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All Fired Up!

[ 0 ] Nov. 1, 2008 | SBO Editor

The word on the street has always been as hot as the restaurants’ flaming centerpiece brick ovens. News travels fast among those in the know and those who want in.

Almost since the first Brixx Wood Fired Pizza opened in the historic Dilworth neighborhood of Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1998, a buzz has emanated around the restaurants that quickly gained a reputation for serving the Carolinas’ best wood-fired pizza and a selection of signature sandwiches, pastas, salads and desserts.

Real-estate developers, franchisors and customers who know a good thing when they see it have all been tugging at the sleeves of managing partners Eric Horsley and Jeff Van Dyke and controller and operating partner Barbara Morgan.
“Almost since day one, we received substantial interest from customers who wanted to open a Brixx of their own,” said entrepreneur Van Dyke.

Ten years and 10 company-owned restaurants later, Brixx has cemented its highly-acclaimed concept and is firmly underway in adding qualified owner/operators to its family after launching a franchising program in early 2007.

While three more company-operated restaurants are slated to open in 2008 in Nashville, Tennessee (2) and Asheville, North Carolina, signed franchise agreements are also in place for the 2008/early 2009 opening of restaurants in Columbia, South Carolina, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The 10 existing Brixx locations are in North and South Carolina.

Brixx is more than just a casual-yet-trendy pizza restaurant. Its locations, designed architecturally to fit in with their locale—be it a historic neighborhood, charming college town or vibrant, new suburban lifestyle center—become neighborhood gathering places. Customers know they’ll not only find a family-friendly atmosphere, but a menu featuring fresh, healthy ingredients and unique flavors. Beer lovers find an array of 24 specialty beers on tap and wine drinkers can find a new favorite from 14 selections offered by the glass.

But it’s when you peel away the layers of Brixx like an onion that you find the roots of the company’s success, honed over the last 10 years by Horsley, Van Dyke and Morgan, who have been business partners for more than 20 years and whose previous restaurant success had come in several fine-dining concepts.

While the white tablecloths and precision place settings are long gone, the attention to detail and efficiencies that go into operating a successful business have remained. And that’s what makes Brixx such an attractive draw as it looks to bring in 10 new franchisees in 2008 and have 30 restaurants in development by year’s end.

When you add in other franchisee advantages such as the broad market appeal of Brixx, Americans’ love affair with pizza, high gross profit potential, excellent labor costs and the availability of choice territories, it’s easy to see why customers aren’t the only ones lining up at Brixx.

“I had heard about their success. The concept is mature and it definitely works,” said one restaurant industry veteran, who began frequenting the Brixx in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2003. “I had looked at a lot of different things. This was by far the most compelling concept and it was right in my backyard.”

Neil Newcomb, the aforementioned franchising industry veteran, knows what it takes to be a success. In 1989, while still a college student, Newcomb co-founded the McAlister’s Deli chain along with his father and brother. Today, there are more than 200 McAlister’s Deli locations across the United States.

Newcomb joined the Brixx management team in 2007 to direct its franchising program. Newcomb led franchise operations during McAlister’s early years and later became a franchisee himself, owning three locations in North Carolina. He started looking for other opportunities in franchising after the McAlister’s chain was sold in 2005. He was convinced he wanted to join the Brixx team after he met with the founders in 2006.

“Brixx’s success is built on simple, smooth operations and a high-quality menu that provides great value to the customer at a reasonable operating cost for the owner,” Newcomb said. “I have a huge amount of enthusiasm. Brixx has so much more going for it than McAlister’s did at the same stage in its growth. We have landlords coming to us from all over the Mid-Atlantic region saying, ‘Please, come here!’”

Newcomb says Brixx can bring in $2 million in yearly gross revenue in its restaurants that average 3,200 to 3,400 square feet. Tables are typically turned in 45 minutes and Newcomb says the chain’s cost of goods averages 22.5 percent, when the industry average is around 28 to 30 percent. Comp store sales were up at every qualifying location in 2007.

“Our profitability far exceeds your average restaurant,” Newcomb said. “We will do more sales in 3,400 square feet than any other concept and these are averages, not our highest-volume restaurants. Plus, our cost of goods is lower than anybody else’s I know of.”

Newcomb is targeting the South-Atlantic region from northern Georgia to southern Virginia for growth in 2008 and expanding that reach to Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states in the next several years.

Area developers are expected to comprise about 70 percent of franchisees. Prime candidates include (1) existing multi-unit operators who have fully developed a market with another concept and are looking for additional growth in that same market via another concept and (2) partnerships comprised of established investors and experienced restaurant operators.

“If an operator has 25 locations of one concept and is thinking about adding a second concept, they need to realize they have to make as strong a commitment to Brixx as they did their original concept.”

Franchise owners will find a strong support system, starting with a comprehensive eight-weeks-long managers’ training school. One of the hallmarks of Brixx is its reputation for not only providing outstanding training for its general managers but for retaining them for years, a rarity in an industry known for high turnover. Managers also benefit from attractive workweeks that average 45 hours.

“I was impressed by how many people have worked five, 10 and 15 years with Jeff and Eric, starting with them in their other restaurants,” Newcomb said. “A big reason for it is that they are very open to taking suggestions and input from all their employees. It’s pretty amazing.”

And while increasing numbers of chain restaurants have adopted a cookie-cutter mentality to their design, Brixx has taken a more handcrafted approach, which allows its restaurants to mesh so comfortably with their surrounding locales. For instance, the design of the Brixx in Charlotte’s SouthPark area sports a residential look to stay in sync with the upscale neighborhoods that surround it.

The services of Robert Johnson architects—the Charlotte-based firm that is responsible for the look of most Brixx rest-aurants—are available to new franchisees. They can adopt the versatile designs and flexible footprints that Brixx offers to a wide variety of sites including freestanding, end-cap and other non-traditional locations.

Attention to detail in all matters both large and small is what has made Brixx a resounding success in its first decade.
“In developing Brixx we tried to learn from all our combined past restaurant experience,” Van Dyke said. “We tried to include all the fun stuff and leave out the headaches. Everybody loves great pizza and good beer so we tried to keep it simple and fun.” •

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Category: Magazine, Small Business Opportunities, Small Business Opportunities Nov 2008