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Why Mici Handcrafted Italian decided to franchise at 6 units

The chain’s chief growth officer sits down with Nation’s Restaurant News to discuss its plans for growth

Last month, Mici Handcrafted Italian, a six-unit chain based in Denver, announced it had signed its first franchise deal in Phoenix and hired a new chief growth officer, Matt Stanton. The small but mighty restaurant chain is looking to expand to new markets — and using franchising to do so. According to Stanton, the brand has received offers already and is already in talks to sign another franchise deal.

We caught up with Stanton in his first month on the job to hear why Mici decided to start franchising in the first place and what it’s looking for in a franchisee.

Congrats on your new job. What made you get involved with Mici in the first place?

Matt Stanton: Elliot (Schiffer, CEO of Mici) worked for me back at Smashburger, so we've been really close over the years we've been colleagues and I really respect him as an executive and as a through-and-through restaurant person. He made the jump over to Mici, and I knew about Mici as a customer, but never really dug into the business aspect.

I got to know the Miceli family and the founders and learn more about the business and really found it a very attractive business model, and with a few upgrades to its foundation, could be a brand that has a ton of growth potential and a lot of value potential in the future. I actually invested in their first series of funding four years ago.

Over those four years, the Micceli family, Jeff [Miceli] especially and Elliot [Schiffer], did a lot to put the foundation in place for growth for the brand for a six-unit chain. Mici acts like it's so much bigger, whether it be the tech systems they have in place, whether it be having the kitchen really worked out with just smooth, efficient, quality operations, whether that's it’s great loyalty program, whether that’s delivery that was figured out ahead of COVID, when everybody jumped into the delivery business.

I want to grow a brand that has a great foundation to build off of. Too many brands out there say that we're going to grow, we got some momentum, and we'll kind of just figure things out along the way, and that can create a lot of problems later on. Whereas at Mici, they really took the time and had the patience to build the foundation right.

You talk about coming from Smashburger to this now six-unit chain. What are your goals as chief growth officer?

Stanton: It's about growing smart and growing right. … We're going to grow as we're able to scale support systems; like I mentioned, the foundation is really established, and so we have a lot of growth runway ahead of this.

We’re franchising with really great operators, franchisees who care about the customer, franchisees who care about the employees. And we care about delivering a really good product and meeting our standards, so we're going to grow throughout the country.

We're also going to keep growing in the Colorado market corporately. A lot of brands put their money where their mouth is, and we see Mici restaurants as an attractive investment for capital, and so we'll continue to build corporate restaurants throughout Colorado. We have several sites in the works right now.

So, the big question is: Why franchise now?

Stanton: Mici is differentiated in a unique way in the pizza space in that due to our processes and our operations, we can be very fast and very convenient. About 50% of our orders are carried out, we have a big delivery component, but we also have a nice static component as well. And so customers really see the value in the convenience and the speed with which we're able to offer our product.

Yet at the same time, we offer really good food. And then with pizza, you almost have to make a choice: either I get fast and convenient, but I get a not-very-good pizza, or I got my favorite pizza shop, but it can take me two hours or an hour and a half to get my pie. Mici's really cracked the puzzle on being able to sell for both consumers. So there's this huge need out there. And we're seeing a ton of customer demand.

We can only grow so fast corporately. I've seen very successful franchise brands, if you do it right. This allows us to bring the brand to more customers, allows us to scale the brand off this great foundation, a little faster than if we just tried to do everything corporately. So that's why franchising.

And obviously, when franchisees are running units … I would rather open it with a great franchisee who lives in a market, who is hands-on, who's really looking after that team. And generally, when you get a good franchisee, they can do a better job than a really dispersed corporate oversight team. And so if we're very selective and do a good job with our franchising efforts, I expect that as we push out from Colorado with franchisees, we’ll be able to execute better than if we created just a large corporate operation structure.

What makes someone a good Mici franchisee?

Stanton: I think it starts with a hunger to really drive our business forward. So we need someone engaged. We need someone involved. That doesn't mean they're not hiring general managers for the restaurants … but we want someone who's really looking at their business and figured out ways they can improve, ways they can hire better, so on and so forth, to really build that team with the right culture involved in it. That's the absolute critical requirement there.

Obviously, we're looking for some experience as well. It’s great if they have restaurant experience, or maybe some kind of other franchising or have run multi-unit businesses before, or something like that — just so that we have a proof point there that, hey, they built teams before, they've run units of some type before. … It also goes back to that engagement piece. We want someone who's still hungry, who still has energy to go do this.

And I think lastly there's kind of this cultural fit with Mici. We really pride ourselves on our family values and being really good for guests, taking care of our teams. One thing we say internally is we want our restaurants to be a place that any of us on the corporate team would be happy having their 16, 17, 18 year old daughter in. And so we want franchisees that reflect those values as well, and create a really positive environment for staff, which then goes into a positive environment for our customers as well. Because Italian food’s all about family and getting together. … We don't want to make compromises on that in the future.

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