By S.A. Whitehead
Oct. 13, 2020
The pandemic has made the notion of meeting customers where they are a business imperative. One Alabama-based former store- and cart-based brand exemplifies how savvy QSR leaders are making mobilized operations happen.
If restaurants had an anthem for this year of the pandemic, it might be something like, "Go mobile or go home." And if they wanted a "poster child" for that whole idea, they might be well represented by the Mobile, Alabama-based Frios Gourmet Pops.
After all, in this year when taking most things off-premise has been the route to overall foodservice brand viability, this gourmet popsicle producer has modified its whole business strategy from primarily store and cart-based to almost totally mobile, all within a few months, according to Frios CEO Cliff Kennedy.
Kennedy spoke recently with QSRweb about the state of the brand and the success it is seeing now that it has quite literally taken its show on the road, via a fleet of wild and hard-to-ignore tie-dyed refrigerated vans. This — with a company that up until COVID-19's unwelcome entry into the national landscape — had been a brick-and-mortar store and pushcart-based system.
The 38-franchisee chain has signed four new operators in recent few weeks, which Kennedy said was due to the success of the company's van-based franchisees being able to take their popsicles to customers.
Nationally, Frios franchisees are doing just that as far west as Mesa, Arizona and eastward to Hilton Head, South Carolina, along with a huge presence in Texas and Alabama, Kennedy said.
"We sell happiness and we really don't focus a lot on the product, but we focus on what the product makes you feel," Kennedy said. "And so when you see our van — which is completely wrapped in tie-dye with LED lights and a great sound system and the good music coming out — it's just fun.
"For anyone who is looking to control their own destiny and become the entrepreneur, I really believe our system is set up for them because it has very low cost of entry and now with this mobile system we really set them up for success."
Simplicity is key to making Frios work for even entry-level franchisees. All products are packaged, sealed and shipped in bulk with dry ice to franchisees, who simply load them into the vans' freezers to dispense without ever handling any of the food directly. Because the machinery involved is also limited to an in-van generator-powered freezer, clean-up is relatively straightforward and also simple.
"All (franchisees) really have to do is hand the customer their popsicle. and that's it," Kennedy said. "It's a very clean, simple transaction for them."
While the process remains simple, the flavors of these gourmet pops are often amalgamations of great flavors, like the S'mores pop with bits of chocolate, graham cracker and marshmallow, as well as special event flavors like the orange-and-black Spooky Cookies and Cream or the cream-colored, cake piece-strewn Wedding Cake pops.
And since the vans take the pops to the customers, the possibilities for success are only limited to the popularity of the places the van parks or circulates because, well, regardless of age, customers are pretty darn receptive to trying Frios pops.
And yes, Kennedy said the vans do circulate in neighborhoods like the old ice cream trucks, but they also go to sports venues, office parks, hospitals, community events, school campuses and lately, Kennedy said, a lot of car dealerships.
"You know, (the franchisee) might kill an hour at one dealership and sell 20 or 30 pops, then go to the next dealership and do the same thing," Kennedy said. "But if you go to an office complex, a (supervisor or company leader) might say, 'I want to treat all my employees to a popsicle for lunch today.' So they walk outside, you're parked there and they just congregate."
That's the point when customers — including at one time, Kennedy, himself — most often fall a little bit in love. For Kennedy, it was his first taste of a Key Lime pop that sold him on buying the company. But everyday passing popsicle-eaters seem to get almost religious after trying a flavor.
Just listen, for instance, to the short piece of exclamatory prose, one 20-something gal we offered a chocolate-peanut butter pop to, offered back to us in return.
"I'm really elitist when it comes to popsicles because they're either too watered-down or one-note, but with this at first I was like 'Hmm, the chocolate's good but I'm not getting any peanut butter,'" said Madison Bishop, who — in the interest of full disclosure — also happens to be this reporter's kid.
"Then I bit into the center and I became like the jaded old Kung Fu master facing a younger, newer opponent and like, 'Oh-ho! What a surprise! You, too, follow the ways of peanut butter and chocolate.' Except instead of being defeated, I just wanted another one. So yes, that popsicle just made me write a mini-script. It was good. Sue me. You can quote me on that."
Kennedy wasn't surprised at that over-the-top review. He hears similar accolades from everyone from toddlers to those in their eighties and nineties. In fact, he said the oldest customers seemed to be the ones who are most tickled by the treats.
For instance, he said, one 90-plus-year-old woman, who at came out to claim a pop as one franchisee's van rolled past her door, told the operator that the experience made her feel like she was "a little girl again."
Franchisees make Frios go 'round
For Kennedy, the franchisee is and has been central to everything he has done since he purchased the company from its founder a couple of years back. In fact, he's spent that time upgrading all communications systems and support resources for franchisees.
He's added tools like Slack for constant contact with franchisees, and an online portal for training video distribution, which gained a new level of criticality with the many new COVID-19 operational mandates on all food-related businesses.
"You know, my idea of success might not be theirs, and so I help them find their way to be successful in their own right," Kennedy said. "So I think if you talk to any franchisee … the company's been transformed from where it was, to where it is now.
"Are we perfect? No. But we're putting 100% into everything we do to make this company very, very successful and grow."
Kennedy firmly believes the path forward for the brand is paved with bricks of golden popsicles. By the end of the year, he said he expects to have 50 franchisees total and then hopes to just keeping adding new partners from there.
And lest you thought the winter months might tame all this forward momentum for a popsicle brand, Kennedy said he thinks this year they've got all the elements in place to make popsicles work even when it's cold outside.
"Definitely winter changes everything," he said. "But before there have been no systems in place or no sales strategy, like last year. … Now everything is really, really focused and we've put strategies in place … so I think this winter will be much better than last winter. Even though there will be a pull-back obviously from peak season, I fully believe that we will have a much better winter."
Frios-forward: Making 300 happen
In two years, Kennedy expects to have more than 200 franchisees on board but said he's still going to shoot for 300, because he "likes to set lofty goals." And since the company recently moved its warehouse to a more conducive area for distribution in Mobile, Alabama (from Gadsen), some of the shipping logistics have eased.
Meanwhile the innovating continues, like a recent LTO called Drumstick with a chocolate and peanut coating and bits of waffle cone and caramel in the pops themselves. Many others are in the offing, he said.
And as for Kennedy himself, his favorite flavor has moved from Key Lime to a caffeinated pop called Cold Brew. Somehow that seems completely appropriate for the guy planning on quintupling his number of franchisees in two years' time.
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