At GoTo Foods’ biennial global franchise convention in February, CEO Jim Holthouser posed a rhetorical question to the audience: “Why does it matter to me as a U.S. franchisee if we expand our brand overseas?”

The simple and easy answer is that scale wins in the industry, according to Holthouser. 

“And international growth is an important way that we build scale,” he said. “Plus, in a global world, growing overseas further builds our customer base, creating more and more brand fans and fueling even more brand strength and brand love.”

Scale happens to be one of GoTo Foods’ greatest strengths. More than 90 international franchisees attended the group’s conference in Las Vegas earlier this year—the most ever. They came from places like Japan, the Netherlands, Egypt, and Guatemala. 

As of mid-February, the company had about 2,000 international locations across 61 countries and territories, consisting of Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Jamba, and Seattle’s Best Coffee. The largest brands are Auntie Anne’s with 815 locations and Cinnabon with 915 shops. 

The international division is led by Dave Mikita, who’s worked with GoTo Foods for nearly 12 years. He began his role as president of international and retail channels in January 2023. 

“In our specific area of the business, part of what we’re doing is helping our guests and fans satisfy their cravings by offering more access to the brands that they love,” Mikita said. “We do this through our retail products and international business. Retail is a powerful engine—driving brand love, connecting with consumers, and engaging them in new and innovative ways. All of which helps increase connections, incremental occasions, and sales in your locations.

“ … For us, international is a story with no limits,” he added. “No limits on geography. No limits on building our brands in new ways. No limits on innovation. On solutions. On menu development. And ultimately no limits on growth.” 


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Mikita noted that GoTo Foods is seeing “tremendous interest and growth in Jamba.” The chain opened new locations in Australia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Guatemala. As of February, the beverage chain was in the process of opening new markets such as India, Bahrain, and Portugal. 

Down the road, the restaurant group sees strong international potential for Carvel and Moe’s. Mikita said GoTo Foods is “putting a lot of time, energy, and focus into preparing these two brands for similar overseas success.” 

“The strength of our brands, the power of our brands is the foundation, the starting point for all we’ve been able to do,” Mikita said. “We know just how important existing brand equity is when it comes to adding franchisees, attracting guests, and being seen as good neighbors—positive community contributors—in new markets.”

Because GoTo Foods can’t do business in other markets exactly like it does in the U.S., creative thinking and innovation have become pillars of international business. The company looks at each local market and determines what it may need to adjust with processes, operational support, supply chain, and menus. Some tangible examples include Cinnabon’s ambient model, Auntie Anne’s freezer to oven, Jamba’s fresh and frozen fruit, and Carvely’s dry mix. 

“In other words, these innovations are essential in unlocking the power of our brands beyond North America and delivering the brand equities people around the world want and what they expect from us,” Mikita said. “Based on local tastes, we regionalize our menus, often leading to new culinary innovations. Ultimately, we know respecting and appealing to local market preference helps build successful global brands.”

GoTo Foods has also thought deeply about unique store formats. In Egypt, the company has opened Cinnabon locations using shipping containers. The strategy allows restaurants to get up and running quickly in trade areas that would be harder to operate in if the box were traditional. Meanwhile in the U.K., GoTo Foods is working with franchisees at Freshly Baked Limited to open a new hyper-compact model in a train station. 

“As we grow internationally, we’re doing so in ways that enhance our brands and make them even more relevant and compelling,” Mikita said. “Again, our businesses over there aren’t going to look like they do here.  And that’s OK. More than OK, in fact. Why? Because—in a connected, global world—international growth further builds our brands. And it helps us build scale for the business as a whole. That’s essential and extremely valuable.

“Meanwhile, new thinking and new ideas are moving across borders,” he added. “Today, innovation can come from any market—and move to any market. If there’s value and if there’s local relevance. In fact, we have quite a few large-scale franchisees in our international market. Franchisees with experience and expertise to share. As a result, we’re seeing a constant stream of innovations coming from international franchisees. Innovations we can spread to other geographies and other brands, around the world and back here in the United States.”

As the international footprint grows, GoTo Foods continues to use technology to evolve its franchise support model. For the past two years, it’s used a Customer Experience Center of Excellence (cece) to conduct virtual store visits in international locations and has seen satisfactory results thus far. The restaurant group partnered with Auxis to open the operations support center located in Heredia, Costa Rica. The consulting and outsourcing firm helped GoTo Foods create an international shared services model and team of well-trained, multilingual customer experience coaches. 

These officials virtually visit stores multiple times per year to deliver an Operational Excellence Review with operators in their native language during normal work hours. GoTo Foods uses software solutions from RizePoint to power the virtual visits. The software houses brand standards and guidelines, training materials, and business solutions such as data analysis and performance dashboards in an app that can be accessed from any mobile system. 

It’s worked so well that the company is bringing virtual store visits, with coaches from the CECE to domestic operators, to supplement in-store visits from brand-trained operations teams. Leading up to the conference in February, GoTo Foods said it piloted virtual visits to improve performance at Moe’s, Auntie Anne’s, and Cinnabon. 

Each brand used visits differently, which helped GoTo Foods understand what worked and what didn’t. For instance, Auntie Anne’s tried to solve burnt pretzels. 

“To help us tackle this, we provided supplemental virtual visits to all locations,” said Kristen Hartman, president of GoTo Foods’ specialty category. “Virtual visits were focused on validating procedures that could lead to burnt pretzels. That provided insights that enabled our teams to work with stores and franchisees to improve product quality. We saw an entire percentage point improvement in OSAT based on that focus.”

Domestic and international operators have worked together to build significant sales for GoTo Foods. Since 2020, the company has amassed over $4.2 billion in systemwide sales, with an additional $1.5 billion generated through licensing partnerships.

In 2023, the company saw substantial growth in adjusted EBITDA and loyalty acquisition, marked by double-digit increases year-over-year. Internal supply chain improvements led to the consolidation of numerous product variations across brands. Investment in paid media also doubled compared to 2022, while the consumer packaged goods (cpg) licensing arm saw success with 10 new product launches, boosting revenue and brand recognition.

GoTo Foods continues to expand, emphasizing multi-unit growth, co-branding initiatives, and nontraditional development strategies. Last year, the company inked over 1,150 franchise agreements and launched 398 new restaurants, attracting 4.6 million new loyalty members globally. With over 2,000 nontraditional units in the U.S. and 2,000 more locations across 60-plus countries, the company’s pipeline boasts over 3,000 forthcoming restaurants.

GoTo Foods was previously named Focus Brands but made an official change at the biennial conference. Since Holthouser assumed his position in 2020, GoTo Foods has transitioned from a conglomerate with seven distinct brands operating independently to a unified entity. This shift entails the implementation of streamlined, centralized systems across the entire portfolio. Notably, these systems include shared digital platforms that facilitate suggestive selling to boost both order volume and average order value, alongside targeted marketing initiatives aimed at re-engaging dormant users and catering to loyal customers.

Holding company Focus Brands was formed in 2004 when Carvel and Cinnabon joined forces. That was followed by McAlister’s (2005), Schlotzsky’s (2006), Moe’s (2007), Auntie Anne’s (2010), and Jamba (2018). 

With everything streamlined now, it would be a lot more feasible for GoTo Foods to acquire another chain, which it has shown interest in doing. Holthouser aims to enrich the platform’s flavor profile, exploring options such as pizza, burgers, Mediterranean cuisine, or salads. Previously, the company expressed its desire for a concept spanning between 150 and 900 stores—a model validated in the market yet sufficiently manageable to avoid integration challenges.

A future purchase could benefit the company on a global scale. Although U.S. and international operators are thousands of miles apart, it doesn’t diminish the relationship they have and their shared mindset of growing GoTo Foods. 

“All our franchisees—both domestic and international—form a unique brotherhood and sisterhood of entrepreneurs, brand builders, and good neighbors to those around them,” Mikita said.

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