From Chain to Franchise: One Year In

What happens when a chain decides to open up the business? We check in with young franchise Sombrero Mexican Food to find out
 The Original Sombrero, Years Ago

Every local restaurant chain dreams of one day going national, or even global. Some chains go about it independently while others franchise, forging partnerships to grow and achieve the dream. Many well-known franchises have been following that business model for decades, but new franchises emerge every year. What’s the world like for a baby franchise on the rise? Just ask Ozzie Garcia, Director of Franchise Development at Sombrero Mexican Food. Just one year ago, the San Diego-based chain decided to make the transition and take their signature flavors across the country.

Thanks to a band that saw fit to include the quick service joint in their lyrics, Sombrero’s reputation as a source of comfort and guacamole-topped happiness preceded it – I was not just familiar with, but actively anticipating it before I ever moved to San Diego. When I got here, I also became a regular, the chain now forever tied to good memories of high school lunch hour burrito runs. In short: I’ll admit, I’m a fan.

But none of this is particularly new to Garcia. Like the scores of Mexican-style joints ending in -Berto’s, Sombrero is a San Diego institution – which makes the decision to expand a logical one. “We knew that our customers in San Diego loved us – they’ve been saying that since the late sixties,” he says. “We just got to the point where we had so many people ask: ‘when are you going to open up in our neck of the woods? When are you going to open up out of state?’ So we finally said: ‘let’s do the franchise program, and let’s take the brand national.’”



It’s now been a year since the transition – how is the brand holding up? For one thing, anyone anticipating their business to explode exponentially overnight might have to readjust their expectations for reality: after a full year of work and planning, the brand’s first franchise location – in St. Louis, the first Sombrero east of Arizona –is finally preparing to open its doorsthis month.

It’s also not without its challenges, says Garcia. Ironically, the biggest challenge is rooted in not growing faster earlier on.

“For example, you might have someone in New York who says: ‘oh my gosh, I’d love to check it out – do you have any out here?’ Well no, we don’t have any in New York yet, so that kind of rains on the deal a little bit,” he explains. “But they want to try the food, so they either have to get on a plane, come out to San Diego, try the food and be convinced or move on – or they’ll just say: ‘well, we’ll wait until you come out to this neck of the woods.’ So the fact that we don’t have any exposure outside of California and Arizona is a little bit limiting.”

But Garcia expects that the new St. Louis location will help with that. “That’s going to give us a foothold in the middle of the country for people to try our concept and product,” he says. Besides, right now the most important thing isn’t speed so much as finding the right partners to ensure success – a vital step when building from the ground up, as one weak card too soon could constitute a major setback for the operation.

“We screen everyone thoroughly: we want people who have what I call ‘our DNA,’” says Garcia. “Our DNA is the quality of the food, the quality of the service, and the passion of the people inside the restaurant for the customer. Sombrero has been successful because of that triad… we want to make sure we get franchisees that have that. You might have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have that DNA, you’re probably not a good fit for us.”

But it’s only been a year – with more franchisees already showing interest, Garcia is confident that the best is yet to come for Sombrero. “We just started the franchise push, so we’re in new territory,” he notes. “But it’s exciting.”


For information about Sombrero Mexican Food, contact Ozzie Garcia at (909) 730-3242

[Photo courtesy Sombrero Mexican Food]

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