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    The Anti-Chain Chains

  • There are more differences between chain and independent restaurants than just unit count. And operators are trying to leverage them to have the best of both worlds.

    Project Pie
    Chains like Project Pie are giving their restaurants the look and feel of independent eateries.

    “The bigger you get, the more mediocre you often are,” he says. “You start to attract less risk-taking people as you get bigger, people who are just looking for a cushy place to land versus people who are inspired and growing and active.”

    This idea of diminishing greatness as a brand grows is just one of the factors that has created a stigma around the word chain—a stigma that today’s blossoming foodie culture is only making worse. Perhaps that’s why more brands are trying to avoid this descriptor in the eyes of consumers, hoping instead to be thought of as an anti-chain chain—a brand that operates very much like an independent restaurant in terms of culture and experience, but with a string of units that by definition makes it a chain.

    “There’s the assumption that chain means the restaurant has no soul,” Baker says of this increasingly prevalent stereotype around chains. Larkburger, however, is one of these anti-chain chains that works hard to ensure each of its units “has a soul and that each guest experience is exceptional,” he says—an effort that’s a daily work in progress.

    “If the crew and the manager at the restaurant understand the importance of these things that we’re trying to deliver, they will take the torch and continue to deliver it,” he says. “But if it becomes where we’re watered down and these values of food quality and guest experience and hospitality don’t matter as much, I think we’re done.”

    At the root of the anti-chain chain movement is a brand’s determination to reveal its authenticity in everything it does, which is the chief focus for 20-unit fast-casual pizza brand Project Pie. “We are exactly who we are. We’re unapologetically ourselves,” says founder and CEO James Markham. “We care about the guest. We care about giving them great value, and you’ve got to have a great vibe, a great culture.” As it expands, keeping this culture and brand DNA at its core is not just important to Project Pie, but is the primary way it judges its success. “If you start losing your DNA and what got you to where you are, then just give the keys to your landlord and go home,” Markham says.

    Transparency is also a common trait among anti-chain concepts. At Project Pie, it’s taken to a new level, with the corporate team filming its executive meetings and posting them to YouTube. “We don’t want people to go, ‘This is what they say, but are they really doing these things?’” Markham says. “We want people to see the inner workings of Project Pie. Not just what you see at the store level.”

    Another characteristic of today’s anti-chain concepts: a propensity to be forward-looking by investing in processes and developments that may not be profitable in the immediate future, but that benefit the consumers nonetheless. “They’re not short-term profit–driven. They’re long-term profit–driven,” Noveshen says, adding that it’s the point at which short-term needs exceed long-term visions that bad decisions—what some may consider chain-like decisions—are made by brands.

    But not all brands want to—or should—try to skirt around the fact that they’re an old-fashioned chain. Take the biggest brands in the business, for example, that Noveshen says have become “incredibly successful by being a trusted brand.” While some customers might not like them, he says, millions of others support those brands with their dollars.

    For those smaller brands wanting to grow into chains, whether the traditional type or one of today’s increasingly popular anti-chain versions, experts say ensuring financial stability and obtaining sufficient capital are the first steps to doing so successfully.

    “We run into people who are like, ‘Yeah, we’re opening more units. We haven’t made a dime yet, but we’re going to scale,’” Noveshen says. “They should be focusing on how to improve the profitability so the return on investment for opening a second one is good use of somebody’s money.” He adds that a chain must have a strong business model, as well as documented standards and processes, before it can successfully expand and grow. Operators must know how to run the units without having to be in multiple places at once. “If the restaurant doesn’t know how to run without you being there, you shouldn’t scale,” he says.

    At Larkburger, each new unit must maintain and communicate the brand culture, message, and DNA it’s become known for—something Baker says any growing brand should try to achieve, despite the effort it takes. “Maintaining that culture and making sure everybody understands and is living and breathing the culture as we grow restaurants is challenging,” Baker says.

    Creating a team of brand evangelists at the corporate and store levels who understand the business, its core values, and how to execute is yet another prerequisite for successfully scaling a growing brand, Baker adds.

    “You need to make sure that you have more than you need today, but what you need for tomorrow,” he says.