The acai concept signed 35 new franchisee contracts in its first year as a franchise and has ambitious plans to keep expanding
When SoBol’s director of sales and business development, Robin Graf, arrived at the International Franchise Expo in New York in June, each of the acai bowl brand’s stores were independently owned and operated, and Graf was eager to prove that the fledgling brand’s model could be scaled through franchising. By the conference’s end, Graf’s team was optimistic about one candidate’s potential to represent the brand, so they signed a contract for their first franchisee. One year later, SoBol has signed 34 more franchisee contracts, including a number of multi-unit agreements, making theirs one of the most successful opening years of any foodservice franchise.
“Our first franchisee was doing great business very quickly,” Graf said. “They had a great location on a busy road, so we weren’t sure if it was an anomaly. But it completely took off, and we had people begging us to get on board. Once we signed our second and third franchisees and saw the success they were having, we became convinced that our model could be successfully adopted and applied on a much greater scale than we initially imagined.”
As new SoBol stores opened, interest continued to grow among consumers and potential owners. “We were getting 10 organic leads per week, growing exponentially with each new store,” Graf said.
The brand’s rapid growth was not only a result of new owners signing contracts. Existing owners were quickly eager to expand, many opening up second or third stores within their first months as SoBol owners.
“We’ve had some out-of-the-gate multi-unit development deals, but most of our owners have started with a single unit and then quickly decided to invest in additional units,” said Graf. “Most of our franchisees have moved on to a second or third unit.”
Graf also noted that many new owners are friends or family of existing owners, suggesting that owners are developing personal attachments to the brand.
“A lot of the owners who have bought in more recently are family members of our earlier owners, which shows that owners are excited about the business in a way that’s touching their personal lives,” Graf said. “And it speaks to the sense of community we’ve engendered that people want to bring their loved ones on board.”
According to Graf, that sense of community is shared by customers as well as owners.
“People come into our stores and they really feel like they are part of something special,” Graf said. “There’s a chemistry between our product and the style of our stores and the staff that makes it all feel like home. That’s what we read in all our reviews online, and that’s heartening because it’s exactly what we want.”
Graf attributes much of the brand’s early growth to the model’s operational simplicity, which allows owners with little experience in the industry to get on their feet quickly.
“It’s just an easy business to run,” Graf explained. “A lot of that comes from Jim [Kalomiris, SoBol’s co-founder], who has spent 35 years in the restaurant industry. He owned a diner, which is all about keeping things moving, and he helped design SoBol to make operations easy for owners and service quick for customers.”
Still, the operational system does require some training, and Graf said SoBol’s corporate team offers a wealth of resources to that end.
“The training program is really top-notch,” Graf said. “As soon as an owner becomes part of the family, we are holding their hand every step of the way. We offer a week of very specific, hands-on training before a store opens. We walk through every step of the process: back-of-house book-keeping, front-of-house service, how to cut fruit, how to scoop granola, everything. Then we’ll establish a soft opening where owners invite their family and friends, and we’ll have two or three corporate managers there to assist and shadow. We’ll continue to hold the new owner’s hand as long as they need it, sometimes two or three weeks after opening. Then we’ll try to wean them off the hand-holding a bit, but we make it clear that they can always reach out to us for anything they need. Not just an answering machine at the corporate office, they can call me or Jim or Jason [SoBol’s co-founder, president, and CEO] and we’ll personally help out.”
SoBol’s growth has also been accelerated by an increased consumer interest in acai bowls in recent years. Graf said that other acai bowl brands have helped boost awareness of the product but haven’t posed much competition in terms of quality.
“There’s an excitement around acai that is really taking off,” Graf said. “So it’s becoming more familiar to consumers, but we do it best. Other stores just can’t reproduce our experience. Not only the quality of our bowls but also the streamlined service. We get all our bowls out within 4 minutes of the customer approaching the counter, and our stores are so much more comfortable and appealing than others in the segment.”
A lot of work goes into making sure that every SoBol has that comfortable and appealing feel that Graf described. For as much real estate as the brand has purchased over the past year, SoBol’s development team is very selective about which buildings can host the brand.
“We’ll look at locations as they’re being qualified, and sometimes they just won’t feel right, so we’ll look for something else or adapt the building to make it right for us,” said Graf. “We are very careful with the units we buy. We could have easily sold a hundred more stores last year, but we don’t want to put any owner in a situation that isn’t 100 percent set up for success.”
After an enormously successful first year, Graf said the SoBol team is excited to continue growing, and the brand plans to focus that growth along the east coast before branching out throughout the country.
“We’re looking at more locations up and down the eastern seaboard,” Graf said. “We want to keep pushing out along the edges of where our brand is known. And we’ll just keep pushing that out. The sky is the limit.”