How Soul Origin just keeps growing

By Sarah Stowe | 08 Sep 2017 View comments

Inside Franchise Business: healthy fast food franchise Soul Origin has grown swiftly across AustraliaWhat does it take for a fledgling business to substantially boost its profile and become a 77-strong network of healthy fast food outlets in just four years? Soul Origin’s Chris Mavris shares the secrets.

“None of us is corporate,” says CEO Chris Mavris of the team that’s running the fast-growing Soul Origin chain. “We’re retailers, we’re very agile and you can’t teach that background.”

Mavris joined the business when there were just three stores. Previously general manager he has recently taken on the CEO role while former Boost Juice general manager Adam Neill steps into the GM position.

The head office team and owners have all got years of experience in food retail to draw on.

And the group has snared Eagle Boys Pizza founder Tom Potter as a strategic advisor. He’s been involved for eight months, leading an advisory board and bringing big business discipline to what Mavris believes is a still agile brand.

So what exactly is the brand’s offer? Fast food? Healthy fast food? “It’s not healthy, it’s mindful. It’s a fresh food offer you can eat every day.”

Mavris believes the brand offers something different in the marketplace, bringing a fresh approach to the way a quick service restaurant operates, installing long, low counters with plenty of staff to serve customers simultaneously, for starters.

“We see ourselves as a leader. We took away the menu boards, brought back human engagement, customers can see what they’re getting. I think we’re an ‘eye’ brand, we eat with our eyes,” he says. “With us you know what you’re getting because it’s right in front of you.”

The business started out in 2011 and traded for three years before embracing the franchise model. The key to getting the business model right was running an outlet for 18 months from a site that wasn’t top notch – giving the owners the confidence that the sandwich, salad and coffee offer could translate successfully to other locations.

When it did launch into franchising, the business made its mark quickly: in 2015 and 2016 named finalist for the Emerging Franchisor of the Year category in the Franchise Council of Australia’s Excellence in Franchising awards.

“We want the best. We have a passion, we know what it takes to get it done.  Our goal was to produce the best coffee in any food court in Australia.”

And the Australian public is loving it. Brand awareness is growing. “People know who we are,” says Mavris. Today there are Soul Origin stores across New South Wales, the ACT, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia.

By the end of the financial year 2018 the brand expects to have 110 outlets across Australia. The first store in Darwin is set to open in March.

Domestic growth is focused on Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia but the vision for the business extends to overseas expansion.

“It will take 18 months of planning for the business to be ready for overseas expansion.” There are challenges that need to be addressed before the brand can open in other countries; the central kitchen model in particular needs to be rethought.

Even while the business has been focused on growth, there’s been a move to ensure the model is delivering what’s needed in a growing and changing network.

Mavris explains. “We’ve gone from a medium-sized business running like a small business, to a medium business running as a medium to large business. We’ve had a full restructure of the support centre with all the key pillars, property division, kitchen division, retail division, marketing division, training and store openings, with HR, finances and IT.”

Vertical integration has been an important element of the network’s growth. The kitchen is the profit centre – costs are kept low so more funds are available to grow the business and franchisees benefit from the production kitchen.

“We are not held to ransom by suppliers,” says Mavris. “We wanted to have an exclusive product for us and we wanted to source the best quality ingredients at the best price, to give customers restaurant-quality food in a QSR environment.”

The franchisor is focused on ensuring a profitable franchisees and providing a good level of franchise support. So how has Soul Origin managed to maintain support for franchisees as it has opened so many outlets so quickly?

Mavris says the focus and philosophy has not changed, just expanded with new team members recruited to sustain the brand’s levels of support.

“We have always focused on growth and development as an organisation,” he says.

“Early on we invested in significant systems and software. [The accounting system] MYOB has been rolled out to all stores, and all our information is on Office 365. We built infrastructure to grow.

“We used to have a lot of cross-pollination across the business – that’s just how we grew as a brand. We’ve stopped those inefficiencies in the business now and we’re giving people clear and precise resources and task to complete and creating efficiencies an organisation our size should have.

“We have had to more than double our retail support team in the past six months. Our philosophy at Soul Origin is always to provide the tools for franchise partners and field support team to succeed, as this is crucial and integral part of driving a culture of growth.”

The business has needed to find appropriate locations as it has grown its network. This appears not to have been a particular problem for the group, despite the high costs of prime sites.

“We’ve been fortunate that our stores had been able to generate a higher average sale than many average brands in the same space we play in, which has allowed us to pay some of the rents that landlords have been asking for,” explains Mavris.

While the brand is predominantly a lunchtime offer, the addition of catering for events such as kids parties is boosting the revenue streams for franchisees.

Each agreement is aligned with a seven year lease so no franchisees have yet gone through a renewal process but says Mavris, “We’ll only ever sign a deal where we believe the business model will work.

“We’re pretty open as a brand. Let’s do what we’re doing, do it really well, and ensure franchisee profitablility.”