Bruster’s is looking pretty good for 30. The ice cream brand, which began in 1989 as a single shop in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania, is in the midst of six consecutive years of same-store sales growth. The company finished 2018 with 181 units (179 franchised) and doubled down on its customer-centric efforts. Bruster’s won Paytronix’s 2019 Loyaltee’s Award for Best Loyalty Launch. Ten months after revamping the program, it achieved a 16 percent penetration rate.

Bruster’s updated from a punch-card format (10 punches for a free ice cream) to a program that tracks purchasing behaviors and allows the company to communicate one-to-one with guests. In a recent campaign using RFM segmentation, Bruster’s said it enjoyed a 187 percent ROI on its marketing investment. Bruster’s also launched its first partnership with Atlanta United and continues to think ahead.

Chief executive Jim Sahene took some time to chat with QSR about Bruster’s history and what lies ahead for the growing franchise.

Coming up on 30 years, talk about the community aspect of Bruster’s. How has that matured over the years, and how has it been key to keeping the brand relevant for three decades, especially as it grows?

When our founder, Bruce Reed, created Bruster’s Real Ice Cream in 1989, he wanted to combine his passion for extraordinary ice cream and stellar customer service. We started in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania and have maintained that small-town atmosphere over the years through kinship with our franchisees all of whom own local stores, too.

We’ve stayed true to our heritage by crafting premium ice cream made on site in the stores in which it is served. We continue to offer Free Baby Cones, Free Doggie Sundaes and Banana Thursdays where consumer get half off a banana split when they bring their own banana. In addition to these ongoing promotions, we also hold our PJ Day customer appreciation event in the spring during which customers wear their pajamas to their local store and get a free small waffle cone. They look forward to this each year—and so we do we! It’s our way of kicking off the season. Plus, some of our stores tie in a charity of their choice to raise money for local giving.

On the topic of growth, what are some plans moving forward? Is Bruster’s focused on entering new markets, clustering existing areas, both, etc.?

Our plans are consistent—to open one great store at a time. Our 30th anniversary was earlier this month and while we had a great time sharing our joy together with customers, we’re always considering ways to build upon our same store sales growth, average unit volume and identifying new whereabouts that might make a great home for a Bruster’s Real Ice Cream. We’ve made some excellent progress.

In the case of new markets, what are some local-store marketing strategies the brand deploys to get off and running? Does the community angle come into play here as well?

We are very focused on a pre-opening through post-opening marketing strategy that includes:

  • Pre-Opening: Creating awareness digitally through online search listings, social media and grassroots marketing to start establishing connections and fostering relationships in the local community.
  • Opening: Holding a grand opening event with ribbon cutting, outbound direct mail postcards sharing offers, PR and social media to elevate excitement and energy.
  • Post-Opening: Continuing a multimedia strategy focused on a combination of local and national efforts to drive traffic, build awareness and loyalty.

What are some factors contributing to the six-year same-store sales growth? How is the brand defying industry trends?

Bruster’s is defying industry trends through:

  • Fresh products—Our business revolves around our core values. We control the process from cow to cone resulting in a premium product that is never deep frozen.
  • Franchise passion—We have franchisees that are not only excellent businesspeople but also committed to our brand and the people at their stores, which includes youth mentorship.
  • Store updates—Not only have we advanced our Sweet Rewards loyalty program but we’ve also completed a roll out of new NCR POS register systems to fully manage operations of the business.

And the same with AUV. Has the growth there fueled expansion from within the system as well?

We’re proud to have 12multi-generational owner families, 26 franchisees that own multiple stores and nearly 200 total locations. We’re working on one great store at a time and continue to prioritize our franchisees and what they need to be prosperous.

How has the international opportunity grown?

We craft premium ice cream while also accounting for flavors, design concepts and other attributes to deliver upon what our customers and the market wants.

Talk about the digitalization piece. How much has this helped improve the customer relationship? What are some highlights of the changes, including the loyalty platform?

We keep our customers involved. We just concluded a survey asking loyal customers about the new products they’d like to see next at Bruster’s. We tap into their passion to help inform our product development.

In addition to surveys, we also have several programs that help increase connectivity, visits and spend. Some examples include our Sweet Rewards loyalty program—our customers love being rewarded for visiting our stores—and Favorite Flavor—notifications via text or email when customers’ favorite flavors are fresh made at their local store. They’re both great ways to connect with our customers and in turn, we benefit from understanding their purchase behavior and can create personalized one-on-one communication.

What are some ways Bruster’s will continue to evolve now as it looks ahead to another 30 years?

In 2049 we hope to have stayed true to our core values, opened new stores in key territories and continued to evolve our digital technology platform to build sales and profitability.


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