Brand Juggler: Restaurant Operator Adds an Emerging Tech Brand

Brand Juggler: Restaurant Operator Adds an Emerging Tech Brand

Matt Rusconi, who recently added a hot new tech franchise to his two restaurant brands, has a refreshing attitude toward work: he loves it.

"There's something rewarding about being productive," he says. "It's challenging and never-ending, but it's important to do it while you have the energy so that, like an aging athlete, you can be in the game longer."

Rusconi, who owns three Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes and will have 14 Moe's Southwest Grills by year-end, was interested in pursuing a new venture when he came across Experimac, a concept focused on Apple product repairs and upgrades, pre-owned sales, and trade-ins. (Experimac is one of United Franchise Group's eight brands.)

"Experimac opened my eyes to a whole different world," says Rusconi, 39, who, with his partner, has built 20 restaurants in Connecticut and New Jersey in 9 years. They opened their first Moe's in 2008 and their first Mooyah in 2012.

"I know that people appreciate value and want to know they're dealing with a trustworthy business. Experimac lends itself to both of those. Online, there are hundreds of ways to get computers--eBay, Amazon, Craig's List," he says. "You've got to know what's going on. If you become part of a community and people know they're not going to get scammed, there's something there. We're trying to get ahead of that idea and see where it goes."

Whether it's burritos, burgers, or iPhones, Rusconi says he operates his diverse brands with the same business philosophy. "I see myself as a facilitator, a coach, a mentor. I want to give people the opportunity to do their jobs. I don't micro-manage but I want to be there to work with them, side by side. For example, today we're moving restaurant equipment, so I'm out there lugging stuff out. They could do it without me, but I'm there to help because I want them to know there is no position that is below anyone. Yesterday we had a big sponsorship with UConn women's basketball, which had just won 100 straight games, and we offered $5 Burrito Day at Moe's. I worked in a store for three hours."

It's been a challenge to learn when to "put the spatula down," as Rusconi puts it. "I like to know I've done what they do and I hope they're doing it better than I am, but I can't be in 80 places at once. I've learned to manage on a higher level."

Part of that higher level is ensuring that his companies are part of the local community. All his businesses are involved in charitable work and supporting local sports programs. "Giving back is about more than business. It's about contributing to the families and institutions that make up the communities in which we operate," says the Connecticut native.

When he was an NYU communications and marketing student, Rusconi served as an intern at Martin Scorcese's production company before returning home to be near family, study for his MBA, and raise his own family. Looking ahead, he sees himself someday acting as an investor and mentor to young, talented entrepreneurs. One lesson he'll teach them, no matter what their interests:

"Do the right thing before legislation says you have to. You'll be better off in the end."

Questions

Name: Matthew Rusconi
Title: Owner/co-owner
Company: Owner, MJR Holdings and Rusty Hood LLC; Co-owner, Riverbank Operations
No. of units: Moe's Southwest Grill, 14; Mooyah, 3; Experimac, 1
Age: 39
Family: Wife Carrie and daughter Ada
Years in franchising: 9
Years in current position: 9

Personal

First job:
As a kid, I baled hay at a farm down the road.

Formative influences/events:
My dad was an entrepreneur who started an environmental lab the year I was born. He built it up and sold it and bought it again.

Key accomplishments:
Opening 20-plus franchises under age 40. I didn't acquire any of them, but built every single one with four different brands: Moe's, Mooyah, Wingstop, and Experimac.

Biggest current challenge:
Trying to be everything to everybody.

Next big goal:
I've had a great run in franchising and different industries. Next, I'd like to take a stab at an original business. I have something in mind, but it's too soon to talk about.

First turning point in your career:
I graduated from NYU in 1999 and got a job in broadcast production and advertising. At 25½ , I decided to quit and come home to Connecticut to be close to family and start work on my MBA.

Best business decision:
Five years later, while I was working on my MBA part-time, I quit my job with Corporate America with my wife pregnant and got into business for myself as a franchisee for Moe's Southwest Grill.

Hardest lesson learned:
Learning to balance my own goals and objectives with the brand's goals and objectives.

Work week:
24/7 is what's needed. I go to bed early and get up early and work as needed.

Exercise/workout:
I like biking--in the winter in the basement on my trainer, and in the summer outside with buddies.

Best advice you ever got:
When going for a win, action always over argument.

What's your passion in business?
My passion is getting small victories day to day, which drives me. I love creativity and branding and watching people on my team develop. When your team guys are firing on all cylinders at the same time, there's nothing better.

How do you balance life and work?
As best I can. You try to create a balance, realizing that sometimes certain things are lopsided. I recognize it, readjust, and try not to stress over it.

Guilty pleasure:
Potato chips.

Favorite book:
"The Cricket in Times Square," my favorite childhood book and one that I now read to my daughter.

Favorite movie:
I was an intern at Martin Scorcese's production office, so I'll say "The Departed."

What do most people not know about you?
That someday, I'd like to be a high school soccer coach.

Pet peeve:
I'm not a big fan of laziness. I like to get things done and I don't like to play politics.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A business owner because of my dad.

Last vacation:
Hiking in the Berkshires with my family.

Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
My great-great-grandfather, Luther. I understand he was quite a sprinter and the guy who invented the three-point stance to start races.

Management

Business philosophy:
To be a facilitator, coach, and mentor and give people the opportunity to do their jobs.

Management method or style:
I started hands-on, ran the restaurant. As I've grown, I've learned to facilitate and manage on a higher level.

Greatest challenge:
I want everybody to be happy and I want the job to get done, so we have to meet in the middle to achieve both those things.

How do others describe you?
Passionate, energetic, and driven, and I hope they'd say tough but fair. One thing I'm looking to do better: To improve the businesses and tighten up everything so that we're facing forward and operating on all cylinders for the second half of 2017.

How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
Good ideas come from everywhere, so I have an open door. We encourage people to speak up and offer ideas. We're pretty transparent. If someone comes up with a great system or process, we implement it to help everybody.

How close are you to operations?
In the beginning, I was very close. Now I'm closer to those in charge of operations.

What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
A great supply chain and the opportunity to develop if you're doing what you're supposed to do.

What I need from vendors:
Timely invoicing, timely responses if there are problems, and an open, honest relationship.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
We're always changing it. Right now, price is a huge deal in the world. E-commerce is a big deal, and if we're smart, we pay attention to what customers are telling us. If we don't, we're going to run into trouble.

How is social media affecting your business?
Social media is alive and well, expanding every day. You have to evolve and understand that it serves a big purpose, but there's still something to delivering inside four walls and great service. We keep it in mind, but it's not everything. It's another piece of the marketing/customer service pie.

How do you hire and fire?
I rely on our team to do this at the store level. I can't overstep but I listen. I believe in letting them do their jobs. As for firing, we have our processes and we do it the right way by giving people notice and following through if they don't follow through on their end.

How do you train and retain?
We have good training from our franchisors. We offer good benefits, fair work environments, and we've promoted from within from day one.

How do you deal with problem employees?
There's a lot of documentation and discussion, and if things aren't working out, at some point we make the call to move on. We take it on a case-by-case basis.

Fastest way into my doghouse:
Being unresponsive and betraying my trust.

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:
$15 million to $20 million.

2017 goals:
We're going to clean up, shut down the bad ones, take our lumps, get new ones open, and move offices. We're going to give other people opportunities on the executive side and step back from running the business to concentrating on new ventures.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Track year over year same store sales.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
In 5 years, I'd like to have my business firmly situated and running great. I'd love to be growing my original venture. In 10 years, I'd like to be on the investor side looking to other, younger entrepreneurs to mentor and help.

How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers?
Overall, it's different in different pockets. It's not news that the fast casual segment is pulling back, but that's the time get back to basics, work in the community, and get the best out of your partnerships from over the years.

Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
Things are flat.

How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
We do what we need to do, buckle down and keep hustling.

How do you forecast for your business?
I don't have a crystal ball, but I see our business firming up and growing slowly.

What are the best sources for capital expansion?
I've gone through every one out there. I started with SBA loans (six to seven of those), rolled into nontraditional financing, a bank out of Minnesota, and then wrapped up into GE Capital as the first Moe's franchisee they took on. When I started with Experimac, none of that mattered, so I went back to the SBA.

Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
We've gone down the path of all of these. Now I'm happy to bootstrap with traditional funding (versus private equity).

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We try to offer good health insurance, vacations, healthy incentive plans, vehicles and expenses for some, discounts on food, and the opportunity for growth. This goes down to hourly employees, too.

How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
We've tried to pay above to start, and by doing that it's helped absorb rising costs. By being efficient and trying to retain good people, we're already above it. It doesn't pinch as badly as if we were doing the least possible.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
We offer bonus plans, but we also think it's important to recognize in front of the franchisor and the team when someone does a great job. That means a lot.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
I'd like to get the company and the people that make it work every day taken care of, pay down debt, get new ventures going, and eventually explore selling it to those who are running it inside or outside.

Published: May 8th, 2017

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