Flame Broiler has been family-owned since Young Lee founded it in 1995. One of the biggest advantages of this dynamic is the ability to adjust the pace of growth whenever necessary. There are no outside investors or debt. No third parties telling the restaurant what it should and shouldn’t do.

Otherwise, the roughly 120-unit chain would never have been able to put a five-year pause on franchising starting in 2019—20 years after it began partnering with operators.

“We had franchisees knocking on our door,” says COO and president Christian Lee, Young’s son. “We didn’t even respond. We weren’t accepting applications. We were fully stunting and halting growth. And we were able to do that because we have full control.”

The fast casual announced in April that it’s officially re-launching franchising. It will be the first time the brand has used a proactive sales effort as opposed to signing on franchisees through referrals. Flame Broiler is open to California territories as far north as Bakersfield. But given the recent fast-food wage law that increased minimum wage to $20 per hour, the chain is finding Texas to be a potential hotspot for expansion. As part of the new franchising initiative, the company inked a deal to open in Dallas. This will be Flame Broiler’s first location in the Lone Star State, in addition to California, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. The chain sees available whitespace in each of its current markets.

The brand is still open to single-unit operators, but the sweet spot is agreements for three to five restaurants.

“The first thing we look for and the most important, of course, is the cultural alignment,” Christian says. “Are they passionate about our mission? Why are they doing this? And that’s one of the first questions we ask —what are you doing it for? Not that there’s a wrong answer, but if someone says, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a great investment to grow my portfolio,’ great, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not the right fit for Flame Broiler. We’re looking for people who are passionate about health, passionate about the community, and who believe in what we’re doing in our mission and want to carry that forward in their communities. Something that we do have is our franchisees are die-hard Flame Broiler fans because we’ve never done sales. They all came in as customers and referrals. So they’re believers in the brand.”

Leadership is so confident in the chain’s potential for profitability that it spent recent years buying 13 franchised locations. With a sizable corporate footprint, the brand can quickly launch technology pilots and tinker with operations. Flame Broiler is in the process of opening two additional company-owned outlets as well.

“We’re trying to avoid any kind of pain that our operators are going to feel,” says chief innovation officer Daniel Lee, also Young’s son. “So if we’re going to launch online catering, for example, we want to make sure that by the time it gets to the franchisees, we can iron out all of the wrinkles. By the time it gets there, we want to make sure that they’re not dealing with a ton of issues. Like they’re not running into constant integration errors or there’s some kind of pickup operation that we haven’t thought through or anything like that. We want to make sure that’s ready so that when it gets to them it’s functional and it can be helpful for them off the rib as opposed to having to test it a bit, causing some pain to our franchisees and our vendors and our guests.”

Young didn’t start Flame Broiler with the intention of growing it. Much of the franchising came from organic demand over the years, and the footprint kept expanding. It reached a point where he was ready to pass off the business to his children. The family felt the transition was a good opportunity to take a pause and answer the basic—but thought-provoking—question, “What are we doing this for?” Everyone is on the same page that Flame Broiler is open to serving healthier food to communities via franchising, but leadership wanted to understand what that looked like long term. The brand didn’t want to grow for the sake of it, so it took time to decide what that consistent direction was instead of seeking a hockey puck trajectory.

This was a choice not just for the Lee family, but also the franchisees because their loved ones are banking on the success of Flame Broiler too, Christian notes.

The Lees found that when scaling too fast or without intention, franchisees suffer most. It could be the food doesn’t taste the same as the original restaurant or the service isn’t quite at the right level. That strikes at the main purpose of the five-year pause—to ensure every restaurant moving forward continues to uphold the values, passion, and mission that Young started.

During the past five years, technology has become a significant factor. Back in 2019, Flame Broiler worked with a legacy POS system and several stores didn’t have internet. The priority was switching to cloud POS and core operational tools. Then the pandemic happened, and all focus shifted to launching online ordering across the system. From there, Flame Broiler added tools to assist with things like inventory and third-party delivery order aggregation. Additionally, the chain launched an app and loyalty program to adapt to changing consumer preferences.

“I think this year in particular seems to be that year of efficiency, making sure our operators both on the corporate and franchise side are very, very profitable,” Daniel says. “Nobody likes to see another SaaS fee, right? Oh, $50 bucks, $100 here, $200 here. It really adds up. And so today, as we’re evaluating technology, we’re really making sure, OK, if we launch this, are they going to see a tangible ROI that we can directly attribute to whatever it is we launched?”

In terms of human capital, Flame Broiler tripled the size of its restaurant support center team. That includes the hiring of Gregg Rotcher as director of restaurant operations and his promotion to vice president of restaurant operations in February, and the appointment of Sherry Broesamle as director of people and culture and her promotion to vice president of people in April 2023.

Christian was named COO in October 2022 before adding the title of president in February. Daniel was bumped to chief technology officer and then to chief innovation officer.

The goal, Christian says, is to surround himself and his brother with people who “are better than us at a lot of other things.” And with a turnover rate of 50 percent, Flame Broiler knows how to keep talent in place. Part of it is making clear to everyone that Christian and Daniel aren’t the result of routine nepotism in a family business.

“We’re not just the golden spoon founder sons just here to pick up a paycheck,” Christian says. “We’re here to work. We’re here to support.”

Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Story, Web Exclusives, Flame Broiler