Unhappy meals 

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Assistant Manager Karen Goforth and “meal-preparation goddess” Jamie Adams assemble six servings of Beefy Campfire Packets at the Super Suppers Stone Oak store. 
Molly Ross (not her real name) is a perky young Texan with a gift for gab. She opened a Super Suppers franchise a year-and-a-half ago in a bustling urban neighborhood. Pretty and petite with a warm smile, she is a born hostess with the ability to put people at ease. Optimistic by nature, she envisioned making her living socializing with young mothers while providing them a much-needed commodity: quick, wholesome meals that would bring families back together around the dinner table. Thirteen months into her new venture, however, she was angry, exhausted, and ready to sell.

Super Suppers is the brainchild of Judie Byrd, who founded the company with her husband, Bill. “Today’s mom,” Judie Byrd explains, “doesn’t know how to go to the pantry and come up with dinner.” In 2002, Byrd began offering specially designed classes at the Culinary School of Ft. Worth, a small school she had started in her home kitchen some 18 years earlier. The classes focused on pre-made meals: Students prepared entrees and casseroles in freezer-safe containers to take home and tuck away, ready to heat and serve at a future date. As the classes grew in popularity, Byrd responded to students’ requests for less shopping, less chopping, and more straight-up meal assembly. In 2003, Super Suppers was born.

Byrd created a salad-bar-style assembly line wherein customers can put together take-home meals while enjoying a glass of wine with other busy parents and professionals. Byrd says her combination of convenience and familiar recipes can help families reconnect around the dinner table for about $3 per serving. “A large part of Super Suppers is all about the family,” Byrd explained in a phone interview. Byrd is warm and grandmotherly, and even over the phone sounds genuinely enthusiastic about her business and supporting moms in general.

To get Super Suppers up and running, Judie turned to Bill, her husband of 40 years, for guidance. “I never claimed to be a businesswoman,” she explains. “Bill has a heart for the young person who wants to be in business for himself.” Perhaps he developed that heart during his years of struggling with small businesses of his own, without formal training. Bill Byrd has plenty of entrepreneurial spirit: Over the years, he has owned a TV-repair shop, a sandwich counter at the local mall, and a Baskin Robbins franchise. He eventually tasted success with his Sweet Shop Fudge Love Chocolate Factory in Fort Worth, where his staff made confections for department stores and other distributors. He has chronicled his life in the business world in his memoir Sweet Success, which is required reading for all Super Suppers franchisees.

Super Suppers is Bill’s largest venture by far. To develop a business model, he partnered with Sam Hance, the driving force behind the Curves fitness centers boom, and the two quickly developed a plan for growing Super Suppers into a nationwide franchise.

A Super Suppers franchise will set you back $35,000. That, plus about $150,000 in additional expenses, such as the Super Suppers “Décor Package,” to warm up the appearance of a roomful of industrial-kitchen-type stainless steel, and a four-day trip to Super Suppers headquarters in Fort Worth, will get you ready for opening day.

In 2004, Super Suppers sold four franchises. By the end of 2005, that number had skyrocketed to almost 200, making Super Suppers the all-time champ for number of franchises sold in a single year. With the number projected to jump to 350 by the end of 2006, according to Entrepreneur.com, Super Suppers is now the largest chain in the hot new “Meal-Assembly Center” segment of the food-service industry. By way of comparison, boutique franchise Krispy Kreme Donuts had a total of 400 franchises at the peak of its popularity in 2003.

Ross’s store was one of the very first to open. What she and her husband lacked in business experience — neither of them had ever owned a business — they felt they would more than make up for in enthusiasm. They paid the franchise fee, scouted a storefront, and after four months of legwork, opened the store, which they began to refer to as their “baby.”

As with all restaurants, from the beginning it was hard work. Although the Super Suppers’ business model calls for five employees in addition to the owner, Ross and her husband could not afford to hire any staff. Soon, Ross was working upwards of 100 hours a week, chopping giant bags of vegetables and pre-portioning frozen meats during the day for Super Suppers’ monthly menu choices, and playing hostess to clients in the afternoons and evenings. Most months, Ross’s Super Suppers was barely breaking even.

The corporate office makes no promises about how much a franchise will earn in a month, and Ross saw large fluctuations in earnings as seasons changed and holidays came and went. She became frustrated that no one at Super Suppers headquarters could or would provide guidance for the many challenges, such as the dry spells. At the time, the concept was barely more than a year old, and Ross felt that the company was “going through stuff at the same time we were.”
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Assistant Manager Karen Goforth checks the stock of prepackaged entrees in the store's grab-n-go freezer recently at the Super Suppers Stone Oak area store.
Just when Ross saw a light at the end of the tunnel — she had saved the extra cash to hire a couple of part-time employees and purchase some pre-chopped veggies and meats — one of her customers decided to open a Super Suppers a little more than 4 miles up the road. Ross says that she and the new franchise owner had a “handshake agreement” not to lure customers away from each other, but she says her new competitor failed to hold up that end of the bargain. She recalls that, “It was a slap in the face.” Approached for comment, Ross’s competitor denied this conversation ever took place. Indeed, she denies ever having known Ross in the first place.

And that was just the beginning of Ross’s troubles. It seemed like her email account logged a new message almost every day, welcoming another Super Suppers franchisee to her region of the state while she was still struggling to attract new business. With neither the money nor the energy to advertise locally, she again turned to Super Suppers corporate headquarters for help.

Ross says she was assured that the monthly one-percent marketing fee she tithed to the parent company would soon pay off with a national commercial. Also, she says, an “informal” promise was made by the Byrds that no more franchises would be sold in Texas. In Molly’s estimation, it was too little too late.

In response to her request for advertising help, Molly received promotional postcards to mail to potential customers in her neighborhood. All she would have to do is find money in her budget for postage for the hundreds of cards. As for the competition, Ross knew already there were dozens of franchise owners in Texas that had not, as yet, opened their doors. Even if no more new Texas franchises were sold, she would still see many new locations pop up in the near future. Not to mention the “other guys” — Dream Dinners and Dinners Ready!, among others, were beginning to make multiple appearances around town. Unlike franchises that can thrive in heavily saturated markets (Starbucks, McDonald’s), a meal-assembly center needs a large number of households in any given territory to be successful. According to Bill Byrd, it takes 500-700 households to support a Super Suppers, but he concedes the divvying up of territories is “not an exact science.”

Her health and marriage suffering, Ross decided that even though she still believed in the Super Suppers concept, the best move for her would be to sell her location and cut her losses.

While many Super Suppers franchisees are optimistic about the future of their businesses, others have experienced the same problems Ross did at one time or another. Dominic Locasto is the co-owner, along with his wife, sister, and brother-in-law, of two San Antonio-area Super Suppers — one in Huebner Commons and another soon to open in Alamo Heights. Locasto explains that he has been “in businesses” for more than 20 years and is adamant that this is the “best franchise opportunity” he has seen. Despite an initial hiccup caused by opening at the same time as another, separately owned, San Antonio Super Suppers, Locasto has so far been pleased with his experience. He sees room for improvement in local marketing, however.

Super Suppers has been featured on several news programs at the national level; recently a segment with Diane Sawyer aired on ABC’s Good Morning America. Often, though, Super Suppers shares the spotlight with other meal-assembly chains, and this nationwide attention is no substitute for local advertising. Locasto and his family members have advertised on a local radio station at their own cost, but declined to comment on exactly how much they spent. Says Locasto, “Do I wish `Super Suppers corporate` would do more locally? Yes.”

Christine Cassen, owner of a Dallas-area franchise, spent four days recently at a trade show promoting her Super Suppers. The cost for her booth was about $600. She and her fiancé, both employees of a local TV station, compiled news clips and purchased pre-made commercials for a fee from corporate headquarters to create a video to display at her booth. She served free samples of one of that month’s menu items in paper cups out of a slow-cooker to shoppers as they passed by. Cassen’s booth, wedged between homemade baby clothes and a personal trainer, also displayed kitchen-décor items and soup mixes from a popular direct-sales company that Cassen sells on the side. In her white chef’s coat, she smiled her way through many explanations of her business to potential customers. “It’s all about getting people in the door,” she says. Many of the passersby commented positively on the food, but only a small percentage live in her store’s territory. Most who showed interested remarked that they planned to visit the Super Suppers in their own part of town.

Brenda Connor and Amy Hawkins, former stay-at-home moms, have had success with their Super Suppers in the Stone Oak area of San Antonio. They say that their first month in operation, December 2005, was spent primarily educating members of the surrounding community about their business and the concept of meal-assembly in general. After clearing that hurdle, however, business quickly grew over the next four months, to almost triple its original volume. They now employ a part-time staff of 15, many of whom are also young mothers. “Super Suppers is like a member of our family,” says Connor.

Connor and Hawkins are typical Super Suppers’ franchise owners — not your usual “business-investor” types. Among franchisees you will find stay-at-home moms, husband-and-wife teams, or friends from local churches.

According to Scott Letier, CPA and CFO of Red River Ventures, a Dallas-based investment firm, the Super Suppers $35,000 franchise fee and $150,000 in additional expenses is a relatively low cost of entry. “Most well-established franchisers require a higher minimum net worth for the potential franchisee to gain entrance,” Letier explains. “With the cost of entry being not nearly as high as a lot of other food franchises, they will likely attract those franchisees that do not have as much experience or capital.

“In this case,” Letier adds, “it sounds like there are less-experienced business people getting involved in Super Suppers, and if they lack the experience and the wherewithal, many may not be able to see it through.”

“He’s probably more right than wrong,” says Bill Byrd. “I wish I could say exactly, but we’re just too new at it.”

For example, a less-experienced franchise owner wouldn’t know that regional and national advertising in a franchise-based business plan is usually rolled out well after a significant number of stores have been opened. “They usually try to pack a lot of franchise locations into an area before advertising so that they get some value,” says Letier. Bill Byrd says Super Suppers will begin advertising nationally at “around 1,000 franchises.” By this projection, franchisees have a long wait ahead of them. For the time being, Byrd says, “A lot of our `marketing` is to go in and talk to moms’ groups, PTAs, and church groups and tell them the story about Super Suppers.”

Ross’s business still struggles, months after our initial interview, and the search for a buyer for her franchise has been fruitless. After seven months and six potential buyers, her patience is running out. In the meantime, frustrated with a lack of corporate support, she took it upon herself to redesign her business — changing meal options and taking walk-ins as well as scheduled appointments — in order to compensate for a drop in business. Accepting walk-ins has helped she says, and she hopes foot traffic will continue to increase with the end of the summer as kids head back to school and car-pooling and extracurricular activities take a greater toll on parents’ time. A look at Super Suppers locations around the state shows that many owners have followed Ross’s model, cutting back hours or closing altogether until September.

Ross says that the experience has taught her that “you have to be financially stable or have a nest egg to back you up” when you own a Super Suppers. She also feels that the new owner must be realistic about the workload. Many of those interested in buying her business thought of it as a “hobby,” she says, and she couldn’t, in good conscience, sell to them under that misconception. “We need someone who is a better businessperson to take this business and help it grow.”

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Fast Food, Any Way You Slice It

Supersuppers.com displays pictures of gorgeous, mouthwatering food. Each monthly menu lists dishes with creative titles and flavor influences from around the world (Olde English Shepherd’s Pie, Ravioli Olé!). The reality, however, is somewhat less appetizing. After all, when recipes are developed to please everyone in any given family, the result is that they often please none.

Super Suppers food is delivered to individual franchises from Sysco Foods, based on exact ingredients needed for recipes created at the company’s headquarters. Franchise owners rarely, if ever, supplement these deliveries with ingredients from other sources, such as grocery or specialty stores. Several local franchisees interviewed, however, described the food as “low-fat,” “trans-fat free,” free of “additives and preservatives,” or some combination of these. Really? Well … kind of.

Four random ingredients were examined: stuffed pasta shells, diced chicken, frozen tilapia filets, and “chicken sauce.”

The stuffed shells are made by a company called Windsor Foods. The ingredient list contains the usual things you would use at home — ricotta, part-skim mozzarella, and Parmesan cheese — plus added water, salt, dried egg whites, dehydrated parsley, and folic acid. While not entirely offensive nutritionally, they do contain significant amounts of saturated fat and sodium.

The “.5 Diced White Chicken” is Sysco’s own “Sysco Classic” brand. While the customer-service department at Sysco’s headquarters assured me that the product was “light in color” and had “great holding time,” they also informed me that “no item nutrition information exists” on this particular product.

Similarly, no nutritional information was available for the frozen tilapia distributed through Sysco by Dalian New Haiyang Foods Co. Ltd. of China, and emails to the company came back as “undeliverable.”

The “chicken sauce” used in the Chicken Enchiladas was good ol’ Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup. This staple of ’50s and ’60s cookery is well-known for high fat and salt content.

Of franchisees’ claims about Super Suppers food, founder Judie Byrd says, “That makes me think I need to send out a message from corporate, saying we don’t claim that. I don’t claim any of that at this point.”

Super Suppers cuisine will suit you just fine if you approach it expecting no more than exactly what it can deliver: quickly assembled, thaw-and-heat combinations of various prepared foods.

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