Business View goes back to school with Pita Pit co-founder, Nelson Lang
In 1995, offering college kids a healthy alternative to traditional high-fat, high-carb, high-calorie fast food was a bold move. So, when Nelson Lang and John Sotiriadis opened their first Pita Pit near Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, they knew the risk. But the vision paid off. Their signature-style pita sandwiches loaded with fresh veggies, grilled meats and tangy sauces won the loyalty of faculty and students, alike.
Within two years, franchise stores were opening across Canada. Two years later, Pita Pit expanded to the US market, tempting not just college kids but consumers of all ages. Co-founder Lang recalls, “When we opened the first Pita Pit on July 20, 1995, I was dating my girlfriend (who’s now my wife and mother to our four little girls). I bragged to her that in the next ten years we would open ten stores. Well, in seven years, my business partner, John, and I opened 200 stores!”
The enormous success of the Pita Pit franchise is built on smart moves that entrepreneurs and owners in any number of businesses would be wise to adopt.
Smart move #1: Be flexible. With a buyer base anchored by hungry students on a skinny budget, catering to the late-night crowd made fiscal sense. Keeping the store open well past midnight increased sales volume and earned positive brand awareness on campus and beyond. Flexibility sealed the success of that first Pita Pit location and hundreds more to come.
Smart Move #2: Strategy – revise & conquer. As the brand matured, people were making comments like, “Why don’t you have a Pita Pit in Chicago? I remember it from college.” That kind of sentiment rocketed Lang into high gear. Drawing from his own college experience, he knew that enormous growth was possible with a revised strategy. Former students now had families of their own, so changing to a community-centric focus was the order of the day.
Smart Move #3: It’s OK to say “No.” With only 20 corporate-run locations, franchise stores are the heart and soul of the Pita Pit realm. Though, not everyone who wants in is a good fit, 80-85% of applicants are turned down. “Owning a franchise means hard, long hours,” says Lang, “it’s your biz, your baby, and you have to be prepared to give it your all.” Potential franchisees attend Discovery Day where they meet the corporate team for a two-way interview. Personality is a big factor. “We call it ‘the BBQ test’ – as in, would you invite this person to your BBQ?”
Smart Move #4: Prioritize training. To do a job well, knowing the basics – and then some – is key to feeling comfortable and confident in your role. New Pita Pit franchisees take an extensive 12-day course at the National Training Center in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, split between the classroom and live time in a restaurant. The program, run by experienced, long-time owners, covers essential topics for operating and maintaining a franchise to corporate standards.
Smart Move #5: Reality check. Lang stresses the simple, stark realities of business to new franchise owners. “Honest effort equals honest return. Pay attention to customer service. Know your food and labour costs, chase every nickel. Be there when it’s busy; hands-on owners who work full time in the store do better than those who depend on hired staff. Take Sundays off, family time matters.”