Bruster’s CEO Jim Sahene thinks his concept serves the best ice cream in America.

He’s a bit biased, of course. But his opinion doesn’t come out of thin air. Sahene knows a good frozen treat when he sees one because he’s been in the segment for nearly four decades, serving as TCBY president for 14 years and as Bruster’s CEO for 22 and a half. The executive’s thoughts are also backed by 10 straight years of positive same-store sales growth and unprecedented AUVs. Last year, Bruster’s signed more than 40 new franchise agreements and eclipsed 200 units nationwide.

“It all starts with the great ice cream. Without that, we wouldn’t have a success,” Sahene says. “But when you combine that with our amazing franchise community, I couldn’t be more proud of this group of individuals. They’re hard working and they’re committed. Many of them have been through COVID. And they’re just doing an amazing job executing. I’ve been in this industry all my career since 1986, either yogurt or ice cream. And I’ve always shared with our franchisees—your customers come to you happy, not hungry. I go to Subway because I’m hungry. I go to Bruster’s because I’m happy. So your job is to make sure they leave happier.”

On top of that, 124 shops set sales records in 2023. That’s after 124 did so in 2022 and 142 in 2021. That means between 60–75 percent of the footprint is rewriting the brand’s history books each year. There’s nothing spectacular leading to these stellar results, Sahene says. The stores are applying basic principles, executing strategies, providing the best possible customer experience, and focusing on mentoring their team of teenage employees. There’s no other secret.

“Certainly marketing gets mixed in and it’s a very, very important element,” Sahene says. “But on a national basis, all of our stores have the same marketing. Some do supplement a little bit more locally, but it’s just executing on the absolute basics. I always say I’d love to write a book, but it’d be about two pages long because it’s really not complicated. It is all about the basics.”

The chain, which is based in 23 states, wants to build “one great store at a time,” the CEO says. He isn’t interested in opening 500 or 1,000 stores per year; he wouldn’t even go as high as 100. But there are opportunities available nationwide. According to Sahene, the ice cream category in general is growing about 2 to 3 percent per year. He sees that expansion as a chance to steal market share.

Bruster’s has awarded 136 franchise agreements over the past several years, including 29 so far in 2024. Of the 36 that were sold last year, 30 percent came from existing operators.

“I will tell you this, being in this industry this long, the greatest compliment any franchisor can get is when an existing franchisee takes your dream, opens a store, understands the service levels he can expect, understands the marketing levels he can expect, understands everything there is to know about us, and says, ‘I want more,'” Sahene says. “So the fact 30 percent bought more is just absolutely incredible. And again, the reason why there’s demand right now is because the brand performance—we’re hot. We’ve got 10 years of consecutive same-store sales growth. We have the highest average unit volume in our company’s history. Things are clicking, things are working well. And I attribute that to our great franchise community.”

Bruster’s offers three primary store models: freestanding drive-thrus, endcap drive-thrus, and endcaps with outdoor patios. The company avoids inline stores. While the pandemic posed significant challenges, Bruster’s walk-up model proved advantageous. Customers felt comfortable waiting outside for their ice cream. In fact, during the two years of COVID, Bruster’s experienced 35 percent growth.

The major shift was enhancement of drive-thru technology. Roughly half of Bruster’s locations feature drive-thrus. Additionally, the company has integrated online ordering and third-party delivery services like Uber Eats. Despite these operational changes, the look and feel of Bruster’s stores remain largely unchanged. The focus has been on optimizing service rather than altering the physical store environment.

When it comes to selecting franchisees, Sahene emphasizes that formal education or professional background is not the primary concern. “We don’t care if you have a master’s degree, an MBA, or years of experience in any particular field. We can teach you everything you need to know about running an ice cream store,” he says.

Instead, Bruster’s focuses on three key traits prospective franchisees must possess. First, it’s important to a “service gene.” He explains, “You have to want to be in this industry and serve others. It all starts with that.” The second trait is what Sahene calls the “fun gene.” Given that Bruster’s is in the business of selling ice cream, franchisees need to create a fun and enjoyable environment for both employees and customers. “You need to have the ability to create a joyful atmosphere for your 16-year-old employees and your customers,” he adds.

Lastly, franchisees must enjoy working with and mentoring young employees. Sahene says, “Some people love working with 16-year-olds, seeing them as clay they can sculpt into something beautiful. Others prefer a more mature crew. If you’re not enthusiastic about mentoring young staff, you may not be a good fit for us.”

These traits are non-negotiable for Bruster’s, and franchisees lacking them are not considered. By prioritizing these qualities, Bruster’s ensures that its franchisees are not only capable of running a store but are also aligned with the company’s values and culture.

“If you can serve, if you can have fun, and if you can mentor these young adults, you’re in. We’ll teach you the rest. But those three things I can teach,” Sahene says.

Sahene envisions a promising future for the brand because of its commitment to tradition amidst evolving market trends. Even though the ice cream industry sees various brands and fads come and go, such as the current trend of alcohol-infused ice cream in major coastal cities, Bruster’s remains steadfast in its classic approach. “We’ll see if that trend takes hold, but that’s not Bruster’s and that’s not where we’re going. We’re going to stay true to who we are, and I think there’s unlimited opportunity in that,” he says.

Sahene explains that although many ice cream chains offer similar menu items like shakes, sundaes, cakes, and pies, Bruster’s sets itself apart with its proprietary ice cream mix. “We control the process from cow to cone,” he says, highlighting the brand’s ownership stake in the manufacturing facility. This involvement ensures a consistent and high-quality product that’s made fresh daily.

Customers can taste the difference, which Sahene believes is the reason behind Bruster’s cult following.

“They’re not sure why it tastes so different and so good, but they know it’s different and it’s good,” he says.

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