50-50 Plan: Building Success on Street Smarts, Mentors, and Teamwork

50-50 Plan: Building Success on Street Smarts, Mentors, and Teamwork

Angelo Freites spent years on the road overseeing restaurant operations of large franchise portfolios before he made the move to go solo so he could remain closer to home.

"I told my wife that I was only going to do two Checkers," recalls Freites, a father of three and founder and CEO of West Palm Beach-based JAF Restaurant Group. "She said, 'No you're not, that's just not in your system.' And you know what? She was right. Here I am a little over two years later with 15 restaurants."

And growing.

Freites, who sold his company stake as franchisee, president, and COO for 138 Wendy's to pursue his latest venture, has plenty to keep him busy in the Sunshine State. He projects holdings of 25 Checkers by year-end and recently added Del Taco to the company lineup--in a big way.

As part of a 10-unit development deal, Freites is gearing up to introduce the California-based Mexican QSR brand to the West Palm Beach market. He was strategically seeking another franchise to grow, without restrictions. He fell in love with the quality and freshness of Del Taco, which is on an aggressive path to build a presence and drive unit growth in the Southeast.

His plans call for 10 Del Taco restaurants to be added in the South Florida counties of both Broward and Dade, says Freites, who officially signed on as a Del Taco franchisee in December 2017.

"I see JAF Group operating 50 Checkers and 50 Del Tacos, at minimum, within the next 5 to 10 years," he says. "And that is, if we don't acquire restaurants--that is just growing organically."

The Argentinian-Italian has spent his entire career in the restaurant world that seemed destined to be part of his life journey. He was just two months old when his parents immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City's borough of Queens.

"Queens was a melting pot of different ethnicities and demographics. You quickly learned to get along with all different types of people," Freites says. "It expanded my talent, my tolerance, and my overall ability to relate to different people, and that really benefited me in the restaurant business."

At 14, Freites, who had suffered the untimely loss of his mother the previous year, was working as a dishwasher at the Stratton Restaurant, when he crossed paths with the first of many life-changing mentors. The businessman, a Roy Rogers franchisee, recruited Freites to the fast-food burger chain and opened the doors for him to learn the ropes of restaurant operations and management. He would also open his family's arms to the young boy, who spent most of his teenage years in the state's foster care system.

"If it wasn't for so many mentors in my life I wouldn't be where I am now," says Freites. "So now I want to give back."

Freites rose up the management ranks of Roy Rogers and took advantage of continuing education offered by Marriott Corp., which founded the chain in 1968. When the restaurants were acquired and converted to Wendy's, Freites followed the brand. In 1996, he became area director for 46 Wendy's at The Briad Group. A decade later he would become a franchisee for the New Jersey-based quick-service, casual dining, and hotel operator, with 67 Wendy's and 71 TGI Fridays. All along the way, he soaked up the life skills gifted to him by another mentor of sorts.

"Growing up on the streets of Brooklyn and Queens after my parents passed, it was tough, survival of the fittest," he remembers. "I only knew one type of management, what I used to call '2x4 management.' Now I hope people think of me more as a listener, coach, and team player. Those are the things that I aspire to be and, hopefully, show other great leaders within the organization that you don't have to be demanding to get what you need out of an individual. They need to know you care about them individually."

Frietes is on a mission to pay it forward as he builds an infrastructure poised to handle rapid growth. Ultimately, he says, he plans to transition to the role of chairman to oversee the company's expansion. Naturally, there is mentoring involved.

"I have a terrific partner in Chief Operating Officer Dave Chapman," he says. "Dave is the best operator. He puts me to shame as far as his ability to operate, and his sheer determination and will to be successful and make others successful. I have been mentoring him and he has been mentoring me."

Name: Angelo Freites
Title: Founder, CEO
Company: JAF Restaurant Group
No. of units: 15 Checkers; area development agreement for 10 Del Tacos
Age: 51
Family: Wife, Jennifer; daughters Miranda 25 and Eva, son Matthew
Years in franchising: 31
Years in current position: 3

Personal

First job:
A dishwasher after school.

Formative influences/events:
My parents and I are immigrants. We arrived at JFK with a whopping $150. I learned at a very young age that sheer will, passion, and hard work does pay off. Both my parents worked two jobs trying to save for a business of their own. Within nine years my dad had his own barbershop and my mother had her own jewelry business.

Key accomplishments:
I've had no greater accomplishments then seeing our three kids excel in school, sports, and become productive members of society.

Biggest current challenge:
To recruit passionate personnel.

Next big goal:
Our immediate goal is to become an organization with at least 50 restaurants.

First turning point in your career:
Realizing if I can dream it, I can achieve it!

Best business decision:
Deciding to become a Checkers and Del Taco franchisee.

Hardest lesson learned:
Be sure to be well capitalized, so when the storm hits, and it will, you can survive.

Work week:
I tend to work every day in some capacity--even if it's spying on a new concept.

Exercise/workout:
Monday through Friday I get in 30 minutes of high-intensity cardio and 50 minutes of weight training.

Best advice you ever got:
Dress for the position you want, not the one you have. These 11 words made a huge impact in every aspect of my life.

What's your passion in business?
Simply put, the ability to have a positive impact on people. To be able to provide a work environment where employees can grow and thrive in their professional and personal lives.

How do you balance life and work?
As I've matured (some may disagree), I've been able to separate or disengage for hours at a time from the business. This allows me to focus on what really matters (my family and friends).

Guilty pleasure:
Occasionally, I have to have a slice of New York pizza (or pie)!

Favorite book:
The Greatest Generation.

Favorite movie:
"The Sandlot."

What do most people not know about you?
The fact that I secretly root for the New York Giants.

Pet peeve:
Doctors making me wait, even though I have an appointment.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I dreamed of playing first base for the New York Mets.

Last vacation:
Checkers has an incentive for franchisees called the President's Club. Franchisees who have earned at least 75 points on a scorecard, or open two restaurants within a single year, receive an all-expenses cruise to different locations. This year, Checkers sent my family and me on an 11-day European cruise.

Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Ronald Reagan.

Management

Business philosophy:
It's simple: be tough, yet fair and communicate your intentions.

Management method or style:
Through the years, I've learned that I do not have all the answers. I recruit team leaders who are smarter and better than I am. I then provide the work environment where they can thrive.

Greatest challenge:
To find team members who are passionate about their work.

How do others describe you?
I think if you ask someone who hasn't seen me in 25 years, they might say I was too demanding, didn't listen, and not compassionate. I hope if you ask someone who knows me now, they would say I am a good person who listens and cares for others.

One thing I'm looking to do better:
I always strive to learn something new every day. Sometimes it could be from the keynote speaker at a conference or from the porter in my office building. The truth is, the day I think I know it all will be the beginning of my demise.

How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
I like to hand out projects to key team leaders and ask them to figure a better way to execute the task. Then I check on them every week. I do not micro-manage. If they have the passion and will needed, they will achieve the goal.

How close are you to operations?
Since I grew up in the restaurant business, being in a restaurant is very comforting. I like to interact with team members. I practically have ketchup in my veins!

What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Vision and relevance. The franchisor must be proactive and foresee the trends as they evolve.

What I need from vendors:
Vendors are our partners. We must treat them with respect. Each vendor should consistent and reliable.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
Over the last 2 to 3 years, it has become very expensive to continue to solely use traditional marketing such as television and radio. The political environment has been a major reason for these increases. Therefore, we have switched 20 to 30 percent of our marketing dollars to digital media.

How is social media affecting your business?
To stay relevant with our guests, we must recognize the importance of social media--which, if handled correctly, can be very useful.

How do you hire and fire?
During our interview process, we look for team members who exhibit high energy, passion, and can express themselves. It really does not matter if they have the skill level needed for the position. We can teach the skill, but we cannot teach will. This practice is also used for underperforming employees. If the employee in question has been trained and we know has the knowledge, then it is a will issue. We usually move quickly to remove the employee.

How do you train and retain?
At minimum, we use all training tools provided by the franchisors. We also supplement the training by providing classes to enhance life skills, such as computer skills and English as a second language.

How do you deal with problem employees?
We place the employee on a development plan. This plan acts as a guideline. If the employee needs training, we ensure they receive it. However, if the employee has the skill and is still ineffective at their position, we ask them to look for employment elsewhere.

Fastest way into my doghouse:
Dishonesty!

Bottom Line

Annual revenue:
$20 million.

2018 goals:
To open 6 restaurants.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
Growth can be measured in many ways. Our turnover needs to improve if we are to sustain restaurant growth. We also need to continually train our leaders. They must have all the tools to excel. We also look at our internal promotions. This is vital if we are going to continue to increase the number of restaurants we operate.

Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
Within 5 years, I envision our organization with at least 50 restaurants. Within 10 years, I'd like to step back and hand over the reins to my partner.

How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers?
As the economy improves, unemployment decreases. This affects the employee pool to hire from.

Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
Yes.

How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
When the economy is good, the employee pool is very tight. So retaining employees is a priority. We are also mindful of our menu prices, especially when the economy takes a downturn.

How do you forecast for your business?
We tend to be very conservative when it comes to sales projections. We would rather be happily surprised when we under-project sales.

What are the best sources for capital expansion?
I've had very good experiences with lending institutions that specialize in our QSR space.

Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
It depends on your capital needs. If you are looking for funding up to $3 million, a local community bank can fit the bill. If you need $5 million to $20 million, I would call on a national bank.

What are you doing to take care of your employees?
To ensure our compensation policy is up to date, we ask our fellow QSR organizations within our markets for their compensation policy. We calibrate our pay scale and benefit packages with the market. We also offer tuition reimbursement.

How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
We must be diligent with reducing employee turnover. This helps with training cost, unemployment insurance cost, and payroll cost.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
We have a very generous bonus program. We often conduct manager meetings and hand out prizes for answering silly questions. We like to exceed the employee expectations.

What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
My partner, Dave Chapman, is 10 years younger than I am. My vision is for Dave (currently chief operating officer) to take over the organization as the CEO. I would move to a chairman position.

Published: May 24th, 2018

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