As a general manager for a General Electric division in Indiana, Brayton Knotts has seen the world. But after a 20-plus-year career, he and his family were ready for a change. Florida’s warmer weather beckoned them south—as did an opportunity to become a franchisee at McAlister’s Deli.

After going through the vetting process with McAlister’s, Knotts opened his first location in 2013 and a second store last year. Since McAlister’s was new to the Tampa market, he was in a position to drive business exposure and serve as a brand ambassador. By supporting local high schools, first responders, teachers, and others in the community, he introduced locals to McAlister’s and established a solid customer base.

Knotts recounts how years at General Electric influenced his franchisee business practices and discusses what it’s like introducing a brand to a new market.

1. Act on your aspirations

I worked for 20 years at General Electric. Midway through your career, you think about what you want to do the second half of your life. And one of the things you want is to be happy. I wanted to get further south, and there were three places I wanted to live: Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; or Tampa, Florida. So I started looking at franchise opportunities that I was passionate about. Most of that passion was driven by my family and the things that we like to do together. We’re a big sports family, and a lot of the things we do revolve around that.

I wanted to be somewhere where I liked what the city had to offer. I also wanted to find something that provided the right environment for whatever business I was going to run. I looked at Buffalo Wild Wings and I looked at McAlister’s. After church, my kids wanted to go to McAlister’s; after a ball game, they wanted to go to McAlister’s. It led me to the brand. I was a huge fan of their product and of their service. Whatever I was going to do for the second half of my life had to be something I was very passionate about. I became a real big advocate of both of those pieces of the McAlister’s brand.

The Tampa area happened to be available, and the stars lined up since it was somewhere I wanted to be. I’m from Indiana, and it’s very cold in the winter. It wasn’t the place that my family and friends were dying to come and visit. With General Electric, I got to work all over the world: India, China, Brazil, and all over the U.S. I felt like I had a good lay of the land, and Tampa hit nearly every checkbox that I had. I like the weather, I like the water, I like the sports, and I like the culture.

There’s a lot of transient people in and out, so you get to meet a lot of people. From the business side, this is where a lot of restaurants are tested. There’s a lot of competition in the Tampa market. I knew with the support from McAlister’s in selecting locations and getting started that we’d have a good partnership there.

2. Start with salutations

The first unit that started has done very well. We knew we were building a brand in a new market, so we’re not going to take off quite as quickly as markets where we’re very well known. When you bring a new product or new restaurant, you get involved in the community quickly. We work with high schools and do a lot of public events at the zoo and at local promotional events and ball games. There are many food and beer festivals here, so we take our booth and get our name out.

We use our McAlister’s corporate marketing team to help us with other ideas on how we can drive brand awareness through multiple media outlets. But when you’re building a brand name in a new marketplace, you have to go out there and do a little bit more of that than you would if you pop up a McDonald’s; you don’t have to tell them what you’re all about. We’ve dug in since we started the restaurant four years ago, and we’ve grown double digits every year since, so that’s a fantastic run for us. It allowed us to get our second one started, and it’s doing very well. It’s about eight miles north of our first location, and we’re looking at our third location right now.

3. Connect the dots

My family has been in the restaurant business for quite some time. Both of my uncles were owners and operators of Arby’s restaurants in Indiana, and one of them was very interested in helping me get my start. He committed to come and help me get the restaurant started.

At the end of the day, you just have to be passionate about what you’re doing. It was a totally different type of work for me, but I think it boils down to the same thing. At any of the businesses I’ve run for General Electric, you have guests and you have process and you have a product. You have to focus on the quality, and you have to focus on the guest. If you don’t find a way to connect with your guests and create a relationship, then you’re just another restaurant. We really coach our team that that’s how we win. We have a great product at McAlister’s, but what makes it special is our Southern hospitality and our focus on the guest and making a connection.

As a franchisee, you have to know the franchise community of all the people who came before you, as well as the corporate group that will reach out and help you. When you make a decision as a franchisee to go and join a company, you better make sure in some way, shape, or form that they have your back, and they’ve got the structure and the process to help you be successful.

This article originally appeared in QSR‘s September 2017 issue with the title “The Market Migration.”

Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Story, McAlister's Deli