One might think Rio Infantino’s launch of a plant-based-food franchise concept in 2014 was serendipity. But that doesn’t mean Dorval, Que.-based Copper Branch’s exponential growth was just a lucky guess on his part.
Before starting this project, the now president and CEO of Copper Branch had already spent years in franchise operations. For almost two decades, Infantino was a multi-unit franchisee with Subway in Quebec. Prior to that, he worked at McDonald’s head-office operations.
During those years, he maintained a strong desire to be an entrepreneur, he says. “I always wanted to head something up myself. Five years ago I saw a void in the marketplace for a good healthy-eating alternative and saw an opportunity. The timing was perfect to create a new brand.”
When developing his plan, Infantino wanted to do something different from Subway, he notes, choosing to create a high-quality, healthy food option served in a modern, self-serve setting. “I looked at the different ingredients in [fast] food and realized I wanted to offer something much simpler. When you look at the bread we buy from artisanal bakeries, for example, there are four ingredients rather than 48.”
At the time, plant-based/vegan options were not high profile, so he was heading into near-uncharted waters. But the plant-based movement has since taken on a life of its own, placing him well ahead of the curve in an increasingly competitive landscape.
Building Copper Branch as a franchise model was in the cards from day one, he says. “The intent all along was to franchise — I was 100-per-cent committed to that.”
He had no problem selling the concept. When he introduced Copper Branch at a vegan festival, he says interest was phenomenal. “We really started out with a bang. The business took off after three months and began growing quickly as the brand became better known. That created a lot of traction.”
He built eight corporate stores in the first two-and-a-half years to start the process and work out the model. The initial stores were located in downtown Montreal and on the outskirts in order to reach diverse markets. Most of those locations have since been franchised, while Copper Branch has kept one corporate store for R&D and training.
Then it was time to expand in earnest. Today there are 34 Copper-Branch franchises across Canada and the brand is now in the process of building on its international presence. In January, the company opened two new stores in France, one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and one in New York City. Infantino is planning to open locations in the Netherlands and Monaco. “We’ve also signed new development deals in Israel and Russia,” he adds. His 2019 plans include expansion into Calgary, Vancouver and the Maritimes.
“The best is yet to come — 2019 will be a stellar year in which we plan to reach 50 outlets.”
He says the real hook for the Copper-Branch brand lies in his conscious decision to not just focus on vegan consumers. Rather, he’s been careful to make the focus about healthier eating in general, which explains the brand’s broad-based appeal.
“We never specifically went after the vegan or vegetarian market,” he says. “We based our reputation on delivering food using clean, non-GMO, authentic ingredients. In other words, we’re going after the mainstream consumer who just wants a feel-good, healthier option that’s better for the environment. Many people who aren’t vegan eat plant-based 90 per cent of the time. In a nutshell, we’ve packaged something that consumers want — and offers many benefits — and made it affordable and good tasting.”
Beyond the quality of the ingredients, another important component of the Copper-Branch model is locally sourced food. While it’s impossible to meet all needs, Infantino says 60 per cent — mainly produce — comes from local suppliers.
As far as attracting franchisees, Infantino says that’s never been a problem. “Interest is happening in new markets as the brand has gained traction.” He attributes much of that interest to social media.
“Many of the regions have approached us organically. I would say more than 80 per cent of inquiries are from people who have tried the food or experienced the brand. The rest of the growth now is from existing franchisees.”
Currently, about 70 per cent of operations are run by multi-unit franchisees, with the balance being individuals, he adds. “We’re generally looking to work with multi-unit franchisees and area developers in the U.S. We know it will be costly to be in some markets, but many of them are willing to grow with us.”
Copper Branch has created a complete turnkey solution, enabling the company to better manage food quality, customer service and brand according to its guidelines. Sizes of units range between 1,200 and 2,000 sq. ft. “Somewhere in the middle is the ideal size,” he says.
The initial franchise fee is $40,000, with an added 6.5 per cent royalty fee and 2.5 per cent for branding. New franchisees are provided with four weeks of training and head office provides ongoing support and touches base with franchisees to conduct monthly evaluations. In addition, Copper Branch business-development advisors visit locations every quarter. The company also makes use of mystery shoppers to ensure quality control is maintained.
Infantino says Copper-Branch outlets tend to resonate best in higher-density areas, where the customer base is generally well educated and has higher earning potential. He reports that a majority of the traffic (about 60 per cent) is during the middle of the day.
At the moment, Infantino estimates sales are increasing 11 to 15 per cent on average year over year. Over the next year, Copper Branch will realize a good deal of its growth in the U.S. market. “We’ve just started. Once we have 20 stores there, we expect the growth will be exponential. Overall, we’re well on track to reach a goal of 2,000 units in nine years.” As he grows, he anticipates the ratio will be 20 per cent for Canadian operations, 50 per cent U.S. and 30 per cent international.
As the growth trajectory accelerates, he says the company’s working on streamlining operations and ensuring training manuals and procedures are uniform across the board. He’s also in the process of recruiting area developers in the U.S., Canada and Europe. When asked if there are any specific changes for different markets, Infantino says there is no plan to deviate from a formula that is doing so well.
Infantino’s innovation has not gone unnoticed within the business community. He’s a winner of a 2018 EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 Quebec Award in the Food category and has also been recognized with a West Island of Montreal Chamber of Commerce award in the Desjardins Business-to-Consumer category.
Given the current vegan-cuisine trend, Infantino says he’s well ahead of his competitors in having an established and proven model that’s already gained traction at home and abroad. “There’s [competition] coming, but we’ve been able to create a niche for ourselves at a reasonable price point. We’ve captured that market moving forward.”
Written by Denise Deveau