in Dubai, Vernon says. “Stuff like that is very telling of who Rick is,” he adds.
Personalities don’t always align well within the relationship between celebrity and franchise. Rowe cites the mess made by several celebrities who left the California-based concept Fatburger in the early and mid 2000s. It happened during a period of financial struggles, he says, and several celebrities like Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, and Kanye West terminated their partnerships with the brand. Fatburger took a hit to its reputation, as there was no way to put a positive spin to the news.
“What goes up can come down—so if you partner with a celebrity to make a lot of buzz, if it’s negative, it’s going to make just as loud of a thud,” Rowe says.
Distance between a celebrity franchisee and a brand can sometimes be the answer to reducing the potential impact one individual can have on a brand’s reputation. At Blaze Pizza, a select few celebrity franchisees first became involved as seed investors. The young fast-casual concept has a corporate funding group that includes journalist and former First Lady of California Maria Shriver; Miami Heat superstar LeBron James; film producer John Davis; and Boston Red Sox owner Tom Werner, who is involved with Blaze’s franchise group in the Chicago and Miami markets.
“I like building brands, and I’m very comfortable doing that,” says Rick Wetzel, who cofounded the brand with his wife, Elise. “When celebrities came in as investors—and to me, they’re just investors like everyone else—I didn’t bring them in to put their name on the brand anywhere, in any way.”
The Wetzels first tried their hand in the quick-serve industry with the West Coast soft pretzel brand Wetzel’s Pretzels, which is how the pair met producer Davis, one of Wetzel’s first investors. When Rick Wetzel sought to fund Blaze, he turned back to Davis, who helped rope in some of the other high-profile players. But despite the star power, Wetzel says, the work these celebrities do is very much behind the scenes. Shriver, for example, was integral in connecting the Blaze team to her friends in the real estate business.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to use them in the business,” Wetzel says. “But what I do is when I opportunistically see a way for them to help me put a spotlight on the brand, I’ll call them in and ask for a favor.” For example, when the Boston Globe looked to profile the pizza brand, Wetzel asked Werner to talk to the paper, given his legacy in the Boston area.
For his part, Werner says, he invested and franchised with Blaze because of his belief in the product. “They will tell you that my involvement helps them add credibility to the brand,” he says in an e-mail. “I don’t know if that is true, but I am happy to endorse something that I believe has such strong customer satisfaction in the marketplace and fills a niche.”
Though Werner is not as visible as some other franchisees, nor is his name as recognizable as some others, he does bring a depth of business experience to the table.
“A celebrity like that, who is also a business person, brings a different perspective,” McKee says. “The Red Sox are popular, especially right now, and they’re very successful. He can bring a different acumen to the business by knowing what might ground that brand and make it more successful.”
Still, other brands take celebrity partners’ visibility factor to the opposite end of the spectrum. One such brand is Florida-based New Miami Subs Grill. In an effort to revamp and revitalize, the concept brought in recording artist Armando Christian Pérez, a.k.a. Pitbull. The Latin Grammy Award–winning musician is an equity owner in the company, appears in several video ads, and acts as a master franchisor for expansion within Latin America. There has even been talk of a cobranded concept that would feature Pitbull’s name and a full-service spin on the New Miami Subs menu.
“Miami Subs in the ’90s was a very hot brand and was rapidly growing. But they vanished almost completely; the whole concept just fell apart and scaled back to practically nothing,” Rowe says. “It looks like there’s some fresh money involved and some fresh people, and they’re trying to relaunch it.”
The partnership seems to be benefitting New Miami Subs so far, and the hype surrounding Pitbull has a lot to do with this, Rowe says. Still, he says, the buzz won’t matter much if a concept isn’t up to snuff on its own.
McKee cautions against such cobranded efforts or endeavors in which a celebrity is too visible.
“If a person comes in and wants to put their name on 10 percent of the brand, you have to ask yourself what happens to the other 90 percent,” she says. “Those are some of the disconnects you have to work through.”
During her time spent serving brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King, McKee experienced celebrity franchise deals that ran afoul. In one particular instance, an unnamed athlete wanted to have his name included above the brand name at his units. That wasn’t the sort of deal the company was looking for, and they had to walk away from the partnership.
But when a brand’s executive and a celebrity can land on the same page, with interests in mind that benefit both parties, a sustained and buzz-worthy growth can occur, McKee says.
“At the end of the day, the owner of the business wants to make sure that if they’re including new people as partners ... it is the right way to promote the brand and it’s going to give all the stakeholders of the brand return on their investment and a positive image,” she says.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Tawanda Roberts posing with Rick Ross at the November 2013 opening of his Memphis-area Wingstop; Ross posed with his mother, Tommie Roberts, for pictures during the opening. QSR regrets the error.