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Big Greek expansion

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 4:44 p.m. December 13, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Strategies
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Newlyweds and new Americans Emmanuel and Kalliopi Ameres, natives of Greece, began a four-decade restaurant odyssey with a spatula and a broom in the 1970s.

“They didn't speak a lick of English,” says George Ameres, one of the couple's four children. “They started at the bottom and did what they had to do.”

For Emmanuel Ameres, a onetime cook in the Greek Navy, that meant a start flipping burger patties at a Brown Derby restaurant in Cleveland. His wife, who goes by Popi (pronounced Pope-y) cleaned bathrooms and restaurant floors. “They chased the American dream,” says George Ameres. “They wanted to have a family and give their kids the best opportunities they could.”

That dream is now Popi's Place, a chain of Greek/American comfort food breakfast-lunch-brunch eateries spread through Manatee and Hillsborough counties. There are currently six locations, and another one, in east Manatee County, is expected to open in late 2013 or early 2014. Each Popi's, says George Ameres, does about $1 million a year in sales and has around 25 employees.

All the Ameres children have ownership stakes in individual Popi's Place locations — though Emmanuel and Kalliopi Ameres haven't totally left the business. Kalliopi Ameres, in fact, can often be found baking biscuits inside a Popi's kitchen at 4 a.m. Emmanuel and Kalliopi Ameres also oversee the Popi's in Ellenton, in north Manatee County.

The dream is about to shift into another realm: Franchise expansion.

The first franchise under the Popi's Place flag opened in October, on 14th Street in the Bayshore Gardens neighborhood of Bradenton. A second franchise location is in the works for Brandon early next year. “There's no reason why we can't keep expanding,” George Ameres says. “The ultimate goal is to go national. We like to dream big.”

Franchise expansion in hospitality, however, can sometimes turn into an entrepreneurial nightmare — despite fast success stories such as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Panera Bread. For example, nine of the top 25 franchise brands with the highest failure rates are restaurants chains, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data. The SBA tracked unpaid franchise-based real estate and equipment loans from 2001 to 2011 to compile the report.

Stats like that are one reason why First Watch, another Manatee County-based chain of breakfast-lunch-brunch eateries, put off a franchise program for several years. The company launched its franchise program in 2008, and now about a dozen of its 100-plus stores are franchised. A big part of First Watch's franchise strategy, says Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tomasso, is to seek franchisees who can open multiple locations.

And while franchising been successful, Tomasso says it nonetheless requires “a different mindset” from running corporate-owned stores. That's partially because franchisees are entrepreneurs who come with their own money, risk and experience. It's not like simply opening a new location and hiring a manager to run it. Says Tomasso: “You are getting into deals with people that will be long-term.”

Good attitude
George Ameres says his siblings and parents recognize restaurant industry franchise expansion can be a minefield. It's why the decision to do it was one of the most hotly contested calls the family has had in years. But George Ameres put his stock in his parent's track record. That goes back to the first Popi's Place in 1986, and to several other restaurants before that. It also goes back to the Brown Derby in Northwest Ohio.

“My parents started from nothing, so we don't feel like we have to be sitting across from a millionaire when we franchise,” says George Ameres. “We are looking for the right attitude and a commitment to our brand.”

The Ameres family believes they have found that in their first franchisee, Bill Chaltis, a retired math teacher. Chaltis, who has known the Ameres family for more than 30 years, says he bought into the company partly so his son and son-in-law could have a business to run.

Chaltis and his family opened the Bayshore Gardens Popi's Place in October, in a former HomeStyle Buffet. Chaltis redid parts of the kitchen, but focused most of the renovation in the front of the restaurant. That includes new floors and a new ceiling. He also scaled back the seat count, from 166 to 130. “It was like sardines in here,” Chaltis says. “It was already a restaurant. But it needed a facelift.”

Chaltis declines to say how much he paid for the Popi's Place franchise rights, or how much he invested in renovations. George Ameres declines to release the costs or net worth requirements for perspective franchisees.

Ameres, instead, says the family's focus should be on brand protection — regardless of how much money they make in fees. He realizes that's what other successful franchise chains, like First Watch, do. “We just don't give them a key and say go ahead,” says George Ameres. “The challenge is to make sure they do it our way.”

That goes from cooking and baking to serving food. More than 90% of the food served at Popi's Place is prepared onsite, including soups, salad dressings, cakes and cookies. And the servers are old-school diner type, the ones who know their regular customer's names. “People are looking for quality at a fair price,” says George Ameres. “People are looking for a good deal.”

In the family
People looking for Popi's Place locations will see slightly different names in the next few months. That's because the chain is going through a rebranding, where the old names, Popi's Place followed by a roman numeral, will be replaced by Popi's Place and the geographical location. “The numerals didn't mean much anymore,” George Ameres says.

The change is also a symbol of how much the family business has grown from the early 1980s. That's when Emmanuel and Kalliopi Ameres opened their first restaurant, the Grapevine, on Cortez Road and U.S. 41 in Bradenton. The theme was steak and seafood, with a full bar.

But the couple, then with four young children, quickly outgrew the late night-infused dinner restaurant lifestyle. With that in mind they opened the first Popi's Place in 1986. That location, still there today, is next to McKechnie Field, spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The restaurant was originally called the Dugout.

Each expansion after that provided a way for the Ameres children, now adults, to get into the business. George Ameres, for example, manages Popi's Place locations on Manatee Avenue West in Bradenton and another one near Port Manatee. Andy Ameres, meanwhile, will operate the one in east Manatee County and his twin sister, Katima Ameres, runs the Ruskin location. Michael Ameres oversees the downtown Palmetto Popi's.

Other challenges loom for the entire family, past franchising. Foremost on that list, says George Ameres, is the price of food supplies, from bacon to dairy to produce — an industry wide issue. For instance, the cost of a case of bacon, Ameres says, doubled in recent months, from $40 to $80. Many food service vendors, adds Ameres, recently imposed fuel surcharges for the first time.

The result of the increases, not surprisingly, is the price of some menu items will rise, too. While that's tough for any business owner, George Ameres says it's especially hard for him given how close he is to many Popi's Place regulars. He's played golf with some customers, and even joined a few others on a trip to Greece. “We've become friends with many of our customers,” says Ameres. “That's been a blessing.”

First Advice
There are multiple benefits combined with numerous risks in expanding a company through franchising — an experience the family behind restaurant chain Popi's Place is about to discover.

And that family, the Ameres clan, can find comfort in the experience of another Gulf Coast-based breakfast-brunch-lunch chain that's already done it: First Watch. The University Park-based company, now with more than 100 locations in 15 states, held off on franchising for several years.

Indeed, CEO Ken Pendery refused to bite until he and the executive team were sure the company was ready, and was doing it for the right reasons. It started franchising five years ago. “You have to be clear about how you want to see your brand many years down the road,” says First Watch Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tomasso.

Tomasso says there are several important steps to take when starting a franchise program, in any industry. One is to bring a lot of patience, because it could take at least 18 months to go from launch to opening a franchised location. Another step, says Tomasso, is to choose franchisees wisely. That goes for net worth and cultural fit. First Watch, for example, seeks franchisees who have operating partners with experience running multiple restaurants.

One final key point: Work with an attorney who has experience in franchise documents in the specific industry, Tomasso says. That's because a franchisee-franchisor relationship can be tricky to navigate, all the more so if problems arise. “A franchise document is unique,” says Tomasso. “It's a legal document, but it's also a selling document.”


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