Aubree's restaurant owners examine franchise plans with hope of expanding beyond Michigan
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
One of Ypsilanti’s popular Depot Town dining establishments is positioning itself to export its brand to the rest of the country.
Aubree’s Saloon and Aubree’s Pizzeria and Tavern owners Bill and Andy French are assembling a franchising plan, and the father and son team hopes to see several locations open by the end of the year. They'll look at a regional expansion first, in Ohio and Indiana, and then at points beyond.
The Frenches opened the original Aubree’s Saloon in Depot Town and expanded with Aubree’s Pizzeria and Tavern in Ypsilanti Township. Most recently, the Frenches set up a Northville Aubree’s Pizzeria and Tavern location, which will serve as a model for franchised restaurants.
“We think we have a great story to tell,” Andy French said. “Michigan’s economy has been tough for a number of years, and we’ve been able to be successful in it. We believe the pizza-beer-casual restaurant setting will be successful in any economic time.”
The Northville location, which is on "franchise row" at Eight Mile and Haggerty roads, proved successful immediately by turning a profit within a year. That provided the Frenches with confidence that their formula could work, Andy French said.
One of the main motivations driving the expansion is to provide their “fantastic management and staff” more opportunity to grow and succeed with the company, he said.
Bill French, who is spending his winter taking flight classes in Florida, said he feels that he owes those longtime managers for helping him be successful.
“These people have dreams of their own, and one of the elements of franchising is it allows us, during hard economic times, to bring in top-quality people,” he said. “When people start with you in a small company, if they’re ambitious and skilled, they want to see how far they can move up.
“This allows us to get top-flight people and help them move through the ranks and give them a reason to stay with us.”
To that end, Bill French created a development program for managers hoping to advance their career with Aubree’s, and he said he personally mentors six employees. Those are the workers he expects will become the franchisees.
Bill French said the company’s expansion is also an opportunity to improve the restaurant's menu and broaden its appeal. At the advice of ifranchise, a Chicago-based franchise consulting firm, Aubree's conducted a 1,200-person survey of its menu, making changes based on the feedback.
“It told us that we were a little behind the times, and that East and West Coast’s and world’s palate is here in little Ypsilanti,” Bill French said.
“Everyone’s tastes are changing, and younger people are leading the way," he added. “We feel good about the new menu, and we’ve basically turned it into one that reflects the direction that we’re going to take our franchise."
That new menu was introduced earlier this month and includes a more modern take on comfort food such as macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and several pasta dishes. It also includes flatbread sandwiches, which Andy French said were a popular request in the survey and have been a hit so far.
Bill French emphasized that the pizza recipe — beyond the addition of a few toppings to the menu — remained untouched.
“Pizza has always been good here, so we’re taking the passion that we’ve had for our pizzas and putting that into our sandwiches and entrees, and that’s gone over very well,” Andy French said.
The Frenches hired ifranchise in December. Bill French said the company has a proven track record of helping other successful franchises, and it takes on only select clients. Aubree’s was one of three companies chosen from a larger group all vying for a spot on the firm’s roster.
The group is now helping the Frenches assemble a plan to be submitted for approval by the Securities Exchange Commission and generally guiding them through the early stages of franchising.
Bill French said there are many issues required to grow a successful franchise beyond a sound business plan. For starters, he said, the business plan and the process must be repeatable. The ifranchise firm is helping the Frenches with developing that aspect, along with guiding them through the do’s and don’ts of franchising.
One of the common pitfalls is not having a strong relationship with franchisees, which French said could lead to lawsuits.
“Our corporate culture is exactly what avoids these types of issues,” he said. “We manage from the bottom up, which is a perfect format as far as franchisers go. We listen to our employees, and we will be listening to franchisees. They will help us make our decisions just like today at Aubree’s.”
Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com