When Otto Othman decided to open his Latin-inspired fast-casual brand, PINCHO, it was 2010 and he and the other two cofounders were at a family Fourth of July cookout. 

The team was inspired by Othman’s mother’s beloved kebab recipe, and soon after the cookout, they went to work building the concept, crafting a menu largely based on family tradition and finding a location in Miami. Now PINCHO has 11 stores and plans to open 100 locations in the next five years.

Taking the store from an idea inspired by a family favorite to a network of successful stores didn’t happen overnight. “We haven’t grown for the sake of growth, and we’ve only opened up new stores if we have the exact right partners and a strong enough team under us to get there. You can’t rush this,” Othman says.

Scaling up is a complex process for any concept. Brands looking to expand must consider a catalog of growth options, and each specific quick serve warrants its own unique growth strategy. Opening the doors to a new store (or several new stores) is the most satisfying step in the growth process, but it’s also a final step—one that comes after several months of preparing mentally, physically, and emotionally for brand expansion; tirelessly scoping out the best markets and sites; and establishing a strong team and customer base.

There isn’t a magic formula for scaling, and brand founders and operators on the brink of a growth phase have to first ask themselves: “Am I ready for this?”

Know thyself

To grow a brand, one must first know their brand. This means leaving no stone unturned when it comes to financials, staffing, replicability, and target audiences. When operators neglect to properly learn the ins and outs of their concept before expanding, it can result in a not-so-dependable foundation for growth.

“Before growth, operators first have to ask themselves if they’re ready for growth, what the vision is for themselves as operators, what they do extremely well, and what they don’t do well. It’s not just about growth. It’s about achieving what you want to achieve with your brand specifically,” says Larry Reinstein, president of LJR Hospitality Ventures, a consulting firm for fast casuals. When operators reflect on their brand vision and their vision of the role they will play within the growing brand, it lays the groundwork for a growth strategy that is built to achieve those personal goals, he adds.

In addition to taking some time to focus on their own commitment and goals for brand growth, Reinstein says, operators should study their financials and replicability. Opening a first unit or second unit can be a completely different process than widespread expansion into a chain of additional stores. It’s a common scenario: An entrepreneur opens a first location and is passionately involved in every step of the process. Some of the tasks that would usually be farmed out to contractors or other professionals are easily handled by the operator or an employee, decreasing expenses and increasing the hands-on involvement of operators. But she can’t devote the same one-on-one energy to additional units as her concept grows beyond her personal control, and so costs naturally increase as stores are built with less hands-on attention.

For PINCHO, building a replicable model meant streamlining processes and systems for easy construction in various cities. Othman says the PINCHO team worked to digitize any pen-and-paper processes, enable cloud-sharing for recipes and other information, and establish a brand-wide manager training process to prep for new locations. “We’ve never had to change our brand, but it has been crucial to establish the right systems and to leverage technology to help us scale our concept with consistency across all locations,” he says.

Akash Kapoor founded Curry Up Now—an Indian street food–inspired fast casual—as a food truck in San Francisco 10 years ago. Seven brick-and-mortar locations, two in-restaurant cocktail bars, and a national growth strategy later, Kapoor has units in the works in Georgia, New Jersey, Utah, and additional California markets, and he knows firsthand the commitment that widespread expansion requires.

“You have to ask yourself how much you want to travel, how big you want to get, what exactly you’re looking for,” he says. “Once you figure out if this is what you really see in the future, you can put blinders on and laser-focus on getting your brand out there.”

Finding your niche

Location can make or break a concept. One of the most crucial steps in the scaling-up process is looking for new real estate, and market research before moving is key. “First and foremost, I believe very strongly that location is the No. 1 thing of importance in growth,” Reinstein says. “You can change everything about your restaurant, but you can’t change the location once you’ve got it set.” 

A good location not only has traffic and visibility, but also fits within the budget and is positioned near the brand’s target demographic. Studying the original base of loyal customers can point to the strongest demographics for a brand and help to weed out the not-so-great neighborhoods from areas where the concept can flourish. PINCHO opens in neighborhoods where it can easily get involved in the community through charities and other initiatives, and where there’s a heavy showing of 25–35-year-olds. Curry Up Now searches for new locations with a strong millennial presence, but seeks sites with big Gen X and Gen Z populations as well. In addition, Curry Up Now looks for areas with tech companies and hospitals to boost its lunchtime visits and catering orders. By nailing down the groups of diners that choose their brand, operators can avoid reinventing the wheel every time they begin building a store and an audience in a new area.

Building out the original market before venturing elsewhere is a good way to get all the facts on target demographics and locations, the experts say. Both PINCHO and Curry Up Now expanded throughout their home markets before looking to grow in other cities, states, and regions. Not only does this ease the burden on supply chain (especially for restaurants that aren’t full scratch kitchens) and require less research into entirely new markets, but also, Kapoor says, it allows operators to ease themselves into the process of running multiple units while not requiring extensive travel time.

“I wouldn’t open a location outside of your hometown until you open one within 10 or 20 miles. That way, if stuff happens, you can put out the fire in one day. You want to have that second location close by and run it like it’s hundreds of miles away to get yourself ready for eventually jumping to a totally different market,” he says.

When it comes to specific cities that are ripe for growing brands, there isn’t a magic bullet. Different brands require different audiences and environments, but there are some areas that are promising for concepts that are just coming into their own. Reinstein points to cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and various markets in Colorado and Arizona as some of the markets that are ripest for growth and that offer friendlier business environments than larger, more saturated areas like New York City or Boston (read more on the top markets here).

Max Kanter, a real estate attorney at the Chicago-based law firm Much Shelist, says one of the most important aspects of the site-selection process is having a skilled outside team that can work with brand leadership on choosing the right places to plant new stores. He recommends that leaders look for a knowledgeable broker and real estate attorney who can help locate the perfect sites, whittle down rent costs, and protect against hidden snags often slipped into leases.

The most common traps spotted in early drafts of rental agreements? Hidden maintenance obligations and stringent landlord control clauses. “We break down the lease with the client and comb through operating costs, taxes, and any obligations included,” Kanter says. “There are items that brands have to be clear about and negotiate ahead of time—perhaps it’s an HVAC unit that an operator doesn’t know they have to maintain, and then months down the road they’re surprised by a multi-thousand-dollar repair. Or maybe it’s an initial draft of the lease that allows landlords control over operating hours or menu.”

It takes a village

After a brand outlines a growth strategy and determines where to expand, scaling up becomes all about relationships. As a founder, it’s impossible to retain control of each aspect of a brand during and after growth. That’s why, experts say, founders must delegate tasks and responsibilities to a skilled leadership team who can run units smoothly and stay true to brand culture, even in new markets that may be thousands of miles away.

This can be difficult when the brand in question lies close to an operator’s heart, and bolstering growth with a group of trusted leaders is key. In order for PINCHO to grow without losing any of its authenticity or spirit, Othman says, the concept expands only when a team of capable managers has been put in place to handle new units. “You can’t clone yourself, so you have to make sure that everyone else shares your vision completely,” he says. “If we didn’t have a strong team behind PINCHO, we wouldn’t have grown into the brand we are today. We all have each other’s backs—it’s a really tough business, but if you have a great group of people who trust each other, it makes it a lot easier to position your brand for growth.” With a group of passionate cofounders responsible for PINCHO, the brand started out with a firm foundation of trust. To continue that trust, Othman says, the company is highly selective when it comes to franchisees, only choosing candidates who share 100 percent of the brand’s values.

On the flip side of the growth process? Customers. Establishing a loyal customer base is crucial to finding success in a new market, and, while a brand may have a faithful following in its hometown, the true proof of its ability to scale is how it performs in building new customer bases.

There are countless ways businesses can get the word out to new markets, but neighboring businesses are a good place to start. “New brands can go to other local retailers and look for partnerships,” says Hope Neiman, CMO of Tillster, a software company that researches and offers restaurant ordering solutions, including a digital ordering platform designed specifically for multi-unit concepts. “For instance, if you have a cost-effective brand and there’s a really popular dollar store in your new location, you’re going to take advantage of that by going to the dollar store and offering a special deal for their customers. You’re expanding your distribution even before you have a real platform of your own.”

Digital channels are also strong options for padding a new customer base. Data from Tillster’s “Digital Coupon & Loyalty Index” from the past year shows that 88 percent of quick-serve customers would try a new brand if a digital coupon was offered. Neiman says brands can also leverage data from established units to create evangelists for their new locations. Operators can pinpoint their best customers by looking at who opens branded emails. Those customers can be incentivized to tell their friends with rewards like a double coupon promotion that allows them to forward on a coupon to a friend in the new location while also receiving a deal themselves. 

When a Curry Up Now unit opens in a new market, it holds a soft opening for the new store with little to no fanfare. Without advertising at all, the store serves food for a few days free of charge to any customers who may come in, experimenting with what works in the new location and gauging guest reactions. Then it holds a grand opening event that the team promotes with surrounding local businesses, posters around town, and social media posts. 

PINCHO seeks to get involved in its community right off the bat, looking for a local charitable partner to be the recipient of a percentage of opening proceeds. The team also invites local artists to visit each new unit and paint murals inside the stores. “You always get butterflies in your stomach when the doors open on a new store, wondering if people will show,” Othman says. “Then you see lines out the door, and that’s probably the most satisfying feeling in the world. When it comes to investing in new communities and finding new partners and customers, it’s actually really fun, because we open only in neighborhoods that we’re passionate about.”

Embracing brand individuality

In the end, one brand’s growth strategy is exactly that—a strategy for one specific brand. Individual concepts have a lot of research to do when it comes to deciding when, where, and how to grow, and most of that research comes down to brand identity and what separates one restaurant from another.

“It’s a very personal process. This business is very human, and it’s very much based on individual operators and individual brands,” Kapoor says. “You’ve got to be all in, and really know what’s going on and see your concept’s vision clearly.” 

While stories of growth from others can be helpful patterns, scaling up is simplest when operators turn their eyes inward. Neiman says operators can learn what will work moving forward by gathering data from their units through simple systems like point of sale, mobile ordering platforms, apps, and email lists. Gathering data before building backs up strategies with numbers, giving operators a clearer view of what’s ahead.

After the research is done, expansion plans are made, and brands begin to forge ahead into new territories, Reinstein says, operators should remember one final tool: the industry itself. “It’s going to be a long process, so don’t be afraid to ask for help from other brands,” he says. “In the restaurant industry, people are willing to share and be helpful with each other. You don’t have to make all the mistakes or do everything alone.”

Business Advice, Customer Experience, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Special Reports, Curry Up Now, Pincho Factory