Blimpie®/Kahala Brands™ Executive Q&A Series – Alex Neville
September 29, 2016
Deciding on the right franchise can be a tough choice for soon-to-be franchisees. The key is to follow what you love. If you enjoy customer service, community outreach and serving great food, you’ve come to the right place. You can find everything you need to know about Blimpie and the franchising opportunities available throughout our newly launched franchise development website (BlimpieFranchise.com)
But while we have you on the franchise opportunities blog, keep reading to gain valuable insight from Blimpie brand president Alex Neville about the importance of following your passion when it comes to launching your very own restaurant franchise.
Q. Tell us a little more about your career. What have you done in the restaurant space and how long have you been in the industry?
Alex Neville (AN): I’ve worked in the industry for around 34 years. I actually started as a teenager delivering food to restaurants. I got to see the operations through the back door and meet with Boston restaurant owners all around the area as I delivered goods. I quickly figured out that all of the successful owners had one thing in common – they were committed to customer service and treated everyone, including me as a delivery guy, like a special guest.
In college, like many college students, I picked up work to help subsidize the bills and pay my way through college. It was in college that I decided that restaurants were for me. I went to recruitment fairs and that’s how I found Chart House® restaurants and that launched my full-time career.
Q. What about those early years kept you interested? What keeps you coming back after all these years?
AN: Even as early as being a delivery driver, I would meet restaurant owners and watch them sign the invoices. Watching those owners interact with their crew members, and most importantly their customers, I got to see those regulars come in and be greeted by name and get their usual order. I would see the satisfaction of customers coming back to a place that makes them happy. Standing at the back of the restaurant and looking out the front and seeing those happy customers, seeing that relationship, and seeing the happiness the owner received from customers every day, was fun to watch and experience. The way some of the owners would take care of some of the delivery people – like a cool drink on a hot day or even a meal to show their appreciation – shows the personal level of the restaurant business and how owners can help create powerful memories for customers that endure.
Q: Is it imperative as a business owner to have those personable skills, like remembering names and faces, to really show you care about your business and your customers?
AN: Well, I think it was Dale Carnegie who said ‘The sweetest sound in any language is one’s own name.’ It is that personal connection that helps drives success in restaurants. It’s learning your customers’ names, learning their favorites, building their sandwiches the way they want it built, no matter if it’s unusual or crazy. Things like offering service with a smile or recognizing their birthday and saying ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘welcome back’ really make a difference. It’s the power of recognizing someone.
It’s that interaction with people that sets a business, and especially a restaurant, apart. We have a million restaurants from which to choose; why do we go back to certain ones? The food has to be there, yes, but it’s the customer service and friendliness that sets one restaurant apart from another. It’s a restaurant owner’s desire to have those customers come back every day and be friendly with them. It’s a small industry and you get to know people. People stick to their habits.
I was dining in a Blimpie just yesterday and the manager recognized the man in line behind me and asked him ‘You aren’t dressed in your usual Monday attire, are you off today?’ And she said, ‘Why yes, I am.’ She was happy as can be, being recognized and treated so nicely by that Blimpie manager.
Q: You’ve said that the thing that keeps bringing you back to restaurant space is that you can contribute to a memorable moment. In your opinion is there anything you can do as a business owner to help create those moments? Or are they just going to happen naturally?
AN: There is a lot a Blimpie franchise owner can do to help make their business a great business. A big one is community involvement. It’s getting out there and meeting the mayor of your community, being involved in charitable events, being a drop-off location for Toys for Tots®, helping with back to school fundraisers – whether it’s a car wash in the parking lot or donating 20 percent of the proceeds from a specific day to that fundraiser – it will make a huge difference in your overall business. Interacting with your customers and being more than a sandwich maker, like getting out and cleaning tables and asking your customer how they enjoyed their sandwich – it makes a difference.
Part of the reason I chose Chart House was because when I was eighteen I took a young lady out on a date there and was really trying to impress her, and on the way out the manager asked me how my dinner was. I was so impressed with that moment, I was definitely not their typical kind of customer, but he took the time to learn my name and ask how my experience was. That little moment made a huge difference and really helped drive me to my first real job with Chart House restaurants. It made a huge impact on me, learning the power of customer service and how it can build lifelong customers. It took 15 seconds for him to talk to me, for me to decide to be associated with that brand for the next decade.
Blimpie owners are more than sandwich makers and cashiers. They are business people. They have to build their business, and at Blimpie, our brand’s customers are our business.
Q: What inspired you to join the Blimpie and the Kahala Brands team?
AN: My path to Kahala Brands occurred back in 2004. I was looking to change careers and I was looking for a successful company in the Phoenix area. I immediately turned to Cold Stone Creamery® and was fortunate enough to land a position with the company. Not long after, Cold Stone® was acquired by Kahala Brands, Blimpie’s parent company. For several years I worked on all of the brands under that umbrella. A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to serve as the President of Blimpie Brands and I jumped at the chance to lead such an iconic brand with a storied and great history.
What Blimpie brings as a restaurant and a sandwich chain is a 52-year legacy of serving fantastic products made from the freshest meats and cheeses around. It has multi-generational customers coming to stores who love Blimpie’s sandwiches. Whenever I ask people about Blimpie, they always tell me their favorite specific sandwich without hesitating. People just offer that up as soon as we start talking Blimpie because they have that wonderful, crave-able memory imprinted on them of what Blimpie tastes like and what it means to dine at Blimpie. And not every restaurant gets that. There is a strong customer connection to Blimpie subs and I’m proud and excited to share those connections with existing customers and help new customers develop their own.
Q: Adding on to that, why is the Meatball Parmesan your favorite sub? What comes to your mind, as a Blimpie customer, when you think about that particular sub?
AN: It’s simple really. When I bite into that sub it just gives me pause. I take that first bite and just sit for 10 to 15 seconds silently and just think ‘Oh my goodness. This is just so good.’ It’s got that richness I’m looking for and we have the best meatball sub out there. People ask me sometimes if it’s too messy and I simply respond that meatball subs are supposed to be messy! Those meatballs should be falling out of the bread, the sauce should get on your hands. It should be delicious and messy and crave-able. It hits all those things. I can’t help but savor that very first bite each time I have one!
Q: Bringing it back to franchising, why should franchisees pick Blimpie over other food-centered franchises?
AN: I’ve spent a lot of time studying restaurants. We all know that the key metric dictating restaurant sales success is customer frequency. We all know that Blimpie is something you can eat multiple times per week due to the price point and menu versatility. There are some meals out there that no one wants to eat more than once a week, or even once a month. That’s not the case with Blimpie. There is such a huge variety of subs available, there’s always something new to try and so we can drive that customer frequency and become their go-to.
We also have that crave-ability that most restaurants simply don’t have. I’ve been standing inside a Blimpie talking to a customer who drives 40 miles each way every week to get that Blimpie sandwich. We have a crave-ability that causes customers to seek out Blimpie – and that’s unique. Not many restaurants inspire the loyalty that would cause someone to drive an hour and a half round trip on a weekly basis to grab a sandwich. We can capture the customers who want to enjoy our sub every day and we can capture the crave-able customers who will drive great distances to eat our food.
We also have the generational factors. We love watching parents introduce their kids to the food they grew up on. Over and over customers will say they want to bring their family in because they can see the meat being sliced right in front of them. They know where that food is coming from and that builds a level of trust. Especially in this day and age where you hear food issues all the time, that makes a massive difference to customers.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you spend time in your stores, waiting in line and listening to your customers. What are some of the sentiments you hear time and time again?
AN: I’ll keep talking about our freshly sliced process because it’s such a differentiator for us and our customers. They like seeing the sandwich prepared in front of them with fresh ingredients. The sandwiches are made the way they want rather than being told the “proper” way to eat it.
If I’m wearing a Blimpie logo shirt, I often get pulled aside by customers who want to talk about the franchisee. I’ve heard over and over how amazing our franchisees are and how they know their customers. Those unsolicited and spontaneous comments I get from our customers are wonderful.
Q: It’s clear that Blimpie franchisees are doing it right. What are some of the key characteristics you look for in Blimpie franchise owners?
AN: It may sound simple, but it’s somebody who wants to be successful. They need to have a drive to have a successful business. They should recognize an opportunity, which is different at every location, and look to capitalize on every single one. Many successful franchisees call our marketing team and offer to work together – they utilize the resources the Blimpie franchise offers them. Success is something for which we strive and continually seek. A successful franchisee has that hunger and wants to be a part of the community. We want people who are looking to maybe open several locations, or want to pass it on to the next generation or it’s their retirement plan. Having that drive is important and we look for it.
On the other side, what do you do personally to set an example for prospective franchisees who may be evaluating the leadership structure for Blimpie?
AN: I actually spend about half my time traveling and talking with our franchisees. I want to hear their experiences – both the successes and the challenges. I’m really listening to them so we can make the necessary changes in corporate. We want to work with them to come up with solutions to help with the challenges and capitalize on best practices. I think that’s one of the biggest things I bring to the table because I can understand those challenges. I know restaurants and I know the industry. I understand where they are coming from and I work to develop a smooth path that makes success more possible.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share or any advice you can offer to potential franchisees who are evaluating the Blimpie franchise?
AN: I am so passionate and I believe what we have is unique and well-grounded. Over our 52-year history we’ve had many successes and some tough challenges. We’ve been through it all and are well positioned to flourish as a system because all of our leaders understand what it takes to make consistent improvements and endure the test of time.
As part of Kahala Brands, we’ve got tremendous franchise support. Anything a franchisee may need, from creative services to marketing to product development, we know how to deliver. Industry leading support paired with customer service-focused franchisees and the best tasting subs on the market equals Blimpie’s recipe for success!
For more information on Blimpie franchise opportunities, please visit www.blimpiefranchise.com.