The COVID-19 pandemic has upended traditional methods of doing business for restaurant companies, from the way they serve customers to the way they craft their marketing plans. And for franchises that are actively growing, that extends to the Discovery Day process where potential franchisees visit headquarters and get to know the brand and team.

With digital tools like Zoom and Google Meet becoming the de facto way of doing business after COVID-19, Discovery Days have similarly made a virtual transition. And while the face-to-face method was the accepted tradition of the past, the move to virtual platforms presents some logistical advantages that could render the in-person practice obsolete.

Denver-based fast-casual chain Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh toyed with the idea of a virtual Discovery Day before the pandemic by hosting hybrid virtual and in-person events. Compared to the traditional Discovery Day, the online aspect attracted a broader audience for the brand.

“The pandemic opened the door to a different way of doing things, and now we’re able to cast a bigger net,” says Larry Sidoti, chief development officer of Garbanzo.

Part of the draw is the removal of financial barriers in the Discovery Day process.

“Since we aren’t hosting candidates in person and they aren’t traveling to Denver to meet us for Discovery Day, there isn’t a financial commitment on either end,” Sidoti says. “From a financial perspective, the cost savings of conducting a Discovery Day virtually is a major advantage. It saves costs for both us, as a franchisor, and for prospects as well.”

In terms of content, the virtual Discovery Days at Garbanzo don’t veer too far from the in-person presentations. The online process does streamline information, however. Fewer presenters are needed to cover the same information as the in-person event.

Potential franchisees can especially benefit from the virtual Discovery Day by having a better chance to examine all of their options.

“The virtual world makes it more accessible, especially for those working full time––and allows them to view and compare multiple brands,” Sidoti says.

He adds that it’s important that franchise brands running virtual Discovery Days make the process interactive so that prospects are engaged. “Don’t approach it as a presentation,” he says, “but as an informative conversation.”

Despite the new prospects a virtual Discovery Day affords Garbanzo, the brand is not getting rid of the in-person meeting permanently. Sidoti says brands ultimately need to meet with prospective franchisees, even if both parties have to be flexible as to when that meeting happens.

“Ultimately, the in-person meetings will always exist. At some point prior to signing, it is critical for the franchisor and candidate to break bread,” he says. “Executing deals with external prospects without meeting them in person isn’t a pathway for sustainable growth.”

California-based brand Dave’s Hot Chicken is in the same vein when it comes to Discovery Day philosophy. The shift to digital has shown the chain the possibilities of the virtual world, and the brand plans to keep a virtual component as well as the in-person Discovery Day.

“I’ve been in franchising for 17 years, but it’s really opened my eyes to a new way of doing business,” says Shannon Swenson, vice president of franchise development at Dave’s Hot Chicken.

The change helped Dave’s Hot Chicken re-evaluate the value of its in-person presentations before moving them to the online Discovery Day. As a result, the brand erased many technical aspects of the presentations that would take place during the in-person event in favor of a broader approach.

“That’s where we now really focus a lot, more on our story of the concept,” Swenson says. “That’s really key, telling your franchise’s story. And then we focus on showing them designs of the buildings, showing them our growth, [and] showing them the experience behind the team.”

Another change that Dave’s Hot Chicken implemented was the size of the Discovery Day group. Prior to COVID, group Discovery Days consisted of around 25 people in groups of four to five. The virtual call is now much more intimate, as it’s mainly a one-on-one conversation consisting of the franchisee and top management. 

As other brands shift to the virtual Discovery Day, Swenson advises them to fully integrate the virtual process, because figuring out the role of digital in business practices is going to be the new normal. 

Hoss Tabrizi and Carlos Peralta are two Dave’s Hot Chicken franchisees who experienced the process firsthand. With franchisee experience in the past, both see the process advantageous—especially in getting dedicated attention with management.

“We were able to ask any questions we had from them and they were able to ask any questions they had from us. And then the flow of information—which lasted somewhere around 45 minutes to an hour—was fantastic,” Tabrizi says.

Like Garbanzo, Dave’s Hot Chicken got very efficient with the dissemination of information in the move to digital. Before the pandemic, prospective franchisees would discuss their business plans through email. The one-on-one time with top managers allows them to present their business plans in real time, with immediate feedback.

“The process of exchanging the information that we prepared, as far as a business plan, was extremely easy,” Tabrizi says. “[Carlos and I] jumped on a call and we went through it page by page and boom, boom, boom. It was easy.”

Franchising, Story, Garbanzo