Pizza franchisees look to rise in the east

Executive vice-president Mike Cyr calls her ""the gold standard"" among the system's franchisees, a past winner of major awards, including the highest score on a ""guest enjoyment meter"" from customer evaluations and anonymous corporate visits.

The Globe and Mail
September 21, 2000

Pizza franchisees look to rise in the east
Building on success in Edmonton, the partners are at the forefront of Boston Pizza's push into the lucrative Southern Ontario market
John Southerst

Samira Shariff is working the busy lunch shift at her Boston Pizza restaurant in south Edmonton. She prepares ingredients for the cooks in the kitchen, delivers drinks to tables and directs traffic.

"I'm the gopher," she says. "I do whatever's needed."

Ms. Shariff is far more than that. She is part-owner of four Boston Pizza International Inc. franchises in Edmonton, and oversees operations at two of them.

She's spent the morning doing budgets, planning promotions and checking sales reports, as she does most days. After lunch, she's off to another restaurant for a staff meeting, where she outlines a coming promotion.

Before dinner, she'll hold a meeting with all her restaurant managers and supervisors. After a family meal, she's usually on the telephone for another hour.

It's a typical restaurateur's life — hard work and long hours. Ms. Shariff's husband Nash and son Faisel, 20, also do regular duties. But this is not a typical restaurant franchisee family, content to run a local eatery or two.

The Shariffs, with long-time partners Richard and Helen Blackwell, have signed an area development agreement to open four — perhaps six — Boston Pizza restaurants in communities north of Toronto.

They are at the forefront of the Richmond, B.C.-based fast-food chain's push into the lucrative market of Southern Ontario. It claims 138 outlets, mostly in Western Canada.

Leading the charge eastward is the oldest son, Naheed, 25. In partnership with his parents and the Blackwells, he opened one restaurant in Vaughn, north of Toronto, in 1999; this year, he acquired a struggling outlet in Georgetown, which the Shariffs say they turned around within three months.

"He's very much like me," Ms. Shariff says. Boston Pizza executives back in British Columbia must hope she's right.

At 46, Ms. Shariff is the classic hands-on manager. Each of the Edmonton franchises earns about a 20-per-cent margin, and she says most Boston Pizza outlets gross between $1.5-million and $2-million a year.

Executive vice-president Mike Cyr calls her "the gold standard" among the system's franchisees, a past winner of major awards, including the highest score on a "guest enjoyment meter" from customer evaluations and anonymous corporate visits.

Although Ms. Shariff uses head-office promotions liberally, she's renowned for her homegrown initiatives. In February, her Edmonton staff decorates the two restaurants she operates with surfboards, fishing nets and coconut air fresheners, turns up the heat and dons Hawaiian shirts and shorts for the annual Beach Days celebration. Lucky customers, selected randomly, win free pizzas and tanning salon certificates.

She originated Operation Education, where families can turn in restaurant receipts to their children's schools, which then collect a 5-per-cent rebate to be used toward books, playground equipment or field trips. Ms. Shariff returns at least $3,000 a year to the schools in her area.

Even after 15 years in her oldest location, she can eke out improvements. A couple of new businesses nearby led to a push for faster lunchtime service. She sent complimentary gourmet pizzas to welcome employees to the area, and persuaded more customers to fax orders before leaving the office.

Now, even with a 10-minute wait, lunchtime guests can be in and out in 45 minutes. Result: revenue growth of about 16 per cent a month this year — and lunchtime receipts alone are up to $3,400 from $2,100 a day.

But Boston Pizza is practically an icon in Edmonton, where it originated in 1964. In Southern Ontario, where eight restaurants have opened in the past three years, the name is not widely recognized.

It's unusual to place the development of a crucial region in the hands of franchisees on the other side of the country — particularly when the person on the ground is as young as Naheed.

But he started washing dishes in his mother's restaurant at 12, and learned the business at her feet. On the brink of completing his management accounting designation, he dropped out to take on the Ontario challenge. He owns 20 per cent of the venture, while his parents and the Blackwells each own 40 per cent.

The operational backing from Ms. Shariff and Mr. Blackwell was a fundamental piece of the puzzle, Mr. Cyr says. They visit frequently — she oversees marketing, human resources and cost control and he is teaching Naheed about building leases and restaurant construction.

"It wouldn't work," Mr. Cyr says, "if Samira and Richard were to manage it from Edmonton and fly [to Toronto] once a month."

From Boston Pizza's perspective, the Edmonton-based partners also offer the advantage of financial stability and experience. With a franchise fee of $45,000, combined with leasehold improvements, furniture and kitchen equipment, costs run up to about $1.2-million for each 145,000-square-foot restaurant — before rent.

Typically, the Shariffs and Blackwells put up about $400,000 and finance the rest over seven years. "If you're running it very well," Ms. Shariff says, "you get your money back in two or three years."

Their assistance leaves Naheed free to address the grassroots marketing and human resources problems of starting new restaurants. "It's definitely a question of brand recognition," says Naheed, who now drives a Pathfinder plastered with vinyl "Boston Pizza" stickers.

Results in Vaughn and Georgetown are lukewarm thus far — slower than expected at first, beyond projections in July, then slower again in August. But Naheed says he's now "in a comfort zone" for the coming year.

Like many family heads, the Shariffs are pleased their children have taken an interest in assuming control. "It's nice for them to have decided on their own that's what they want to do."

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