Breaking With Tradition: Gina Puente Expands Business Her Own Way

Gina Puente has built her franchise empire in a nontraditional way. She operates her brands in airports and hospitals and she is an innovator with a passion for creating her own brands. In 1995, she opened La Bodega Winery, an original concept and the first winery in an airport, and is now expanding that idea by adding chef-inspired food.

Puente has about 20 units today, both franchised and original concepts. They include Blimpie/Cereality/NRgize Lifestyle Cafe, UFood Grill, Urban Taco, and airport-specific brands such as Main Street New, Wall Street News, Travelex Currency Service and LBW Charters. She also operates her original concepts, La Bodega Winery and La Buena Vida Vineyards.

"The easier road is to build a portfolio of the same brand. I decided not to go that route. That's what gets me up every day," she says. "My business model is very unconventional. Most will go after the same tried-and-tested concept to achieve economies of scale. We try to do that, but my favorite thing to do is to create a brand." For Puente it's the freedom to create a concept and choose her own elements on the operational side. When you work with a franchisor, she says, you're more limited, in everything from the POS system to suppliers to uniforms.

A good franchisor, she says, is more amenable to an operator's needs and is willing to adjust to meet unique circumstances. At Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, she managed to convince two different franchisors to go with the same POS system. "A brand might be a great brand, but I like to have the ability for flexibility and innovation."

Puente said she recently walked away from a deal with a "fantastic world brand retailer" because of the franchisor's inability to adapt to meet the unique requirements of operating at DFW airport. "After months of excitement, I had to walk away at the 11th hour," she says. "I've never wanted any franchisor to have any problems with the integrity of their brand. But there's behind-the-scenes stuff that has to happen in an untraditional locations where they have to tweak some of their programs."

Puente, who says she is "blessed with great franchisors" who listen and are open-minded, still prefers to start her own concepts. "I have a lot of passion for that. I love the research, the and I love to shop." She looks for brands that will "resonate with customers," airport travelers on the go who have a limited amount of dwell time and an increasing number of options as airports continue their transition into malls. For restaurants, differentiation comes in many forms, an important one being regionality.

Her newest concept, Sky Canyon Wine Bar, is a good example of both innovation and operational efficiencies as she upgrades her La Bodega Winery units by adding regional cuisine. "La Bodega's been fantastic, but we needed higher offerings on food," she says. "Not only are you creating, but taking what's been a La Bodega space for years and incorporating a new concept into it," she says. "It will still have a wonderful wine menu with tastes and bottles."

In fact, she already has two different Sky Canyon versions. Both are being done in collaboration with Dallas chef Stephan Pyles, known for his modern Texas cuisine. One is set to open at DFW by year-end, with the second opening next spring at Love Field, with a full bar and three day-part meals, combining "fast casual with a fine dining element," she says.

As for that POS issue, she's sent out an RFP to POS companies specifying iPads. With the lack of space in airports, traditional POS systems are being outmoded, she says, and tablets take less space (no register). Also, she adds, many travelers are wary about handing off their credit card. Cashing out at the table not only solves that problem, it saves time for busy travelers.

A brand's executive team and staff are also a big factor for her. She looks for "people I can tell are enthused about their brands, where I'm not going to be stuck with the same menu or product offerings. For me, the franchisor should do that, bring new products to their franchisees."

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