As many in the fast-food business have learned, folksy mascots are an easy shorthand for friendly hospitality: pigtailed tweens; wizened, poultry-obsessed army vets; clowns. In the case of Mary Brown’s Chicken & Taters, the eponymous figurehead is a smiling, 100% real Virginian woman whose family wisely allowed two Newfoundlanders to bring her unmonetized fried-chicken recipe north of Kentucky in the early ’70s. Now, with 170 franchises (and three diners) across Canada and the U.S., and plans to expand into Europe and the Middle East, the not-so-secret recipe for success for Mary Brown’s reflects the spirit of its American spokesmodel: real relationships with real people.
To some extent, every restaurant chain struggles to master the balance of one-on-one customer service with a systematic franchise expansion. But to understand how integral (and uncontrived) this dedication to homegrown hospitality is within Mary Brown’s ranks, you have to get Greg, not Mary, on the horn. Greg Roberts, a native of Triton, N.L., (population 980) and a serial entrepreneur, bought the then-38-year-old and flagging chicken-and-taters business in 2007. In the eyes of the eminently chipper Roberts, the hard times were due to a “typical business case gone wrong.” Why? The business had no heart. “It was like a chain of eight independent restaurants: no consistency between stores, no systems in place,” he says. In rural Newfoundland, he noted, customers benefit from the warm hospitality of small family businesses whose staff know all their customers. If Roberts could bring that warmth to the typical fast-food experience and bolster it with some operational rigour, he figured customers in general—and millennials in particular—would eat it up. “I didn’t want it to be like going to a pharmacy to buy razor blades,” he says. So he set out to revitalize and expand a bigger, better Mary Brown’s. “The only credit I can take,” he adds, modestly, “is that I brought brilliant people together.”
One such brilliant person was Hadi Chahin, who joined the brand as president and chief operating officer two years ago following stints at Sodexo and Compass Group. Chahin says it was Roberts’s passion for community-building that quelled any nerves he had about taking the leap from a corporate career into a sole-owned operation. “Greg has put a lot of time, money and effort into the people he’s worked with—some of whom have been around for 10, 20 or 30 years,” he explains. “He treats everyone like a part of his family, so growing Mary Brown’s without losing that feel is my biggest challenge.”
As seen in the brand’s three-pronged 2017 strategy document, Chahin’s commitment to maintaining Roberts’s homegrown sensibility is palpable. The first prong is an emphasis on the chicken. “Most of our industry rests on frozen, fryer, factory food,” says Roberts. “Because our mandate is ‘made fresh from scratch,’ we teach our franchisees how to cook on-site, and bring in full chickens from local farms three times a week, which isn’t being done by anyone else.” Its second principle is to push the 100% Canadian angle, aligning with homegrown businesses and suppliers—a move to differentiate the business from U.S. competitors. The last and perhaps most important strategic point is cultivating “operators who care,” a.k.a. franchisees, a.k.a. the men and women who will grow the brand to 200 outposts by 2020.
New franchisees of Mary Brown’s are given one of the warmest welcomes in the industry—or maybe any industry. They’re flown to Newfoundland for training, where they stay at the private home of the now-retired Roberts, enjoy a ceremonial “screech-in” (a Maritime welcome ritual involving a strong shot of booze and fish kisses) and do a crawl of the local businesses who, by affiliation, have made Mary Brown’s a hometown success.
Employees at the company’s head office in Markham, Ont., benefit from similar bonding. Chahin hosts a weekly 30-minute all-staff meeting called the “chicken coop”—a melange of strategy, team bonding and games that is led by a different team member each time and, according to Chahin, helps to “break silos between departments.” (In that vein, the team recently hosted a Newfoundland-style “kitchen party,” inviting family, friends and suppliers to enjoy a live band, two food trucks and a bar with, you guessed it, more screech.)
On a more practical note, Chahin makes sure to balance pursuing new business with prioritizing regular contact with existing franchisees—face-to-face when possible. “I hear about it at regional meetings if I have not visited for the past six months to a year. So we hold meetings with franchisees multiple times a year to say hello, have lunch and connect. This way, we’re not hearing from them when they need something.” And if they do need something? Mary Brown’s created a software extension on its corporate portal called “IdeaBox,” which allows franchisees to reach out with requirements, questions and good ideas. “They can post on there, and other franchisees can vote the idea up or down,” says Chahin. “It creates a needed dialogue.”
That communication is a notable differentiator in the super-saturated market of quick-service restaurants (QSR), perhaps more so than the new dipping sauces and spicy menu items rolled out by the Mary Brown’s family this past year. Despite being in a less competitive segment than pizza or burgers—which together comprise 70% of all Canadian QSR offerings—the chicken market is still rife with big-name rivals. But to Adam Brown of Deloitte, who helped coach Mary Brown’s to its Canada’s Best Managed Companies designation, the brand’s dyed-in-the-wool commitment to community is what sets it apart from Popeyes and the colonel—particularly as the company expands into foreign markets like Pakistan, Egypt and the U.K. “Going global is tough, and to some extent you need to tailor to new locations, but Mary Brown’s is really not going to compromise service at the store level,” says Brown. “This brand is focused on consistency, training and setting franchisees up for success. There really aren’t any food retailers pulling all those levers simultaneously.”
Despite the brand’s macro aspirations, its real success may come at a surprisingly micro level. According to Roberts, it’s not uncommon for Mary Brown’s franchisees to collect donations for their local food shelters (which are matched by head office), or host a store fundraiser for a local child in need of an expensive surgery. “Newfoundland hospitality is about actually getting involved—not writing a cheque for a local sports team and bringing in PR,” Roberts says. “Number one, it’s the right thing to do, and number two, then people know these are business owners who care. We’re in the trust business, really.”