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When this Matthews man talks, TCBY listens

When Matthews resident Samuel Batt talks, TCBY executives listen.

And it’s no wonder: The frozen-yogurt giant credits the 32-year-old’s success with pushing them to embrace the self-serve model – a move that has reinvigorated the company and led to exponential growth. More than 130 new franchises have opened in the last two years, according to the Broomfield, Colo.-based company.

Before opening his first franchise in 2010, Batt had never owned or run his own business. And privately held TCBY, short for “The Country’s Best Yogurt,” had run a successful behind-the-counter operation nationwide for nearly 30 years.

But Batt had seen a couple of self-serve fro-yo joints open to much fanfare in his hometown of Philadelphia. Under this format, the yogurt dispensers and toppings are out in the open so that customers can make their own creations.

So when he was approved to own and operate a TCBY franchise in Charlotte, he approached corporate about jumping on the trend.

Batt opened the company’s first location with the new service style in April 2010 in south Charlotte’s Colony Place shopping center.

And within three weeks, his location was one of the top-five most profitable franchises in the country.

“It was incredible,” says Brian Mooney, TCBY’s director of operations for the Eastern U.S. “Of course when that happens that gets the attention of everybody in the corporate office. Then the marketing team says, ‘Well, we might have something here. Let’s look at taking this model to a new level.’ ”

Now, the bent toward self-serve is obvious: There’s at least one of those frozen yogurt spots in nearly every high-traffic shopping center in Charlotte.

About half of TCBY’s nearly 500 franchises across the country have embraced the new model to great success, each doing from 25 percent to 200 percent better in sales than with the traditional model, Mooney said.

As for Batt, just three years later, he now owns 17 TCBY shops in the Carolinas – the most of any TCBY franchisee in the country – while also operating TCBY’s first mobile fro-yo truck (“The Battmobile”).

His newest store, at Piedmont Town Center in SouthPark, was scheduled to open Saturday.

“I’m big on firsts,” Batt says. “I love seeing what works, what doesn’t.”

The craft-your-own trend

It started in 2009, soon after Batt and his wife, Rubina, moved from center-city Philadelphia to the Charlotte area, where Rubina’s parents lived.

At the time, Batt was an information technology and management consultant at Accenture, traveling four days a week. He wanted to spend less time on the road and more time with his wife and newborn son, Liam.

He thought about opening a restaurant but didn’t have experience, save for a stint at a bagel shop in high school. So he gravitated toward the franchise model and ultimately, his childhood hangout, TCBY, where the vanilla Shivers topped with crumbled Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were his favorite order.

Meanwhile, TCBY was considering revamping the look and feel of the chain. Although executives knew about the trend toward letting customers craft their own desserts, longtime store owners weren’t interested in changing, Mooney says. But Batt, with his interest in the self-serve model, came to the franchise at the right time.

Innovation is critical to even the most successful of brands, says Andrew Petersen, an assistant professor of marketing at UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“If you’re not reinventing your brand, your experience, your product lineup, something like that, you become no longer on the top of (consumers’) minds,” Petersen says. “When you innovate, you have people buzzing about what you’re doing. And people are more interested in talking about new stuff, than … saying ‘You know that same old place we always go to? I just (went there) again, and it was the same.’ ”

And consumer-customization – the psychology behind the self-serve model – is the true craving of the millennial generation, Petersen says.

Just look at the new Coca-Cola “FreeStyle” digital soda fountain machines that allow consumers to create their own carbonated mixtures with more than 100 options, he adds. The machines are marketed as “Your choice, your taste, your drink. … the refreshing new way to express yourself.”

“I don’t just go down to TCBY to get frozen yogurt,” says Petersen. “I go there with my friends because it’s social and we share in the experience of making (our) own dessert and consuming it.”

‘A very new store’

Opening the “first” anything for a major national company takes time, and it took Batt and corporate about a year to work out all the details.

But corporate gave Batt license to design the store how he wanted it, so long as it adhered to the construction department’s standards.

Batt remembers walking blindly into a tile shop in Cornelius and asking the sales associate to point him toward the greens (TCBY’s former logo color).

“I was amazed that this company that had been around 30 years was letting someone with zero experience with franchising and interior design, (take the lead),” Batt says.

The considerations were different than with the traditional stores: They needed machines that fit into walls, sneeze guards to protect the yogurt, colorful signage for the flavors.

“They gave the green light, but we were a brand that did not have or understand, necessarily, what a self-serve would do,” says Mooney. “Your marketing is different. Your distribution is different. You have an expensive toppings bar, so your supplies are different. ...He designed a very new store.”

And when his sales rivaled those of the brand’s most established franchises, TCBY corporate realized they’d happened on a good idea – and a great entrepreneur.

Though Mooney wouldn’t disclose profits for the privately held company, he said the company’s holding pattern was kick-started into growth after TCBY took a gamble on Batt.

Pre-Batt, “we’d open up some, we’d close some,” says Mooney. “We were holding steady.”

Since Batt opened his first self-serve shop in 2010, TCBY itself has experienced 35 percent growth in the number of franchises alone.

And of the 130 new shops, not a single one adopted the traditional behind-the-counter service model. Even some of the brand’s most successful franchisees under the old model are reconsidering.

Two extremely profitable traditional shops in New York recently converted to the new model, Mooney says. “They’ve doubled their sales. That speaks for itself.”

So do Batt’s latest plans: The newbie entrepreneur who started this journey just three years ago says he wants 29 TCBY franchises by 2015.

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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