Convenience store chain’s Director of Food Operations explains why he wanted the diner franchise in his stores.
As the Director of Food Operations for CEFCO Convenience Stores, Sean Fatzinger has to juggle the needs of a lot of different co-brands for CEFCO’s 109 convenience store and travel center locations. Huddle House is one of many, but their two co-branded locations are working out so well that they’re already planning a third.
Fatzinger sat down with us recently to talk about why Huddle House and CEFCO are a good match, and how our sophisticated franchising experts have been able to provide meaningful support for CEFCO’s build-outs and ongoing operations.
Where are your stores located and how many do you have?
We have two Huddle House locations. They are both located in Texas. One is in Vernon and one in Mount Vernon.
Are you involved in any other franchise concepts?
We are, actually. We’ve got a proprietary foodservice operation. We have two different banners we do with that and we also have a frozen yogurt concept that we created that we run with. We have a bakery and I also have five other franchise groups that we partner with and operate under their brands. We have a total of about 104 prepared food operations.
When did you start working with Huddle House?
We have been operating Huddle Houses since 2013.
What do you find appealing about the Huddle House opportunity?
What is absolutely fantastic about Huddle House is the quality of the food. We were really trying to up our game in the perception of convenience store food and travel center-style food. We wanted to find brands that had good quality and a good reputation when it came to that. The 24-hour dining really fit well with our travel center complexes. Looking at the franchise partners that played in that space, we just thought Huddle House was the best fit for us.
Had you been familiar with Huddle House?
Absolutely not. I was familiar with very similar and competing brands, but once I did go and visit one, I fell in love with it. It was everything great about what a 24-hour, family-oriented, diner-type restaurant with great food should be.
How did Huddle House come to your attention?
My predecessor was actually the one who got the ball rolling on that. I came in on the back end right before opening. I did not choose the brand initially, but I was very involved with getting our second store up and going. I was pleased with the performance we saw in our first location, and we actually have a third one we are building as well.
Tell me a little bit more about that.
With this third build that we have coming up, we are going to have multiple restaurant brands in the same complex, and I said Huddle House has to be one of these. It is going to be kind of new for us to do it that way, but I am really excited about it because we have seen some good performance out of the other two locations that we have. So, when it lines up for us with real estate and for space, I am very excited any time I can put a Huddle House into a location.
What is it that makes Huddle House a good match?
When we’re building a truck stop or a travel center, I usually get a little bit more real estate space to play in. I can’t put Huddle Houses in all of our new builds because of the size of the restaurant, but when I do get enough square footage, the 24-hour dining is really appealing, especially in the overnight stay truck stops or travel centers. The travel center complexes do get a lot of family travel coming through, and we get business from them. Being a family-oriented restaurant that has menu options for the entire car is really great for us as well.
When I first took on the brand, we went to various types of locations and one of the things that impressed me at the location I was at, which was a travel center location, when you walked into the Huddle House, you were in a Huddle House — the culture, the food, the service that they are so known for. I thought that was impressive.
Did you have any concerns about being able to translate that to a travel center location? How has that worked out?
Absolutely. It was a big concern of ours, and one of the ways we decided to go about that for our restaurant operations is that we have actually created a different division within our company so our restaurant operators only run restaurants. So, it is very, very separate for us from our convenience store operators. Our district managers and store managers for Huddle House only do Huddle House. It keeps that culture alive and well, keeps the atmosphere of the branding and the standards, keeps it all to policy to help us create that environment for the customer. They wouldn’t even know that everything on that site is owned by the same company. They walk in and they are ready to huddle up and they are getting the Huddle House experience and just having a great time.
Do your stores feature the evolution design?
Our stores are the new concept design. Actually my store in Mount Vernon, Texas, I believe was one of the very first stores to do it. I fell in love with the decor package, and I very quickly knew for our other builds that we were going to be using that as well. It was also really neat with the evolution design where we were able to find a way to match that with our own exterior decor in the travel center and have it look separate but at the same time sort of match with our exterior designs, paint scheme and color scheme. It was a good contrasting match for us.
Has ROI been good? Have you been happy with the financials?
Yes; the stores we have are profitable or we would not be building more. The second store we built just came out like a rock star right out of the gate and really made a big splash in the community, actually enough where other restaurants in the community started building again to compete with us. The first store that we built continues to perform very well, and because it has been running smoothly, we have been able to actually develop other leaders in our company out of that location. I have been very pleased.
You’re part of a sizeable operation that knows what it’s doing and has experience in food franchising. What kind of support do you need from corporate, and what kind of support are you getting?
What I really liked about the Huddle House leadership team is they are able to situationally change their approach. I have been on the franchisor side before, and I understand the need, love and attention that the franchisees, as owners and partners, need from corporate. The leadership team at Huddle House now is very much able to provide that, and they really do keep it all top-of-mind.
If you walk into their offices in Atlanta, it is very apparent that they are all thinking, “What can I do to make things better for the franchise partner community?” They have been there for support any time we have asked, and they also respect our business savvy and history enough to not push in where they are not needed. The FADs (Franchise Area Directors) that we have worked with have been absolutely fantastic, whether they’re providing training or just being there for support for roll-outs. I know any time I pick up the phone and give them a call I can get an answer very quickly. I know there is one point of contact that I can go to first, and if they don’t know the answer to my question they will say, “Hey, but I know who does know and we will get an answer for you.”
What would you think is the most important consideration to be aware of for somebody who wants to invest in multiple units with Huddle House?
At some point, everyone who has a multi-unit deal had to take that leap from one to more than one. As I would say for anyone investing into anything, do your homework and do your due diligence. Talk to multiple franchise partners and other multi-unit franchise partners. Running multi-unit locations is very different from running your first store. If someone is looking to get into further development and already has one location, they can reach out to people on the Franchise Advisory Council that have been there.
What about the locations?
If you are looking into going into multi-unit development, real estate is very key. I would advise someone to look at your geography and make sure you have the infrastructure in place to not spread yourself too far apart and to be in a similar geography so your own internal leadership team and operations teams can help out and you can help out with training. Make sure you are picking fantastic locations and make sure that when you do go in, before you open up, do a whole lot of pre-groundwork marketing to get the name out there. Just be ready for that opening month, because it will be busy. The best thing to do is just keep your operations absolutely on point to keep those customers coming back and make sure you are providing a great experience for everyone that comes in.
Learn more about the Huddle House opportunity
If you’d like to learn more about opening your own Huddle House franchise, we’d love to talk to you! We have over 400 locations open or under development across the U.S., with many optimum territories still available. Please explore our research pages, or fill out the request form to download our free franchise report and speak with a very responsive development representative.