Под катом много чернового материалу, который писала в запале по-английски, поэтому прошу всяческих извинений у русскоязычных и не владеющих. Речь пойдет о специфичном и все еще больном, хотя уже и не в острой фазе. Я о своих франчайзинговых приключениях, кто в курсе. Решила бесстрашно выложить, опять неизвестно в какой связи, просто у меня "разброд и шатания", а отчего - и не знаю. Некоторые из вас это уже читали в частном порядке - там немножко дописано, а вообще мнения и критика, а также всяческие идеи горячо приветствуются. Или ну его совсем, этот сабвей?
Subway to Heaven, Subway to Hell!
Every second marriage ends in divorce. Every second business goes bankrupt.
(The statistics is not very accurate but you get the idea.)
People still insist on getting married and opening businesses.
We are looking at the bright side here, aren´t we?
If any of the readers decides to invest in a certain franchise business that sells sandwiches all around the world and FAILS to go bankrupt - despite closely following the instructions laid out in the book - I am so NOT responsible!
So, you have put some money aside and want to get rid of it as fast as possible? You have an uneventful life and are bored to tears sitting at home taking care of your fussy baby/angry husband/stupid dog? You want adventure, crave spontaneity and are a big fan of healthy fast food, excuse my oxymoron? This book is for you then!
After reading it you will learn: how to successfully run a self-destroying franchise business in Germany, how to discover your entrepreneural spirit and stuff it back to where it came from, how to sabotage and eventually ruin your love and family life, should you have any, and many other interesting and exciting things. Just follow me there!
Part One. “In the Beginning was the Word…”
And Development Agents already existed. Yes, in Germany, too. They lurk around sandwich shops and lure sandwich lovers into their nets. They leave hundreds of lovely glossy leaflets and brochures, full of happy faces of the happy sandwich shop owners who happily sell sandwiches and enjoy their independent incomes and happy uncomplicated lives.
And so you chew your sandwich and dreamily read through the happy statements of all those happy franchisees and suddenly it dons on you that you should phone and “just ask”. From this point on, you are trapped. You just don’t know it yet.
Well, now, you have probably worked hard all your life and saved some local currency or, perhaps, your grand uncle has just died and left you a comfortable little sum, or, maybe, your parents have showered you in parental love and some green paper. Who knows. Anyway, you are not rich enough to think “McDonalds” or “Swiss banks” or “offshore” but want to have a steady little income, something to do with your time and the freedom to take a week´s holiday anytime you fancy it. Yes, yes, look at all these people, that´s exactly what you need, you think excitedly, folding the leaflet into your pocket and leaving the shop with a dreamy smile on your face.
And so you do it, the first phone call. Or maybe an email, if you are like me and cant stand phones. And soon you have a very polite reply and a warm invitation to come and join other potential franchisees in an “educational workshop”. Lucky you.
One wonderful evening you drive to a small location lost in the outskirts of nowhere land or, maybe, to a huge conference room in a five- star hotel, depends on your luck and personal preferences of your particular DA. DA is a DA is a DA; in Germany there is no German equivalent to it, for the German language just cannot truly express all the subtleties of the words “Development” and “Agent”. Trust me on that, I am Russian.
A truly well-trained DA will, no doubt, absolutely charm you. He or she (it is mostly a “he” in my experience, but we are so politically correct here) will show you a Power Point presentation, hammer you on the head with incomprehensible statistics and totally inspire you with good press and glossy big photos. Which, as you later find out, will be hard to find anywhere outside of DA´s offices. You will be deeply impressed and totally committed by the end of the first talk. If not, you are not the sandwich franchise material and this book is definitely not for you. Drop it.
The group meeting will be soon followed by a one-on-one, long and very, VERY discreet conversation. You will be taken extremely seriously, they will talk to you as if you already belong, and worriedly tell you that, with all that growth, you should really hurry up with your decision, as the license fee will soon be increased and you do want to get it cheaper, don’t you?
Now, you have all those unimportant questions to ask, fire away, we are here to help you. So you have no experience in gastronomy? No worries, you certainly know how to put bread into a toaster, that will do. You never studied anything business and have problems with Math? Come on, there are calculators and we use really excellent software! You don’t have enough money to build a new shop? No problem, we have an agreement with a big bank, they are so big that they will give you a credit even if you have been on welfare since after high school. Or, even better, you can buy yourself an existing shop, cheap, the owner has a terminal illness/ had to follow his wife to Tobolsk/never cared about the business, whichever applies…eh, you do not speak German? or English? Kein Problem, as long as you can print your own name under the contract. Hey, we can say you are a born entrepreneur just looking at you, and anyway, why worry – you will get from us a whole TWO WEEK training course! At no expenses, apart from the travel costs and accommodation. And a cancellation fee, should you have diarrhea from all that excitement. And somebody will have to take care of everything else in your life during these two weeks, but that´s nothing, because very soon you will discover that from now on there is nothing else in your life, really.
And off you go, loaded with squeaky charm and information and from that point on things start unfolding really fast. You drop your regular job, if you happen to have any, and everything else that used to pre-occupy you before – children, spouses, domestic animals, stamp collecting, you name it. From now on you run around putting together all the documents the bank is asking for, inventing a business plan from scratch if you are greedy and using a business consultant if you are hopeful. You often eat sandwiches in many different shops, mentally making notes to improve this or that when you get your own. You start feverishly hunting for good locations, you google and doodle and pester all your relatives and friends with your innovative ideas in the realm of slow fast food, in short, you totally subwaytize yourself. Oops, I have just made a new word. Sorry, as I said - I am Russian.
Thing is, you are trapped. And if you want to succeed – you have to be filthy rich to start with, you have to love this business to the point of total self-sacrifice, you have to be extremely lucky with your location (but then, it is usually so with restaurants – location is all you need) and you have to be very very shrewd. Because if you play by the rules, you will sink. Possibly very deep. Possibly to the point of no return.
But that´s my pessimistic Russian soul, nothing else, you will do it all differently and you are a winner. This book is for losers like myself. I told you, drop it.
Location is everything. You`d better choose it well. You don’t know yet that it does not really matter, because wherever you are, there will be another just around the corner. If not now, then later. DAs are fair to everyone – they get commissions for every store opened under their generous wings. Healthy competition is encouraged. It does say so in very small print somewhere in the heap of the papers you need to sign on the spot. Everything you do, you do at your own risk – it just costs you more because “you pay for the well-known trade name and unique know-how”.
And that´s where the first trap lies. Because the trademark you have just bought is widely known only to the franchisees themselves and perhaps to their families who have to listen to all that gloating about your new business. Everybody knows McDonalds. Nobody knows the name of the “internationally renowned business” you have just opened down the street - if this street is not downtown Berlin. But you will discover this sad little fact much later – after you have tried just about everything to spread the word about your “famous” restaurant.
In the meantime you are happily negotiating a credit, writing your short and uncomplicated business plan, printing ads for your future happy little team and daydreaming in the free time you still have.
Part Two “How to Become a Franchisee in Two Weeks and Keep your Hopes High”
Let other people sweat the small stuff – who needs an MBA to run a successful business?
Management, book keeping, human resources, marketing, security issues and secrets of cooking can all be learnt in 2 weeks flat – and there will be time left for the unique hands on experience in one of our successfully run sandwich shops whose owners will embrace the opportunity to use free staff!
When I started writing this, I was broke, furious and only half-human. Everything was just too raw and hurt too much.
Besides, I am not a journalist with cold dispassionate eyes who observes and reports. I was in there, it´s like going to war (sorry to those who have been to war, is not a legitimate comparison, I know) and coming back and never wanting to talk about it.
But I guess I owe it to myself to share my experience with whoever is curious enough to read it. And if this helps at least one person not to make a wrong decision, then one year of my life was not completely wasted.
It took a bit of persuasion for me to start the whole thing. My husband will never in his life admit it, but I had no other choice then – my brain was overflown with hormones, my sense of loyalty happened to be pointed in a totally wrong direction, I spoke bad German but was too vain to admit I don’t understand half of what was said to me, in short – I do not know what I was thinking when I said “yes, I do”. I was never good at life-time committments.
Anyway, I made the wrong decision – and I am still digesting the consequences. This verbal diarrhea is an inevitable by-product.
So, that´s how it all started, in December 2008.
On the tombstone of my Subway restaurant is written “April 2009 – August 2010”. This baby had no chances, as I see it now.
I did a lot of research post-mortem factum. The kind of research I should have done much, much earlier but, as I said, I spoke little German. Everything – or almost everything – that I found about Subway at that time was in English – and it was totally positive. Or, at least, not frightening. And so I walked in, signed where I was told to sign, sat in the meetings with an intelligent face, nodding at the right places.
It was a very rosy picture, then. I would be an independent business woman, a smart and sophisticated restaurant owner. My job would be to spend a few hours at the restaurant office – do some paperwork, train my staff, check if everything runs smoothly and point out what else has to be done to my friendly, intelligent, hard-working and responsible staff. I would perhaps sell some sandwiches at leisure for pleasure, just for fun and to demonstrate my beloved team of Sandwich Artists how to improve their sandwich-making skills, to boost up the morale.
And I was supposed to be adored by the patrons for giving our rural German town the intercultural flair and a globalization touch. The people would flock to us for fresh and healthy fast food, great atmosphere and a piece of America I personally have never even seen. There would be happy families with children – we made a kids corner, “just like McDonalds only better”, with pedagogically correct toys. We installed an expensive coffee-maker, for those who complained about lack of tea and coffee in fast food chains. There would be elderly couples on Sundays and young lively crowd on Friday nights. There would be schoolkids and hungry motorists and local office people for lunch and it would be a busy place with good music and light and mega-friendly staff and clean toilets. Jawohl! We even put in an air-conditioner! That was an ultimate luxury and the customers would certainly appreciate the cool air inside the sun-lit store with a fantastic view over the German hills and a Mc Donalds across the street. In short – we would have the best-looking store, the most competent staff and the biggest profits.
Selber Schuld. Which can be loosely translated as “the heap of shit you are sitting in is of your own making”.
But let´s go back to the beginning. The spoken word and DA and all that crappy crap. That did indeed happen. I just need to look at a big stack of folders with the clippings and letters and whatnot, which I started collecting in a futile attempt to become a successful business woman.
I was vaguely aware that lots of money was at stake but it was a bit like Monopoly to me – nothing for real, just papers and talks and daydreaming big time in between nursing, feeding, and what else I was doing then, when my youngest was living through her first year. My head was a real mess then, and it has stayed slightly skewed ever since. Otherwise I would not be writing this.
In the summer of 2008 it started to look more and more serious. Talks turned into contracts, contracts led to paperwork, paperwork resulted in more talks. My memory refuses to serve me here, it starts blowing thick couds of fog all over the place – through the fog I see the neat and serious bankers, a totally charming and bubbly business consultant, a bulldog-looking DA, meetings-schmeetings, a thick Owner´s Manual delivered to the door - quick forward and I suddenly find myself in November 2008, the city of Cologne.
Those were the days. No, better: those were The Days. A small apartment was rented with huge difficulties somewhere in Cologne suburbs for my father (who had been summoned from Russia as the Ultimate Babysitter), my youngest daughter (who was at the time 15 months old and a breast milk junkie) and myself. I was supposed to take the (in)famous Two Weeks Training Course in the art of running a Subway store, complete with the apprenticeship and written exam at the end.
The HQ and Training center was at the time right in the heart of Cologne, Friesenplatz. It was hidden in an inconspicuous set of small offices, to get to which one had to go through a fancy department store. There was a Subway and a Starbucks near the place – and since we had to start very early in the morning, I chose Starbucks over Subway as my “home away from home”. Mostly because the Subway was close in early mornings. I did not ask myself why, I was not very good at logic then. So, I would go to Starbucks and have my breakfast there, then later I would have lunch there and I would have my rare moments of solitude there – because I am an interoverted nerd who finds it hard to socialize all day long. Exactly right for a restaurant owner.
Our group consisted of about 14 people, and some of them were already running a store, although, technically, they were not allowed to do so without the certificate. There were Germans, Iranians, one Armenian, one Swiss and one Russian there – me.
One of the Iranians and the Armenian were partners and came from Holland, and only the Iranian lad could speak and understand some German. They were both young and hopeful and inspired optimism and faith in the goodness of this world. I have no idea what happened to them afterwards, by the way. One of the Germans was an elderly guy with a big golden chain around the neck – the owner of a gas station at the highway. I saw him again at a Subway conference in 2009 – he was the only one who failed the exam in our group and the only one whose Subway was thriving. It probably still is thriving, considering the gas prices. The Swiss guy was nice, early-middle-aged and spoke funny Swiss German. He was the only one who did not yet have a location – one year later he still did not have it, he was at the Subway conference too, that´s why I know. There was another Iranian couple from somewhere in East Germany, a husband and wife, young and beautiful, especially the wife. Her job was to come once and charm the trainer into being nice to her husband. Anyway, she was not there most of the time – sleeping, shopping, enjoying Cologne. The life I would like to have. Then there were Germans. Real German Germans, young, not so young and eh, very not young, to avoid the word Old. A mom and a son, a sharp dark-looking wife of a retiree with experience in the restaurant business, an ambitious alternative-looking girl who could rattle the numbers on the calculator faster than the trainer could read them out, a non-descript young woman from somewhere in the North, from an island and experience in McDonalds, and another skinny individual with an entrepreneural spirit, hair gellied to the point of no return and the attitude of the first pupil on alphetamines.
And there was I. An enigmatic Russian (as I thought) who was afraid to say a word to anyone and felt like an impostor. I guess I came across as a stupid cow who could not put two words together and just played unapproachable. I also had a feeling the trainer was very surprised to see me passing the exam. But I did, with flying colours even.
So that was the setting and the background and how it all started, rather innocently. We came, we sat along a table strewn with cheap pens and big folders, we smiled at each other, introduced ourselves and the show began.
If I remember right, we were supposed to cover the theory and put in some hours in various Subway stores as trainees. That meant we were doing shifts as Sandwich bloody Artists at the times the store owners saw fit. An early and a late shift were a must.
The theory was ok. Although I never ever needed it afterwards for actually running the restaurant, as it often happens with theories. We were studying the so called Owners Manual, discussing the temperatures in the oven and other important things, like the prescribed thickness of salad leaves and dirty secrets of defrosting bread sticks. All very nice indeed. We were also learning seemingly practical things like how to do inventory and how to calculate who is stealing from you and what - based on the numbers in the weekly reports. I forgot what they were called, those weekly reports. My memory is playing games with me, again.
Then we were split into small groups and sent out to the shady world of Subway clients.
Apart from me our group consisted of the ambitious German boy (I still don’t know which drugs he was taking to be so vigorously active at all times of the day when we were barely dragging our tired asses around) and the Dutch partners – the Iranian spoke good English and the Armenian good Russian, so we forged a tiny alliance discussing all and everything in the languages the others could not understand. An additional fun factor. Our trainer and owner of that particular restaurant – along with three others – was a young Turk, who drove a BMW convertible, came to the store only to pick up the daily cash and generally presented an image of a mega cool Subway owner with not a single problem with his business. He did not take us seriously – a Russian (and a woman), an Armenian, an Iranian and a German – he was in a way nice to us, when he found the time to come to the store, but tended to show his sadistic side in front of the customers. “Eh, does not it get any SLOWER?!” – “Eh, lemme do it, the customer is waiting!” – “Eh, FASTER!!!!” – some people thrive on pressure. I do not.
When I look at a few photos of that time, I feel like I am looking at a complete stranger. Who is this pale woman in the green uniform with a worried look on her face? Why is she there? And what makes her think she can pull it through?
But all has its end, and so had the course. The final exam was full of serious questions, calculations and other totally useless things we would never ever need in our everyday restaurant management. It is great that you get to learn the basics of accountancy – the tiny glitch is, you will have to do your books the official German way and no one gives a shit about your deep knowledge of the American book keeping terminology. No DA and no trainer ever tells you that – you are free to find out on your own, when you get your official restaurant registration papers, tax number and heaps of letters from all sorts of agencies. And all of them want only one thing from you: money. Now. Before you even install your oven and cash machine. What did you think? It aint Kansas, Toto.
Part Three „Pre-Opening: everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask your DA”
My location was discovered by my restless husband, who obviously wanted to be parted from his money as soon as possible.
It was not a bad location.
It just was not a good location for this particular business.
Or for any business at all.
It was well visible from the busy crossing, where thousands of cars were going in four directions, there was a trendy boutique right next door, there was a good parking lot and a road for pedestrians and bikes, there were small factories, workshops and car dealers all around it and, last but not least, there was a McDonalds right across the road with the huge M visible from the motorway- which was supposed to be a magic magnet drawing partons to us. The brilliant idea was that poor hungry people come to McDonalds for a quick meal, see Subway and realize that what they really want is a “healthy” quick meal and – voila, all prospective McDonallds customers rush across the street to eat a sandwich.
I can´t wait to begin to tell you just HOW wrong this concept is.
As I discovered, when someone goes to McDonlads – Mc Donalds food is what they want. They don’t want healthy fast food, they want McDonalds fast food and even if McDonalds happens to be overfilled or plain closed, a Subway is NOT an alternative. They will just hop back into their cars and drive to a Turkish snackshop. Or a good old German bakery. Or else go home and cook.
Anyway – I did not know it yet and I was so full of hopes, rent negotiations and exciting trips here and there to get second hand special “Subway” furniture, that nothing could slow me down, even the obvious. My husband was busy, too – he had to chat with bankers, drink coffee with business consultants and find the right words for the big guy who claimed to be a builder and was sent to us by DA´s office.
The big guy did not talk to me on general principles. What can a woman understand about building sites? And he was perfectly right. I am a woman and I have no clue about building sites. I can´t even read a bluesheet. Moreover, I have no idea what a bluesheet is. So the big guy was perfectly right to address my husband about everything building, they agreed on a price and the dates and the process accelerated with every new signature on a billion documents I had to sign.
First, I had to go to the local city office and register myself and my restaurant as a new business in town, whereupon the tax office immediately sent several dozens of incomprehensible forms to fill. In German. Besides, they wanted to see my taxes paid in advance, on the profit that I did not even begin to make but had to immediately declare.
Second, as soon as I was officially registered, all possible sorts of institutions and organizations showered me in love and affection. They wanted me to pay this, that and the other: garbage collection, fire department, pest control, trade unions, insurance companies, wholesalers, the radio and TV control guys, sanitary inspection and on and on and on. Practically all of them wanted money in different forms and for different causes, although the restaurant did not even begin to function yet. Nevertheless, I already had deadlines and account information of various agencies that demanded chunks of my non-existing profits and threatened to start legal processes against me if I delay to answer.
Third, at that point I urgently needed a team of adequate employers who would agree to work for a minimum hourly wage in erratic hours under the guidance of complete amateurs. So my HR department opened its doors to a stream of losers.
I should have stopped right then.
But I did not. With optimism of a perfect idiot I went on hiring my staff and running around organizing this and that and a million other things: deliveries, leasing, credits and licence agreements, cleaning, carrying, wiping, sorting, faxing, filling things in and out and nursing my youngest in lucid moments, mostly at nights. What was happening to my other family members I can not remember now.