You’re currently the COO of Boston Pizza International. How did you get to where you are?
Well, I started my career after graduating with a bachelor’s of commerce in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Guelph, and I have remained in the industry. I began in the working world as a consultant with Price Waterhouse. From there, I went into flight catering, managing flight kitchens for a company called Cara Operations. I found my way back into the restaurant business with a company called Moxie’s restaurants. Then to Boston Pizza.
What was it about Boston Pizza that made you stay on?
I mean, Boston Pizza is the most dynamic and fastest growing casual-dining chain in Canada, and the only one that’s in every province and spans coast to coast. The scale is interesting, and the pace is very exciting.
You enjoy the fast-paced lifestyle?
I do, and I think it’s necessary. We’re growing.We’ve doubled the size of our company in the last 10 years, and we celebrate innovation—from our menu to our buildings. That keeps me going.
You have many roles. On the franchising side, what is the most important thing to consider when opening up a new franchise?
We are an exclusively franchised business, which is rare for restaurant companies in Canada. Out of 354 restaurants, only 3 are owned by our company, and we use those locations for testing and training. So the most important element of franchising is designing your culture around your franchisee. Every decision we make, from the design of the building, to the menu, to marketing strategy, we communicate with and engage our franchisees. They have a say at the strategic table of Boston Pizza.
So what makes a good franchisee? You’re essentially putting the name and reputation of your brand in their hands.
Three key things: The first and most important is prior business success. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the restaurant business, but the person has to prove to us that they have run and have been successful in a previous enterprise. That shows us they have the business acumen and the work ethic to run what is a very complicated business. The second would be proximity and being there. All of our franchisees are required to work in the restaurant. This is not a passive investment; you need to be there and be with your team and be with your guests. The third one, which you might not immediately think of, is family. Most of our successful franchisees bring their family with them. There’s so much to do in the restaurants, from marketing, to finance, to operations, to working in the kitchen; the family dynamic brings a lot to the table.
You mentioned the kitchen. I understand that you’re active, as are all of your VPs, in developing the menu. What is it about that side of the business that’s exciting, and why is it important to be involved?
We are in the business of food, and all the research will show that the guests expect great service and a clean restaurant, but you’re either going to win or lose with innovative and great food. So we spend a lot of time developing our culinary strategy. We have a strategy that spans two years, so we’re already talking about what we’ll be doing in 2015.
Ken Otto’s tips for operating a successful franchise
• Be curious of other people’s success.
• Enjoy travelling and being close to all operations.
• Be receptive to getting honest feedback.
Is it a challenge to cater to different regional tastes while maintaining brand continuity?
Our regional diversification is actually built into our culinary strategy. We have a slightly different menu in Québec than we do elsewhere, for instance. We run different regional promotions. Over the summer, we ran a promotion exclusive to British Columbia called BC-Inspired Cuisine. Our menu and company is very different in the States. In Canada, 95 percent of our menu is the same, but you do need to change it from time to time, to reflect the nuances of the geography.
You pay a lot of attention to the store design and layout. Why are aesthetics important?
We just launched the look of our brand-new prototype store. The new look is very dynamic, very different than what we are building today. It has more wood and more brick and a new canopy element. We make sure we are at the leading edge of design within casual dining in Canada. We are in the retail business; anyone who is a student of the retail business knows that guests and consumers clamour for change. It’s important that you’re putting a new face in front of the guests to keep them engaged and excited about your brand. Our franchisees are required to renovate their locations to the new standard every seven years. We’re never going to get old. Our company will be celebrating its 50th birthday in 2014, so we have seen brands get tired, but we refresh to ensure you’ll never get tired of Boston Pizza.
Speaking of keeping the business fresh, you have two new areas you’re going into with the brand, correct?
Correct. You know, we are the largest casual-dining player in Canada. We are so dominant that, in order to keep on growing, which is a big mandate of ours, we have to find new markets to enter. As we look at urban neighbourhoods, we have to rescale our concept to fit into spaces that are about 3,000 square feet. We developed a footprint that includes a one-room concept with a bar as the central area. Our guests work, eat, and play in these urban areas, and they want a Boston Pizza in their neighbourhoods.
Our fast, casual concept is a counter-service type of space that is meant not only for airports but for colleges, universities, hospitals, some airports, and also high-end food courts. We want to bring our brand to people who are looking for Boston Pizza in those places as well. Nontraditional areas like these aren’t new to some, but they are a departure for Boston Pizza, and we see these markets as a big opportunity for growth in the next five years.