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To say Kona Ice is growing quickly would be an understatement. In the first six months of 2013 alone, the shaved ice concept has expanded from 305 trucks on the road to 409—opening a whopping 100 trucks in 100 days, says president and Kona Ice founder Tony Lamb.
“We’ve been building like crazy all winter long to make sure we have inventory, and the sales have just not stopped,” he says.
Being named Entrepreneur magazine’s top new franchise in the U.S. didn't hurt the brand's momentum, as Lamb says it showed potential franchisees that Kona Ice is more than just a snack stand.
“That talking point validated [us for] a lot of people, because I think we’re a little bit of an unconventional franchise,” he notes, adding that many potential operators believe that the word franchise only equates to a brick-and-mortar store. “Maybe that rating helped validate it in people’s mind that we’re more substantial than what it would appear on the surface.”
Twenty trucks are on the assembly line at the moment, with 415 units prepared to hit the road within the next three weeks. Lamb says last year’s launch of the Kona Mini cart has also helped propel the brand forward.
The brand is even preparing to open its first international unit, set to debut in Panama on Friday. Though Lamb says the company has thousands of international leads from interested operators, domestic growth will remain the focus for the time being.
“I don’t want to just throw it open and let anybody [franchise], because I don’t understand the international markets yet,” he says. “Somebody has to get into a market and succeed. And once we have an international success story and we figure out everything, then I’ll feel more comfortable in being able to open up to international markets and say, ‘Yeah, come on in.’”
With all of Kona Ice’s growth in 2013, Lamb says it’s important to keep franchisee support flowing. To that end, the brand relies on Kona College, a training program for new franchisees that was founded in 2012. Several times throughout the year, new operators are flown to corporate headquarters, where they participate in classes and rigorous hands-on training.
Lamb says the brand’s focus on franchisees is critical to its philosophy. “If our franchisees are happy, we’ll continue to grow because people will call them and they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, things are great,’” he says.
Just as important is the Kona team’s emphasis on giving back to the community. Philanthropic efforts have reached more than $13 million in donations, growing from $3 million in community giveback in 2011 to $10 million by the end of 2012. The brand hopes to reach $20 million by the end of the year.
Lamb says the brand’s franchisees are proud of their involvement in and contribution to the community, adding that the philanthropy component helps build a strong culture within the company.
“I know it’s important for everybody to make money. I know it’s important for the bottom line to be healthy, and I think we’ve done that. We’ve got a great business model; our franchisees are very successful,” he says. “Everyone seems to be very happy, now let’s take it a step further. Let’s explode the brand and let’s give it cultural relevance. Let’s give the company depth of character.”
By Mary Avant