A stable economy and a population that enjoys food have combined to make central Ohio a popular place for franchised restaurants looking for areas in which to expand.

January 23, 2014

A stable economy and a population that enjoys food have combined to make central Ohio a popular place for franchised restaurants looking for areas in which to expand.

From Medina-based Romeo's Pizza to Moe's Southwest Grill in Atlanta, out-of-town franchising companies are opening a growing number of locations in central Ohio.

"Columbus is a great market for food," said Barney Greenbaum, who advises potential franchisees in all types of businesses as owner of the local Ohio FranNet franchise. "Columbus has got a good, solid base of people. It doesn't have the (economic) ups and downs some other communities home."

Nationwide, quick-service restaurants, such as Romeo's and Moe's, represent the largest group of franchised businesses, according to the International Franchise Association.

Fast-food, fast-casual and limited-service restaurants had 155,571 locations in 2013, up 1.4 percent from the year before. They also employed 3.2 million people (up 2.4 percent from 2012) and had $220.1 billion in gross sales (up from 5.2 percent), the association said.

In Ohio, 1,344 product-distribution franchises, which included franchised restaurants, accounted for 52,900 jobs, a payroll of $2.2 billion and gross sales of $5.1 billion in 2007, the last time the association did state surveys.

That year, the Columbus area represented the largest concentration of product-distribution franchises in the state, with 206 establishments, 77,800 jobs and $1.2 billion in sales, the association said.

Franchises are appealing because they tend to succeed more often than independent businesses.

"My success rate is 50 to 60 percent," Greenbaum said about the franchisees he leads through the process of finding and buying the right franchises. "Opening a business from scratch is 10 percent."

However, buying a franchise isn't for everyone. A proven restaurant system and equipment can cost upward of $400,000. Franchise owners also pay for ongoing support with monthly royalties, and sometimes, additional advertising fees.

Andrew Sturgill, who grew up in the Columbus-area pizza industry, was drawn to Romeo's Pizza after meeting its CEO at an industry convention.

"You're not buying a pizza restaurant, you're buying the recipes and the procedures to manage the restaurant," said Sturgill, who owns or co-owns three Romeo's restaurants in Hilliard, Gahanna and Grandview Heights. His business partner owns a fourth Romeo's on Hard Road.

The chain's menu includes pizza, wings, sandwiches and salads.

One of nine Romeo's in the Columbus area, Sturgill's Hilliard restaurant is the highest-volume store among the chain's 34 all-Ohio units. He and his business partner, who employ between 60 and 80 people at four stores, are looking at opening another location in the next three months, Sturgill said.

"We see at least another 10, and probably as many as 15, more (stores) in the Columbus area," said Rob Gligora, Romeo's executive vice president of franchise development.

Mary Osborne likes the consistent operations at Moe's Southwest Grill, which has four Columbus-area locations and offers burritos, quesadillas, salads and other items.

"No one makes up their own rules," said Osborne, who is catering and market director for the local Moe's. "All the employees follow the corporate standards."

Moe's entered the Columbus market with a W. Lane Avenue store in March and has added stores on N. High Street and Bethel Road, and in Dublin.

The local franchisee, Clif Bullard, agreed to open 14 Moe's locations, and is expected to open a fifth Columbus store on E. Broad Street this spring, Osborne said. "We'll probably have at least 10 stores by the end of the year," she said.

Zoup, which sells a dozen freshly made soups each day along with sandwiches and salads, is looking for the right franchisees in the Columbus area.

"It's really important to be successful in our business that you have experience managing people and that you love working with people," said Richard Simtob, president and co-owner.

Two Zoup franchisees own stores in Huntington Center in Downtown and Polaris, and both are looking for second locations, he said.

And he's looking for more franchisees, Simtob said. The Southfield, Mich.-based company operates solely in the northern half of the nation "where there's snow."

Zoup likely will end up with 10 Columbus-area locations, he said.

Another pizza franchise, zpizza, chose to grow in the Columbus area by hiring its first and only master franchisee, who will open his own stores here and help other franchisees open theirs, said CEO Chris Bright.

"Originally, my goal was to open Subways, but there are just too many of them," said Steve Curtis, the master franchisee locally who is a former franchise developer for the sub and salad chain. "I wanted to find something smaller that I could grow with."

Founded in California nearly 30 years ago by a restaurateur with a passion for healthful food, zpizza is known for its organic wheat crust and "good-for-you" toppings, Bright said.

Curtis opened his first zpizza in the Short North in October 2008, which was the beginning of the great recession. "It was about the worst-possible time we could have opened," he said. "It was a little lean for the first year."

Curtis opened his second zpizza in Clintonville in 2011 and hopes to open a third location soon.

"My advice to other franchisees would be to do your research," Curtis said. "Talk to the people you're going to be dealing with on a daily basis. Make sure (the franchise) is a right fit for you."