A lot can change over the course of two decades of business, but what sets successful companies apart is how they embrace those shifts.
Organizations that are able to do so can find growth even during challenging times. One example of this is Calgary-based quick-service restaurant OPA! of Greece, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary and 96 franchised locations across Canada, with more set to open.
“It’s being innovative while staying true to your roots,” says Theodore “Dorrie” Karras, CEO, Director, and multi unit franchise owner with OPA! “We always monitor new trends to identify, study and test them to make sure they’ll be successful within our brand.”
Opening its first location at Market Mall in 1998, OPA! was fouded by Niko Tiginagas, a Greek immigrant who had always dreamed of owning his own restaurant.
Offering fresh, authentic Mediterranean cuisine prepared with simple ingredients, Karras, who joined the company as a franchisee in 2001, says the concept struck a cord with consumers from the beginning because it offered something new and fresh.
“There were a lot of mom and pop operations at that point, and they were all doing quite well, but I think there was something different about this one,” he said. “I think it was the simplicity of the offerings, the great quality of the food, and the accessibility - being in a mall location it definitely gave us a lot of exposure. It was something that really interested me.”
As the years passed, the world of franchising and food changed and with it came more competition and an increase of ethnic options for people to try. Today, it’s said that there are more than 75,000 franchise locations across the country with food franchises representing nearly 40% of all franchise systems.
Despite this, OPA! continues to stay focused on its philosophy of using real quality ingredients knowing that it’s something people love about the restaurant and have come to expect from others.
“We've definitely noticed a shift towards healthier choices, and I think we're positioned really well in that market given that we’ve been doing it for 20 years,” explains Karras. “I like to believe we were one of the pioneers, at least in this part of the country, in providing those healthy options before it became “sexy” in the food industry.”
Although these fresh healthy ingredients are a main staple for OPA!’s cuisine according to Karras, it has also become one of the challenges that they have to monitor on a regular basis.
As with many other businesses the increases in the costs of food, labour and rental rates, as well as a slumping economy, have made things challenging at all levels of the franchise.
“Our sales continue to grow, we're grateful for that, but we've been doing a great job at making adjustments,” he says. “We've weathered this downturn very well, but there was definitely some nervousness in our franchisees with all the changes in labour costs, changes in government and increased taxes over the last few years.”
Explaining the different ways the company helps franchisees tackle increasing costs, such as buying local when possible, working with suppliers to cut costs, and customizing menus, Karras says what’s helped the most is working with each store on a personal level as regional economies have a big influence on what’s happening as well as what will help.
“We have various menu options and pricings, as well as having different tiers throughout our system,” he says. “We've had that in place for a number of years and that was primarily driven by the cost of doing business in different places like BC, or Fort McMurray back when it was booming.”
According to Karras, OPA! looks at franchisees as vital pieces to the company’s success, which is why they’ve worked hard to move away from the “them vs. us” system that can often exist between corporate and store level.
“You try to stay as current as possible as a franchise in order to help your franchisees,” he says. “Perspective franchisees, they're hunting to see which (company) is the better fit for them, they want to have those systems and assurances in place and know that franchisors will be there to support them throughout difficult times, such as in Alberta right now.”
As it turns out, franchises are uniquely impacted by economic insecurity. The Canadian Franchise Association (CFA) says that franchisors will often experience an increase in prospective franchisees during hard times, something that is echoed by the organization's need to add additional Alberta dates for their highly attended Franchise Canada Show.
“When unemployment rises, many people who have either been let go, or who are worried about being let go, want to take control of their financial futures instead of working for someone else,” explains CFA President and CEO Sherry McNeil. “Franchises are often seen as more stable in a struggling economy because many franchise systems have been through economic downturns and know how to weather the storm.”
A testament to this idea, Karras says OPA! is currently experiencing its biggest year of growth in terms of unit count with five new locations already opened and an additional seven slated for the coming months.
“I think our growth is going to continue for the foreseeable future,” he shares. “We have multiple locations opening for the rest of 2019 and we're attempting to open a location in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is definitely going to be an experiment for us.”
Despite the unknown of breaking into international markets, Karras says the company will continue to follow their passion for food and connection with people, something that has pushed their success forward and built a brand that is proud to be Canadian - and proud to be Greek.