When it comes to small-town franchises, Huddle House hit a home run for Hahira, Georgia.
Barry Robinson spent most of his early professional life working in an office building right across the street from a Huddle House, and he ate there often. When it came time to leave the retail supermarket industry and start something new, Huddle House kept coming to mind. Small-town franchises seemed like an ideal opportunity, since Robinson lived in a town of about 2,500 people in Southern-most Georgia. Robinson had loved Huddle House as a customer, and when he was trying to think of a business he could invest in that would add something back to his adopted hometown of Hahira, Georgia, he kept coming back to Huddle House. This is his story.
Tell me a little bit about how long you have been with Huddle House and what Hahira, Georgia, means to you.
I joined the Huddle House family in the middle of 2014, and Hahira, Georgia, is my home community. People ask me if I am from there and I say no, but I have been there long enough to call it home. We have been a part of the community for about 28 years, and that is what sparked our interest for putting a Huddle House there.
When you say sparked your interest, what was it that made you think you needed a Huddle House in Hahira?
Hahira had a number of small local restaurants — you know, the usual Mexican, Chinese, pizza and sandwich shops — but there was not a full-menu, full-time, full-service restaurant in the community, and so I knew there was a need there and Huddle House would be the right fit.
How did you come across Huddle House?
Of course, having lived in the Southeast all of my life I was familiar with the Huddle House brand. But in my prior business career, my office was actually right across the street from a Huddle House franchise, so for about 15 years I was within walking distance of a nearby Huddle House so I was intimately familiar with the brand.
What was your former career?
I was in the retail supermarket industry. The company that I worked for operated 83 supermarkets in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
So you knew Huddle House as a guest or a customer yourself. Did you look at any other companies?
When I had an opportunity to make a career change, I honestly did start with a blank sheet of paper and considered a number of nearby possibilities. But as I started running those possibilities through various filters, Huddle House was the one that just naturally wound up filtering itself to the top. Whenever the focus really became Hahira itself versus other opportunities that were nearby but not in our hometown, Huddle House was just the perfect fit.
What makes the two a good match?
It’s a small community and Huddle House has something for everybody when you look at the Huddle House menu. We have everything covered. You’ve got the full dinners, the things the kids want like hamburgers, chicken fingers and those sorts of things, you’ve got sandwiches, the breakfast, the full spectrum of the menu covered so that you have something for everybody in the community.
Do you have long-term plans to add other locations or are you just interested in the one hometown unit?
My plan for the future is to take it as it comes, so to speak. I would not rule out opening another Huddle House in the future. I do not have any immediate plans for that. I am focused on running one great restaurant right now. I opened in March of 2015, so I am just over a year into it. Things are going well, but that is all I am focused on at the moment. I do know there are more opportunities available, and at the appropriate time I could take advantage of them.
So as a franchise owner, what is your involvement in the day-to-day of your restaurant?
I do have a general manager, really a full management team, a general manager as well as an assistant manager. I am in the restaurant virtually every day for some part of the day, from a few hours to a full day, and I do whatever is called for and whatever needs to be done. If I am doing what I want to do, I am just interacting with the guests, taking care of their drinks, making sure everything is okay. I’m overseeing the business, coaching team members, working with community relations, making contacts in the community — so, just interacting with the team and interacting with the guests, which was a big part of the attraction for me.
Was there anything about what you are doing now that surprised you, like, “wow, I didn’t expect I would be doing ‘blank’”?
No real surprises as far as what I am actually doing. Between my early conversations with the operator that was near where I worked — I had a number of conversations over the year with this particular operator — and between that, the published insights that Huddle House had, and the Huddle House training program, I knew what to expect. Certainly every day is a little bit different in the business, so it is an adventure every day and you learn something every day.
What would you say to somebody who is interested in opening their own franchise? What kind of conversation would you have with them?
I would say Huddle House is a great opportunity if that is the kind of business that you are looking for. Huddle House has the systems, the support, the menu, the processes and procedures that are required. It has everything that you need really for a successful business.
Have you had any customers come up to you and say thank you for having brought Huddle House here or have you had anybody speak to you about it?
Oh, absolutely, on a very regular basis. I have lost count of the number of people that just simply say, you know thank you for doing this and thank you for bringing this to the community. We have gotten a lot of credit for that.
Is this the first time you have ever owned a franchise?
It is. I had a business background in the retail supermarket business, and so it was really about me having a business that would be close to home and a business where I could interact with the public, which was like my career but in a little bit of a different format and with a team. But it is my first experience with actual business ownership coming from the corporate world.
What have you gotten from corporate in terms of support as you were ramping up to open your business and then since you have opened like ongoing support?
It has been very good, really, from start to finish, from helping me choose the appropriate site to build on as well as through the complete construction process. That was something that I did not have direct experience in, but corporate helped me find the resources that I needed to get the building done and to get it opened and to operate it. I would think whatever level of experience that a business owner has to start with, Huddle House has the resources to give them the support they need.
Do you have your own formal or informal support network of other franchisees?
Yes, really both formal and informal. There are a number of nearby franchisees that we talk with by phone on a regular basis. We get together, collaborate, share and sort of look after each other and maintain. There are also a number of formal networks. I am part of a Franchise Advisory committee, which is a group of 10 franchisees, two from each region, that are selected to serve a certain term of service for two years or more. Basically we advise the senior management team and give them feedback on what franchisees need as well as to hearing from the corporate staff about what kinds of things they have in mind. Then we can give them feedback on the pros and cons or what might work or what might not work.
What do you think about where Huddle House will be in 5 years?
Based on the progress that Huddle House has made in the last couple of years, I am very optimistic about where it is heading. Just in the time that I have been a part of the system, since 2014, I have seen significant improvement in the brand and in the image of the brand and in the guest perception of the brand. Knowing all of the initiatives that are underway right now and what the success has been and the individuals who are leading it, I am very optimistic about where the brand will be in the future and the strength of it.
You mentioned the guest perception of the brand — do any specific stories or examples come to mind of somebody’s reaction?
I get a lot of positives. Cracker Barrel is the big corporate brand that we are often compared to, and what we think about with Cracker Barrel a lot is food quality. Honestly, I get feedback from a large number of my guests that the quality of many of our food menu items exceeds Cracker Barrel, so that is an example. And just the overall aesthetics of the current Huddle House Evolution design, I get a lot of compliments on the aesthetics and the comfort of the restaurant. So from the comfortable environment, service experience and the food quality, we have a package that I think is really competitive with anybody in the market.
Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on yet that would be important for a prospective investor to know about?
I had business experience but I did not have direct restaurant experience; I had supermarket experience. Huddle House had what I felt like I needed because they had the systems, the processes, the procedures, the structure, the menu and accompanying recipes and the sources of food supply. So those are the things that would be important to me. They have a system, and if that system is executed, it will be successful. It is all about executing the systems and processes that they have in place. I think that is important.
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