Blimpie/Kahala Franchisee Q&A Series – Bobby Calvillo
May 2, 2016
Bobby Calvillo, our Blimpie owner based in Weslaco, TX, a town just outside of San Antonio, is anything but your typical business owner. As The Executive Director of Affordable Homes of South Texas, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping low-income families find, build and afford homes, Calvillo launched his Blimpie location to generate increased funds for the non-profit. in doing so, Bobby Calavillo’s Blimpie location operates as a social enterprise venture – selling great tasting subs for a higher purpose, or, as Calvillo and his team say, “Great food for a great cause!” Read on to learn more about this unique business model and what he and his team have done to quickly make his Blimpie location a go-to favorite in the Weslaco community.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and what has inspired you?
Calvillo: I’ve had basically two jobs in my professional career. One was as a banker, and the second, the one I currently hold, is as the executive director of Affordable Homes of South Texas. Both are somewhat related, because my role is still in financing. Affordable Homes of South Texas is a 501c3 nonprofit, and we are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, so we’ve been around a long time. We are a subdivision developer, a builder and a mortgage company exclusively for low-income families in the South Texas area. Low-income families who can’t afford a home through the private market come to us, and we build them a house, make them a loan, and they pay it over the course of 30 years. To put it into perspective, we have total assets of about $80 million, our loan portfolio is about $50 million, we employ about 70-80 people, and we have about 300 families a month coming to us for assistance.
Q: That’s wonderful. And was there anything that drew you to Blimpie, before the franchise was even an idea in your head?
Calvillo: About three years ago, we owned the building that our office was in, and we had some tenants. They decided to move out, and when I visited the location to see about renting it to another set of tenants, I identified that there was a nursing school down the road from our office. As I was leaving, there was this mass exodus of students going to lunch. There were no healthy options for lunch in the area, so I followed a few of them to find out where they would go to eat. They wound up going to a sandwich shop down the road. I asked a bunch of them if it would be better for them if we opened a sub shop closer to them, and it was an enthusiastic yes. That’s where we got the idea, and three years later, those nursing students remain the core of our customer base.
Q: You obviously have your hands full running a nonprofit. Can you tell us what fueled your decision to open a business, and how you approached the social enterprise set-up?
Calvillo: Around the same time that we looked at the Blimpie franchise, we had created a couple of other entities with the social enterprise idea in mind. For example, we have a construction company that served families who were just above the “low-income” threshold. So in addition to helping low-income families, we are a for-profit mortgage company and construction company as well – offering lower rates to help more families afford a home. And when we talked to Blimpie about setting up a social enterprise franchise, it was a little different because we didn’t already have the resources to make subs. But this additional revenue stream really helps supplement the dwindling federal grants that we depend on.
Q: Why Blimpie, and why the franchise model?
Calvillo: At first, I didn’t know anything about running a quick-service restaurant other than the financing part that I did during my banking days. So my first reaction was thinking that there was no way it would work. But fortunately for us, the franchise structure provided that support, so we didn’t need to know all of the details going into it. Instead, we could learn it along the way. During my initial research, I contacted three restaurants. I knew I wanted a sandwich shop, I just didn’t know which one. When I called Subway, they sent me to an 800-number, I got transferred a few times, and when I mentioned I worked for a nonprofit, the conversation shut down. I ruled them out after that experience. Jimmy Johns wasn’t ready to move this far south, so they were a no-go as well. They just didn’t support the idea very well. But it was different with Blimpie from the first conversation. My area developer contacted me immediately, was very supportive, visited the area, and worked with me to establish the structure we would need. We took our time with the process, because we both needed to do our due diligence, but I had a clear picture the whole way of what a partnership with Blimpie would look like. – I couldn’t be happier.
Q: You said your area developer played a really active role in helping you set up. Can you tell us more about what impact an area developer can have?
Calvillo: I think the difference was obvious from the very first phone call with Alan Crites. As soon as I was ready to have him visit, he was here, suggesting things we could do to build our processes and develop the market. And when we were doing our grand opening, he was downtown handing out flyers and coupons. It was like he worked for me! I think that’s the exact sort of thing I needed, because I had so many questions on how to get everything off the ground.
Q: The social aspect of your business obviously makes it very unique. Is your role in the community something you use to relate to your customers?
Calvillo: Absolutely, and I think that’s a big draw for customers. This isn’t a big town, so everybody kind of knows everybody, and everyone knows who we are and what we do. The very first thing we did when we began our marketing effort was to come up with a tagline. In all of our promotional materials the tagline is “Great food for a great cause.” That appears on everything, and it builds up our marketing, because people know that the profits we make go to helping our customers’ neighbors. We also have posters and table toppers in our store advertising the services we offer to low income families. For example, a lot of people didn’t realize we offered help on income taxes for low-income families, and our posters definitely increased the number of people we saw for those services. We’re able to cross-sell, so to speak.
Q: How well does this funding model work for your nonprofit? Does it actually cover the void of falling grant awards?
Calvillo: We’re still pretty early in the process, so it’ll take a couple more years to see the $900,000 that we’ve lost in grants. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but we’re getting there. We definitely have the potential to make up that lost revenue. What this model does more effectively is that it shows our funders and private donors that we are doing everything we can to do more in the community. I think that makes a compelling case to donors who are evaluating us compared to other nonprofit organizations they could donate to.
Q: I think our readers would be interested to know a bit more about the emotional side of what you do. What do you guys accomplish, how many people are you able to help?
Calvillo: We’re doing probably 100-120 homes a year. As I mentioned, there are about 300 families that apply with us each month. The impact depends on each family. But let me give you an example of a crisis that occurred and how we were able to help. About a year ago, there was a huge storm that came into town and flooded all over the place. This happened on a Saturday, and the Monday after, we were getting phone calls all over the place. So we created a fund to help families to repair their homes, and provide them with tarps for their roofs, and equipment to help them mop the floors and pull up the carpets. We were able to provide $300 emergency grants to families, before FEMA was able to come in and help with permanent solutions. Through Blimpie, we were able to get the word out that not only were there funds available, but you could also donate if you had the means. We were able to design a cup that had our logo on it, and we sold it for $2, refills were 25 cents, and all of the profits from that went directly to that disaster fund. This has created an ongoing donation collection tool, plus it’s great to encourage people to come see us more often.
Q: There are so many more benefits to owning the store than just the profits that fund what you do. Fundraising, grant-writing, advertising your services, etc. If I’m looking at a franchise to fund a social enterprise, is this a path that you would recommend for others, regardless of whether they have a tight relationship with a nonprofit?
Calvillo: It would have to be a unique set-up for them. Since we own the franchise to fund the nonprofit, it essentially also runs the nonprofit. Other friends of mine in the nonprofit space have expressed an interest in doing this kind of thing. But for for-profit companies, they can still do this kind of thing. An example is donation nights, which allow a percentage of sales from a certain period of time to go to an organization. This still makes an impact.
Q: What other advice or quick-hitting tips do you have for someone looking into franchising?
Calvillo: I think one of the things I’ve learned is as much as you think you know about things, you really don’t know anything. With our organization, we were fortunate enough to have an in-house CPA, in-house marketer, in-house technology associate, but there were still several things that we had to learn. If there’s anything you don’t know, when you go into business you have to work to find out. For us, following the students into the other local sandwich shop was just the beginning. You have to do your research or you won’t know what you’re getting into.
Q: Why is now the right time to buy into Blimpie Subs, the freshly-sliced franchise?
Calvillo: I think right off the bat, Blimpie was really supportive and always willing to do what we needed to do to get things done. They’re just the right size for folks that are looking to start out, because they weren’t so big that the bureaucracy took over, but they weren’t by any means an unknown brand. Their longevity and their franchisee support inspire confidence and set you up for success before you even sign the contracts.