3rd Annual Franchise Innovation Awards: Franchise innovation shines in the time of Covid
For the third consecutive year, Franchise Update Media held a competition to recognize the top innovators in franchising. Judges meticulously reviewed more than 100 entries describing innovative ideas, strategies, and tactics, and their results. A select group of companies rose to the top to earn coveted awards in each category, along with runners-up.
The annual Franchise Innovation Awards have become a premier industry event, with this year’s entries impressive once again. Covid changed how business was conducted in 2020, with savvy franchises at the front of the pack unveiling news ways of doing things that provided resources and revenue for operators and safe delivery of product and services for customers.
Winners were selected by a panel of seven judges who evaluated the objectives and results of more than 100 entrants. Franchise innovators, game-changers, and disruptors competed in four categories: Marketing & Branding, Products & Services, Operations, and Human Resources.
- Marketing & Branding: This category asked brands what innovative solutions they employed to grow consumer awareness, engagement, and loyalty—everything from traditional advertising and PR campaigns to social media, rewards programs, new product launches, and local store marketing campaigns.
- Products & Services: To meet the changed needs of today’s consumers, franchise systems must evolve along with them—not only in what customers want in products and services, but also in how they want them delivered. For many entrants, technology played a huge role in adapting to how customers ordered, paid for, and received a brand’s products or services in 2020.
- Operations: Systems and processes, along with replicability and scalability, are essential for franchising success. Judges reviewed the most forward-thinking operations teams and how they improved and streamlined their brands’ processes and practices through innovation in the face of the pandemic.
- Human Resources: Growing a great brand requires the best people at every level. This category examined how brands employed unique, innovative strategies and tactics to attract, hire, train, and retain the employees who best suited their vision and culture.
In addition to category winners, the annual awards also recognized an overall winner for marketing innovation with the Franchise Marketing Leadership Award, given to the brand that entered with the most innovative—and successful—marketing campaign. This year’s winner, Planet Fitness, created an innovative and timely program (United We Move), which rose to the top of the many excellent marketing submissions.
The seven judges evaluated each entry based on its objective, the problem it sought to solve, and improvements it hoped to achieve through innovation—and the results. The winners are profiled in the following pages in each of the four main categories and 22 subcategories that produced winning entries.
The judges for the 3rd annual awards were Michelle Rowan, President and COO, Franchise Business Review; Theresa Huszka, Senior Consultant, MSA Worldwide; Scott Lehr, Managing Partner and CEO, GT&S Franchise Executive Search; Jayson Pearl, President, ServiceScore; and from Franchise Update Media, EVP and Chief Content Officer Diane Phibbs, Executive Editor Kerry Pipes, and Managing Editor Eddy Goldberg.
More details about the competition are available at franchising.com, where you also can find how to start preparing for next year’s competition.
2021 Category: Marketing & Branding
Best Digital Campaign
Winner: Sola Salon Studios
Runner-Up: Wing it On!
Sola Salon Studios created its #SolaStrong campaign to support its entire community during mandated Covid-19 closures and ongoing pandemic-related challenges. The objective was to provide resources, tools, support, and guidance to help everyone navigate the uncertainty and give them a sense of community and support while having to be apart.
The closures of Sola’s 500+ locations forced more than 16,000 independent beauty professionals out of their place of work. Franchisees chose to stop collecting rent from the professionals renting out salon space in their locations. Sola and its franchisees were excluded from the PPP by the SBA and were ineligible for initial rounds of EIDL as the pandemic created a zero-revenue event for the system. #SolaStrong deployed a variety of tactics to ensure that what they were producing would be a source of comfort and inspiration, while also providing actionable solutions around hot-button topics.
At the close of 2020, Sola reported a 15% YOY increase in new professional inquiries and a 53% YOY increase in net Sola professionals. In all, 7,041 new beauty professionals joined Sola in 2020. Despite the 2-month-long closure of many of its locations (and up to 10 months in California), Sola saw no permanent closures because of Covid and signed 43 franchise agreements in 2020 to develop 113 new salons in North America. Since the launch of its free Covid-19 Resource Center, Sola has seen 76,570 visitors, and its national newsletter distribution list for potential beauty professionals and industry media increased 53%. #SolaStrong’s education initiatives hosted 12 Facebook Live events with brand partners and 20 virtual webinars and panel discussions, generating 11,803 total registrations (6,452 were Sola professionals). The brand also launched its Sola Stories podcast to share inspirational stories among the beauty professional community, and 41 episodes were published in 2020 with 18,857 total downloads. #SolaStrong also was successful in catching the media’s attention throughout 2020, with in 132 stories in business, consumer, and trade publications, equating to almost 450 million impressions.
Best Limited Budget Campaign (under $1 million)
Winner: Golden Chick
Runner-Up: Bin There Done That
In July 2020, Golden Chick learned of the cancellation of the State Fair of Texas in Dallas and immediately recognized an opportunity to partner with the iconic brand Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs. This would not only entice more people to visit Golden Chick, it also would support a brand that otherwise would be losing out on millions of dollars in sales. On average, Fletcher’s sells 500,000 corny dogs at the fair each year within its 24-day run. Golden Chick brought Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs directly to audiences in their hometowns, but had to turn around the major promotion in a matter of weeks.
Once the details of the partnership were secured, news of it broke as a result of an exclusive interview with published online and in the paper’s daily print edition. To ensure the content was effective, time-sensitive, and exciting, social media influencers with a focus on food and lifestyle were engaged through coordinated gifting and messaging. These micro-influencers were an integral part of a campaign to create online buzz and build overall awareness by giving their followers an exciting new way to experience the fair.
Golden Chick’s sales were up 34% over the previous year. From September through October, its Dallas-Fort Worth locations saw a 58% increase in same store sales, and the demand for Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs resulted in unprecedented drive-thru lines from the brand, selling out at some stores. Golden Chick’s traffic was at its peak at a time all locations were still closed for dine-in. As a result, the brand experienced its first $5 million sales week in history, sold 475,000 corny dogs, and the promotion drove an overall sales lift of $2.7 million.
Best PR Campaign
Winner: Planet Fitness
Runner-Up: British Swim School
When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, Planet Fitness was forced to close all of its 2,000+ locations, affecting millions of members. The brand decided to meet consumers where they were and inspire them to keep moving with news of free home workouts to keep them healthy. The objective was to get as many people as possible moving by promoting physical activity.
Within 48 hours of clubs temporarily closing, Planet Fitness began offering digital workouts as part of its “United We Move” campaign, launching daily “Home Work-Ins,” a series of free fitness classes streamed live on the company’s Facebook page daily at 7 p.m. ET. Classes were led by Planet Fitness trainers and special guests. The virtual classes were 20 minutes long and did not require any equipment. For anyone who could not participate live, the workouts were available on Facebook and YouTube after the live event.
The campaign generated record-breaking results. By becoming a digital fitness content provider overnight, Planet Fitness reached more than 28 million people within the first few weeks of launch, an average of 1.5 million people daily. The Home Work-Ins also saw engagement from all 50 states and 39 different countries. By the end of April 2021, PR efforts totaled more than 5.6 billion total earned media impressions and more than 5,000 earned feature placements in top-tier outlets <Today, People, PopSugar, Men’s Health, USA Today, Insider, Fox News, Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Shape.> In all, United We Move Home Work-Ins racked up more than 109 million views across online platforms and earned an estimated $10.9 million in advertising equivalency in media placements. The average engagement rate for each workout was 17.5%, 57% higher than the brand’s average engagement rate of 7.43%. Planet Fitness attracted nearly 416,600 new followers across its social media platforms.
Best Social Media Campaign
Winner: Camp Bow Wow
Runner-Up: Moran Family of Brands
In March 2020 when sports had to be paused because of Covid, people stuck indoors looked for an outlet for their competitive spirit. Camp Bow Wow’s marketing team saw a unique opportunity to bring back competition, provide a needed distraction from doomscrolling, and have some fun while staying safe. This opportunity not only engaged our social media followers, it brought engagement and camaraderie to our corporate team, which was working from home.
We came up with the idea to host a Mutt Madness tournament, pitting our office dogs against one other with photos in our corporate Instagram Stories, and using the Poll sticker to get our Instagram community in on the action. We had 64 dogs enter and go head-to-head in a bracket-style tournament that lasted six rounds and crowned one pup as the winner. Before the competition kicked off, we had another idea to engage our corporate team further: an internal bracket where team members bet on who would win and advance in each round. With NCAA basketball canceled, people were missing the in-office March Madness competition, and 16 team members submitted Mutt Madness brackets with their picks.
The most notable business result was that our profile visits on Instagram increased 590%. Instead of our typical 18.25 profile visits per post, our Mutt Madness posts had 125 visits, meaning more people visited our website, learned about our services, and found a Camp Bow Wow location. Instagram engagement during Mutt Madness was 5x higher than the rest of the year, and during the contest we saw a 150% increase in impressions, a 140% increase in profile visits, a 111% increase in website taps, a 92% increase in content interactions, a 70% increase in post interactions, and a 49% increase in accounts reached (and 1000% cuteness from the 64 contestants!).
Cause Marketing Champion
Runner Up: Penn Station East Coast Subs
The Miracle-Ear Foundation was established in 1990 to offer the Gift of Sound to individuals and families in need, regardless of their ability to pay. The goal of the company’s Alabama Miracle Mission was to identify a community with limited access to hearing health care and deliver the Gift of Sound directly to them. Selma and Tuskegee fit that model with their high rates of poverty and no immediate access to hearing care.
The foundation completed its first Miracle Mission this past November. In partnership with the Brown Chapel AME Church, volunteers spent 2 weeks on the ground, completing more than 60 hearing exams and delivering just under 100 hearing aids to residents in need. In addition, the foundation set up an ongoing bimonthly service site in Selma to care for local residents.
Highlights include more than 60 hearing exams completed in 2 weeks; multiple medical referrals for hearing conditions needing treatment outside the scope of hearing aids; hearing aids delivered to almost 40 individuals, and a total of just under 100 hearing aids gifted to residents; an ongoing, bimonthly service site in Selma to care for individuals over the long term; cash donations to the church that helped to support its ongoing community-based outreach efforts. Overall last year, Miracle-Ear delivered nearly 4,000 hearing aids; donated more than 10,000 hours of hearing health care, courtesy of more than 700 hearing care professionals; Since the program’s inception in 1990, the company has gifted more than 30,000 hearing aids to more than 16,000 individuals, and approximately 5% of all Miracle-Ear customers received the Gift of Sound through the foundation.
Local Marketing Leadership
Winner: Coldwell Banker
Runner-Up: Dream Vacations
Coldwell Banker wanted a social advertising-focused rebrand rollout that empowered its agents and drove community connection, all while adhering to and promoting the new brand strategy.
Agent branding campaigns were designed to allow agents and brokerages to build local brand awareness and share a voice for themselves and their brokerage. A social ad engine was purpose-built by Tiger Pistol for real estate agents to save time with smart automation and generate real business results with high-performing Facebook and Instagram campaigns. Coldwell provided its rebrand assets so Tiger Pistol could build agent branding campaign templates that allowed agents to customize, edit copy where permitted, select images or video assets from the library provided, and define their targeting. Agents could then access their social ad engine account to browse, select, customize, and publish their desired template.
The ad engine’s collaborative social advertising approach increased brand awareness, agent awareness, agent website traffic, and lead generation, while significantly decreasing the cost of advertising and maintaining the integrity of the rebrand. The platform solves the agent recruitment and retention problem by offering easy-to-use technology with support services. Benefits include extending Coldwell’s brand reach into local communities; executing an on-brand, holistic, collaborative social advertising strategy that finds and engages home buyers at the optimal time and place; offering agents the flexibility of publishing listings or agent branding campaigns with an easy-to-use platform that takes less than 3 minutes to create and launch an ad; and allowing agents access to recognizable brand creative while contributing messaging referencing local dialect, events, and points of interest. Performance metrics included 9,500+ campaigns published; 129+ million impressions; 2.8+ million clicks; 230,000+ leads; 65% more cost-effective traffic campaigns and 40% more cost-effective lead campaigns than the industry benchmark; retention of franchises at the corporate level and within franchises; and enabling agents to track ad performance through to the home sale.
2021 Category: Products & Services
Most Innovative Product Introduction
Winner: Blaze Pizza
Runner-Up: School of Rock
Despite Covid-19’s effects on the restaurant industry in 2020, Blaze Pizza was determined to offer consumers an unparalleled level of quality by continuing to invest in product innovation and rolling out new offerings that allowed guests to enjoy the Blaze Pizza experience from home.
Head Chef Brad Kent created the Blaze White Claw Pizza, a one-of-a-kind recipe offered at 20 locations for only one day. The recipe replaced 100% of the water in the dough with mango-flavored White Claw hard seltzer, giving the pizza a crispy texture with a sweet underlying flavor. The brand’s introduction of the Blazin’ Hot Chicken Pizza featured spicy chicken meatballs infused with ghost pepper extract, while a handcrafted slaw topping played on the senses with an unexpected spicy flavor hotter than the ghost pepper chicken meatball. The brand also created a DIY pizza-making kit as a fun and interactive way to make dinner. The DIY kits were marketed across all social platforms, and Chef Kent performed live cooking demonstrations on Instagram and established partnerships with influencers to further promote the kits. Blaze also donated thousands of pizza-making kits to underserved schools and families across the U.S.
The introduction of the DIY pizza-making kit, the Blaze White Claw Pizza, and the Blazin’ Hot Chicken Pizza generated huge success across the company. The DIY kit led to a substantial increase in social media engagement, and the brand leveraged its social platforms to drive awareness and sales, and showcased a variety of social media efforts such as Instagram Live pizza creation videos and partnerships with highly recognized influencers. The creative culinary design of the one-day White Claw Pizza made headlines and garnered 600 million media impressions across the 20 locations where it was offered. The Blazin’ Hot Chicken Pizza instantly become one of the brand’s top-selling pizzas.
Most Innovative Service Introduction
Winner: Chicken Salad Chick
Runner-Up: Anago Cleaning Systems
When the pandemic forced restaurant companies to innovate quickly, Chicken Salad Chick (CSC) and its franchisees saw an opportunity to engage with guests in ways that kept everyone safe, while continuing to serve local communities and generating supplemental revenue to help make up revenue lost because of dining room closures.
At the pandemic’s onset, CSC quickly pivoted to an entirely off-premise dining model that included takeout, drive-thru, curbside pickup, and third-party delivery at select locations. Restaurants without drive-thrus developed a pop-up drive-thru with a tent and iPad in their parking lots. A few franchisees took the model a step further with a grassroots program that eventually became a systemwide initiative: “Quick Chick Drop-Offs.” They began by announcing on their local Facebook pages that they would be doing drop-offs at a convenient local meeting site. Stores collected preorders and guests convened at the site, where team members delivered the orders directly to their vehicles. Corporate took the idea and scaled it across the system.
Since implementing the program systemwide, CSC has delivered thousands of orders of chicken salad across the locations that opted in. At its height, CSC and its franchisees were delivering bulk orders an average of 5x/week, averaging 100 orders per delivery. The program helped boost the company’s social engagement and local community marketing. Pre-pandemic, CSC had more than 500,000 members in its Craving Credits mobile loyalty app; over the past year, more than 770,000 members generated more than $20 million in system sales through the app. CSC and its guests donated more than 20,000 meals to more than 160 local communities through its new Donate a Meal program. These initiatives allowed the brand to see a quicker rebound compared with with its industry counterparts. In July 2020, sales were down about 14% compared with the QSR industry average of –41% at the time. Systemwide sales were up 17.1% YOY, and the brand opened 37 new restaurants in 2020, a 22% YOY increase in unit count.
Most Innovative Use of Customer-Facing Digital Tools
Winner: School of Rock
Runner-Up: McAlister’s Deli
During the pandemic, students could not play music together in groups. While we were able to pivot to online lessons, we needed an innovative solution to enable students to collaborate virtually on songs. This proved especially challenging given that videoconferencing solutions such as Zoom, Skype, etc., have too much latency to allow for synchronous playing together online.
Thanks to School of Rock and its proprietary Method App, students can now record themselves playing and instructors can then compile the audio and video recordings to be pulled together into a full-band recording. This innovation allowed students to continue to keep playing with one another, and to promote full-band recordings to be played back on livestreams to family and friends.
School of Rock schools completed thousands of audio and video recording projects, sharing them in a copyright-compliant way on social media, through livestreams or digital downloads. As a result, School of Rock was able to retain the majority of it students through the pandemic, and has even grown its school count.
Most Innovative Use of Data
RE/MAX had two main objectives: 1) To leverage data to identify which contacts were most likely to sell so agents could proactively reach out and win their business when the time came for a real estate transaction; and 2) find a way to give agents an edge in identifying new business opportunities.
On average, agents miss 70% of deals within their existing network. RE/MAX wanted to close that gap and give agents a competitive advantage. In February 2020, the company made the “First” app available to U.S. agents and brokers. Within minutes of setting up the app, First analyzes an agent’s contact list, examining more than 700 data points to provide a prediction on how likely a contact is to list their home within the next 6 to 12 months. The app helps agents grow their business in three key ways by: 1) building a better database; 2) using AI to predict likely sellers; and 3) helping agents master follow-up through several business coaching features.
First predicted more than 33,000 listings from agents’ contacts in 2020. Recent analysis shows that agents who use First are 50% more productive on average than those who don’t. Agents who used First in 2020 averaged 8 listings in their first 3 months of using the app and increased their productivity by an average 9%.
Most Innovative Use of Technology: Services
Winner: Lift Brands (Snap Fitness)
Runner-Up: Spherion Staffing
Many fitness brands did what they could to offer services to their members while everyone was home during Covid in 2020. Snap Fitness went one step further and offered a 28-day challenge in the spring to not only incentivize their members, but to also bring services to people without a gym family. The “Move with Snap Fitness at Home” Challenge was born as a way to bring a bit of normalcy to an unpredictable world, break up the WFH rut, and help people keep up with their physical fitness goals.
The idea came from across the world. Clubs in New Zealand used an app to engage their members when clubs were closed, and the U.S. and Canada team realized it could use the same technology for its members. In the U.S. and Canada, both members and non-members could use the app free for 28 days or pay $1/day to access additional features. Members would choose their interests, mark their goals, and the app would deliver customized workouts and exercises every day. The app also offered personalized nutrition education and daily meal planning, highly convenient during the days of online grocery shopping. Users also received daily mindfulness reminders. The app also featured community forums for checking in with one other and keeping friends accountable. At the end of the 28-day challenge, users were encouraged to share their success stories for a chance to win $5,000.
Nearly 2,500 people downloaded the app and participated in the challenge, and 70% paid $1/day for all app features. At the end of the challenge, all the money raised (nearly $47,000) went to clubs around the U.S. and Canada to help ease the burden of mandated closures. The winner, Tom from Fallston, Md., shed almost 30 pounds in 28 days and achieved a weight he hadn’t hit in a decade. He used his entire prize money to pay the rent for several businesses in his area hit hard by Covid.
2021 Category: Operations
Most Innovative Building Design, Remodel, or Prototype
Winner: The UPS Store
Runner-Up: Wetzel’s Pretzels
The UPS Store set out to elevate its retail experience for small-business owners and customers to help drive growth and profitability for its franchise system during the pandemic. The solution was a transformative reimagining of what The UPS Store could look like and how it could adapt to evolving needs.
The company embarked on a comprehensive process to create a new store design with input from multiple stakeholder groups that included franchisees, small-business owners, consumers, and retail industry experts. In-person interviews, online polling, and audits of existing locations revealed insights and opportunities that drove design strategy. The key insight was the need to be transparent with the in-store experience. The new open floor plan organizes the store into three main zones for optimal foot traffic flow and space utilization. The first zone, at the entrance, is accessible 24/7 and includes mailboxes, smart lockers for online shopping and package pickup, and self-service printers; a gate keeps the other zones secure after business hours. The second zone is the service counter area, where customers work with associates during business hours on core services such as packing, shipping, and printing. The last zone, at the back of the store, is a visible workspace where customers can see the work that goes into the packing and shipping process.
The new store design helped push The UPS Store to one of its highest rankings ever (#3) on <Entrepreneur’s> 2021 Franchise 500 list, and the brand held the #1 spot in the Postal & Business Centers category for the 31st consecutive year. A survey in April 2021 showed that 94% of customers who entered a newly designed center said they were likely to visit it in the future; 84% said they liked the new store design; 80% deemed it better than other stores with similar services; 46% saw themselves using more services at the redesigned stores; and 35% said they would be willing to travel farther to visit the new store.
Most Innovative Consumer Self-Service Tools
Winner: Junk King
Runner-Up: Kiddie Academy
To provide customers with fast and simple junk removal pricing estimates in real time with an easy-to-use tool.
Junk King has always believed in fair and transparent pricing. To continue living up to that philosophy, the brand built an online pricing estimator tool for customers and potential customers. The tool allows them to enter their ZIP Code on the platform and immediately receive an estimated price based on their geographic location and the number of items (e.g., chairs, couches, desks, computers, refrigerators, mattresses, hot tubs, etc.) or by pickup truck loads. The implementation of this tool benefits both the customer and the franchisees by improving the user experience and increasing online conversions. It also limits the need for calls to the call center after a customer makes an appointment online. Other benefits include gaining more pricing accuracy from market to market, as well as giving franchisees full pricing control. This same technology provides the call center with access to accurate pricing from market to market for anyone who calls or texts to book a junk removal.
Since the launch of the pricing estimator, Junk King has seen a 22% YOY increase in online conversions. Visits to the pricing estimator on the website are also up 91%.
Most Innovative Operations Team
Winner: Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop
Runner-Up: Premium Service Brands
To continue to drive sales and add franchise partners.
Capriotti’s optimized our operational integrations with third-party delivery platforms, which set the brand up for success at the beginning of the pandemic. We then rapidly expanded into ghost kitchens and launched multiple virtual brands across the system using Otter as an order management system. By simultaneously accelerating our retail and ghost kitchen location growth and doubling down on our marketing initiatives, we achieved record sales and record growth, placing our performance among the top 1% of brands nationwide.
Double-digit same store sales growth; record franchise partner growth with 24 area development agreements added in 2020 for a total of 98 new locations; 5 ghost kitchens opened with 4 additional markets slated to open in the first half of 2021; and 5 Reef Kitchen locations currently operating with an additional 25 slated for a 2021 opening.
Most Innovative Supply Chain Improvements
Winner: Wild Birds Unlimited
When the pandemic hit and the shutdowns began, several WBU stores were completely closed and owners could not access their stores to fulfill online orders. Our objective was to support our franchisees and enable them to continue providing product to their retail customers.
In addition to brick-and-mortar retailing, our stores also sell to customers online, fulfilling orders directly from their inventory. We had to create a program to facilitate and fulfill online orders for the shuttered stores. We began immediately pursuing a plan to enable them to continue doing that, even though their stores were closed. The product team partnered with one of our key trusted vendors (Lizzie Mae’s Bird Seed) to handle all aspects of online sales fulfillment and customer service, establishing pricing that worked for everyone involved. The team then reached out to other key manufacturers of WBU brand products to facilitate Lizzie Mae’s bringing in the right amount of additional best-selling items at the right price so the stores could have a more complete offering online. Our IT team worked quickly to set up Lizzie Mae’s with the necessary technology and made changes to the MyWBU Store platform to allow for third-party fulfillment. Our marketing team developed branding for the MyWBU site and provided Lizzie Mae’s with custom marketing materials and WBU packaging to ensure consistent high-quality WBU brand customer experiences. Our communications and training team helped provide timely updates to store owners, and our coaching team helped identify additional stores well-matched for the program.
Within 2 weeks, Lizzie Mae’s was up and running, filling hundreds (eventually thousands) of orders for WBU stores. Without this program, these stores would have had no sales for many weeks, or even months.
Most Innovative Use of Data
Winner: Checkers & Rally’s
In 2020, the Checkers & Rally’s operations team used data-driven insights to innovate around the brand’s double drive-thru lanes. The objective was to improve overall guest satisfaction, reduce labor costs, and drive same store sales increases.
The passenger-side lane has always been an important part of the brand’s identity. However, that lane has tended to get lower traffic volumes than the driver-side lane as single drivers must reach across the passenger seat for their orders. Two lanes also create higher labor costs (two cashiers and additional team members available at all times to properly serve guests on each side), whether customers are using both lanes or not. The pandemic created a surge in delivery and order-ahead business, but busy drive-thru lanes made delivery driver wait times a challenge. The operations team dove into the data to determine a better approach and found that traditional use of the double drive-thru lanes was negatively affecting overall guest satisfaction. The team decided to convert the passenger-side lane to a dedicated e-commerce lane for use only by delivery drivers and guests who ordered ahead and prepaid online.
Today, nearly all company-owned double drive-thru locations have been converted to e-commerce-only lanes, with the rollout to franchised locations under way. From April through December 2020, restaurants with e-commerce-only lanes achieved overall guest satisfaction 7.2% higher than before; taste of food improved 6.2%; speed of receiving order increased 6.4%; order accuracy rose 5.8%; and cashier friendliness improved 6.8%. Delivery sales in 2020 grew more than 200% from 2019, and delivery as a percentage of total sales grew to more than 16%. In 2020, systemwide same store sales rose 7.8% YOY, the brand reached more than $1 million in systemwide AUV, and more than 40 new franchisees joined the system. The brand outperformed its QSR competitors by 600 basis points in 2020 and continues to see record sales growth in 2021.
Most Innovative Use of Technology
Winner: Floor Coverings International
Runner-Up: Dream Vacations
Floor Coverings International’s (FCI) website was attracting a lot of traffic, but the buyer conversion rate remained low, even though website leads were often better quality than leads purchased through aggregators. FCI also wanted to improve communication between the home office and franchisees and reduce human error when updating scheduling, territory assignments, and marketing data across multiple platforms.
FCI built a multi-site platform and software solution that incorporated the main national site and all franchisee websites. This helped the home office site build brand awareness nationally and presented the entire network as industry experts. When a user gets close to making a buying decision, the national website can take their information and schedule an in-home appointment with a local office without leaving the site, which allows proper lead source tracking, distribution, and increased conversion. The website offers consistency and uniformity and allows FCI to more effectively compete with large players in the industry. It also allows franchisees to control their digital marketing with approved partners and to schedule at a local level.
FCI is now able to drive a better understanding of its brand story, improve brand awareness with an upgraded and clear platform, monitor its reputation online, optimize the site for local organic lead flow anywhere in the U.S. or Canada, and reduce the need for third-party referrals. The platform connects the network of franchise websites to the national website and to tools used to control scheduling availability and serviceable territory. As franchise territories and schedules for appointments are updated, those updates are reflected across the network of franchisee websites. This allows the home office team to update serviceable cities for scheduling in-home appointments within each franchisee website by updating just one system on their end. The territories and systems are automatically updated daily, eliminating human error. Since the completion of the website, organic search is up from 5% last year to more than 48% this year.
2021 Category: Human Resources
Most Innovative Employee Hiring
Winner: Express Employment Professionals
When Covid-19 shut down the U.S. economy, our objective was to help alleviate some of the uncertainty by assisting Americans and companies to find and fill positions.
With the pandemic making in-person events obsolete, we had to find creative ways to keep client companies and job seekers engaged. Drive-Thru Job Fairs quickly became a systemwide initiative. Our office in Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi, hosted the first fair in April 2020 and received a tremendous response, with hundreds of local job seekers applying for work during the event. With this initial success as a benchmark, we highlighted this success through CEO Bill Stoller’s weekly livestream to inspire both the Express family and franchisees to host similar events in their markets. Owners and staff at each franchise brainstormed ways to capitalize on the event, including identifying the best location for a successful turnout, placing advertisements with local media, and assigning shifts to provide the most seamless experience. Express staff captured job seekers’ information, collected their resumes, analyzed them, and instructed job seekers to complete an application (either online or in person at a later date), and/or scheduled interviews during the event. As an incentive for job seekers to attend, some offices hosted raffles at their fairs, and each job seeker was given a “goodie bag” containing branded treats and coupons from local restaurants.
Drive-Thru Job Fairs were significant in maintaining the brand’s continued growth and success in 2020. Express only saw a slight dip in YOY revenue because of its early innovations and the integral role its franchised offices played in hundreds of communities nationwide. In 2020, systemwide sales topped out at $3.23 billion and the brand placed 526,000 employees at client companies, with the Drive-Thru Job Fairs a supporting factor. The first fair in Biloxi-Gulfport had an amazing turnout, with 342 people attending and applying for work. As additional fairs took place over 2020, Express was able to finish the year on a high note with sales up 10% in Q4 and 61 franchise agreements signed, many with existing owners.
Most Innovative Employee Recruiting
Winner: Meritage Hospitality Group
Runner-Up: Self Esteem Brands
Meritage Hospitality Group, owner of more than 300 Wendy’s franchises and several casual dining restaurants, looked to transform its recruiting processes to improve speed to hire, get ahead of staffing restaurant expansions, and help alleviate the administrative work consuming their managers’ already packed day.
Meritage needed an innovative partner that would care for its candidates, ensure a steady pipeline of talent, streamline work for GMs, replicate across its multiple businesses, and integrate with existing technologies. The company found Paradox’s conversational AI assistant Olivia, which helps automate tasks such as applicant screening and interview scheduling, and provides 24/7 mobile-first candidate communications to improve the experience and reduce time to hire. Additionally, this would open new avenues for innovation, including a tool to automatically route qualified candidates into the assessment process. Speed and efficiency are critical for high-volume hiring, especially in the restaurant industry where franchise managers wear multiple hats, which often take priority over hiring. Add in an ongoing pandemic, a competitive labor market, changing staffing needs, gearing up to serve breakfast, and plans to add 30 new restaurants, and to say that GMs were concerned about understaffing would be an understatement.
Meritage saw a significant improvement in its restaurants’ ability to stay staffed. Shortly after implementing Olivia, franchisees went from 90% to 99% staffed. These experiences led to faster hiring times, happier candidates, and more time for managers to spend on higher-value recruiting and day-to-day tasks. Results included reducing the time from application to hire and saving GMs 2+ hours of administrative time per week. Nine out of 10 (91.4%) candidates completed the application with Olivia and finished in an average of 4 minutes and 21 seconds. Candidates accepted an interview within an average of 2 days from their first conversation with Olivia, and in Q4 2020, 999 new team members were hired within an average of 3.82 days from application to offer accepted.
Most Innovative Employee Retention
Winner: Penn Station East Coast Subs
Runner Up: Squeeze
Penn Station sought to help franchisees hire, train, and retain top employees in a highly competitive field when many hourly employees were starting at $2 to $4 over minimum wage.
To complement its training resources and help franchisees to identify talent at the hourly level and retain top employees, the brand created My Penn Path. At orientation, employees are presented with My Penn Path so they can see their potential career path—from entry-level crew member to crew leader, assistant manager, and even GM—rather than just accepting an hourly position with no room or opportunity for advancement, and shows employees exactly which skills they must master to be promoted. Because the program lives on the POS system, employees can complete the relevant training modules in the same place at their own pace. Each level builds on the one before and becomes a little more detailed as employees move up the ranks. This allows employees to complete all the training and modules necessary to be promoted and can be customized based on where the employee needs to improve. My Penn Path puts the responsibility for development on the individual instead of on the manager.
The restaurants that exceeded company-wide profitability and sales goals last year had a 20% increase in the “sufficiency of management” and “properly training employees” sections of their year-end performance evaluation in 2020. Overall, the top-performing restaurants had 16% higher scores in sufficiency of management and 15% higher scores in properly training employees. The restaurants with the highest scores in sufficiency of management and employees properly trained had 7% lower labor costs in 2020, at least partially owing to a more efficient and better trained staff because of My Penn Path.
Most Innovative Employee Training
Winner: Authority Brands
Runner-Up: Self Esteem Brands
When we say “training” in the franchise business, we often think of recorded webinars or sitting through days of long onboarding training. We wanted to change this mindset and the ways we offer training.
Our Success Academy provides a single source for our family of brands for training and development. We started 2020 by completely restructuring what we offer our team members: technicians, call takers, dispatchers, managers, install crews, and more. We recognized that we all learn differently, and created a six-tiered approach: 1) self-paced online learning offering more than 150 courses through our LMS; 2) webinars that use breakout rooms to create engaging replacements; 3) instructor-led classroom training across the U.S.; 4) workshops of 1 to 3 days with the best speakers in our trades to help grow a franchisee’s bottom line; 5) Success Academy Plus, offering consultation to address specific areas that need specialized and customized training; and 6) partnering with other entities to bring our team members technical training programs.
In the first tier, Success Academy hit some astronomical marks, particularly in call taking and dispatching: our call taking program yielded a 157% increase in registrations and completions, while the dispatching program yielded a 44% increase in registrations and completions. The second tier hosted 21 webinars, more than 3x the number from the previous year, with a 349% increase in participation from the previous year (337 for 2020, up from 75). The third tier offers classroom training across the U.S. where franchisee locations can to participate, interact, team-build, and grow. In the fourth tier (workshops), a Weldon Long workshop broke our record number of attendees with more than 100 technicians participating. The fifth tier (consultative) offer consultation to address specific areas of business that need specialized and customized training. In the sixth tier, since partnering with Interplay in March, 15% of the brands’ franchise locations have adopted the VR training, and the program had almost 1,350 completions by 192 users within 9 months.
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