Making it Big: Extreme Brandz Takes the Lead

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Extreme Brandz company of the year

Extreme Brandz is taking the lead with a clear vision built on core values and an unwavering passion

It’s hard to fathom the industry impact of Extreme Brandz judging from the waiting room of the company’s modest office, but its vision is as crystal clear as the sunny afternoon F&H sat down with the QSR’s trio of shareholders, entrepreneurs and friends to discuss the brand story.

The 40-person team at the Mississauga Ont.-based head office is quite small compared to the market competition. The clue that there’s more to the company than meets the eye is hanging on the wall and sitting on the coffee table in a small windowed meeting room off the lobby. Here six trophies and a wall covered in certificates — from top 100 rankings and Canadian Franchise Association Frankie Awards to a Top 40 Under 40 plaque — herald an unwavering success. There’s no hiding Extreme Brandz has made a big splash in the foodservice market.

It’s been a long time coming. The dream was born in Waterloo, Ont., almost 15 years ago, when brothers, Alex and Mark Rechichi, saw a gap in the market for healthy, fresh sandwiches that focused more on the fillings and less on the bread. “We were the new kids on the block, and we had to explain a lot of what we were serving,” recalls Mark, the brand’s 40-year-old vice-president, CFO and co-founder. “People would laugh and say: ‘You’re serving that in a pita sandwich, really?’”

Turns out the boys, then in their 20s, were onto something. A year later Stephen Travers joined the ranks as the first Extreme Pita franchisee in the system, opening the third location in Hamilton, Ont. “The visionary leadership qualities you see today, I saw them then,” says the area developer for Extreme Brandz in Alberta.

In 1999, Sean Black, a former restaurateur who had been in the foodservice business since he was 14, bought into the Rechichi vision, too. Black opened the fourth franchise in Ottawa and eventually joined the corporate shareholder team in its former Mississauga head office — the Rechichi family basement.

Four years later the team attracted Dave Martyn who saw the in-roads the company was making in creating a new lifestyle. “All these people had come up through the system and to me that was a sign of solidarity within the company. They were committed to seeing this vision play out and grow it as they saw fit,” says Martyn, a multi-unit operator, excited to talk about his passion while driving through the back roads of B.C., where he now works as an Extreme Brandz area developer.

Before long, in 2006, Mucho Burrito was founded to answer the call for fun, fresh Mexican food. A couple years later, Purblendz, opened as a natural smoothie co-branding option with Extreme Pita, and, about that time, the three brands were unified under the Extreme Brandz name.

This year, estimated system sales reached $90 million, a year-over-year growth of nine per cent with same-store sales increases of five per cent and 17 per cent for Extreme Pita and Mucho Burrito, respectively. The growth is impressive, with 76 projected openings in 2011, bringing the total unit count to 340.

But, the growth isn’t contained to the stores. During the past couple of years, the Extreme corporate and field family has ballooned by 50 per cent. “At a time when a lot of companies were shedding employees, we focused on attracting new talent,” says Alex, the brand’s 38-year-old president, CEO and co-founder. “We introduced a number of new people to the team, restructured the company and refocused our growth.”

An integral part of the growth spurt was recognizing the need for distinct company culture and values. “We revisited our mission statement,” adds Alex. “We issued a new three-year plan, a strong focus on building a unified values-focused organization at the corporate level and driving a lot of those values and beliefs right down into our franchises and frontline staff.”

The result was a mantra of five key values: “the guest is the lifeblood and the core of all we do, we are a learning and teaching organization, we are a performance-driven organization, we operate our business with integrity, and we respect the communities in which we do business.”

The executive team recognizes its values as a “road map” that has paid dividends, thanks to an epiphany about employee engagement. “The only way you can get more is if [your employees] really believe — [if] they believe in the mission and the cause of the company,” explains Alex, adding that the executive team changed the way they worked, too, putting windows on their doors to create a more open-door policy.

Together the employees and executives forged ahead, bucking talk of economic woe and trading it for a year of innovation and industry leadership.

To start, what began approximately 10 years ago as a poster displaying the nutritional information of Extreme Pita offerings, is now complemented by new menu boards that display caloric information for each item (also available on Purblendz menu boards). “There was an opportunity to truly be a market leader and to get the other QSR chains to follow by putting our nutritionals on the menu boards,” says Alex. “We were the first national QSR to put nutritionals on the main menu board as well as get Health-Check approval on some of our most popular pitas.”

“I think at that point, Alex, Subway was advertising six sandwiches under six grams of fat and we were advertising 23 sandwiches under four grams of fat,” chimes in Mark, over the phone from his Montreal office. Alex jumps back into the conversation. “That was the first quarter of 2011,” he says of the menu board innovation. “Then we did a social campaign where we shot a video and challenged QSR companies to follow suit.”

Meanwhile, Extreme staff worked with the Heart & Stroke Foundation to create the first Health-Check-certified school lunch menu in Canada — an offering that meets regulations for healthy school meals across the country. “It’s full transparency,” says 37-yearold Black, vice-president of Real Estate and Franchise Development. “Before kids didn’t even know what our product was, what our ingredients were. Now, all of a sudden, we’ll be in thousands of elementary schools across the country.”

And, childhood obesity won’t get a foothold with the menu of Health-Check approved Extreme Kidz Pitas. The school lunch program offers four sandwich varieties, including Sweet Chicken Little, a warm pita packed with grilled chicken, tomato, cucumber, romaine lettuce and honey mustard with 223 calories and three grams of fat and the BBQ4U, jammed with grilled chicken, tomato, cucumber, romaine lettuce and barbecue sauce with 221 calories and three grams of fat.

But it’s about more than fat and calories, so for the past couple of years, the team challenged its suppliers to limit sodium in sauces and protein, which has led to a 30-per-cent reduction of salt, predominately in Extreme Pita’s protein, sauces and bread.

Undoubtedly, healthy living and creating emotional connections with their customers is important to Alex, Mark and Black who eagerly finish each other sentences, discussing their brand’s nutritional accomplishments, likely influenced by their own young families, which combined include eight kids.

But the accomplishments at Extreme Pita weren’t the only victories this year. It was a good year at Mucho Burrito, too, with doubledigit same-store sales increases, the opening of the brand’s 50th location and the return of Cinco de Mayo celebrations, which was complemented by the launch of National Pita Day at Extreme Pita.

Five dollar burritos were the order of the day at Mucho on May 5and half-price pitas encouraged $1 customer donations on June 18 at Extreme Pita — the latter of which raised $50,000 for the Heart & Stroke Foundation.

The impact of two company celebrations was felt across Extreme Brand platforms, and all hands were on deck. “It was amazing to see,” enthuses Alex. “You got in the car on a Saturday and you started on one end, and not only did you see franchisees and their families and their employees, we ran into people from the office cleaning tables, greeting guests. That’s the kind of stuff that makes a difference.”

So, it’s no surprise you might find Extreme Pita employees feeding staff and patients at their local hospital this holiday season; community spirit is one of the five company values, after all. “It’s one of the key components that we train on in terms of having our operators — rather than spend money on flyers and coupons — get involved in [their] community,” says Alex. “Support it in kind by offering your time; support it in kind by offering product. The best thing about it is it’s a great way to get our product into people’s hands and drive awareness as a concept.”

With the exception of community efforts from franchisees, Extreme Brandz has donated more than $75,000 to the Heart & Stroke Foundation and Children’s Wish Foundation this year. And, at press time, the next cause on the Mucho agenda was Movember — whereby money is raised in support of men’s health. It feeds into the company mandate to encourage healthier eating and living among adults and children alike.

Meanwhile, the company’s health is thriving thanks to leaders who continue to build on their original vision, lead by example and listen to their staff. “We’re open to new ideas, we don’t have all the answers, so we go out there and try and get the answers, either from our franchisees or from our employees themselves,” says Mark.

It’s a leadership style not lost on the frontline team. “The guys who are at the top are still in contact with the guys in the field to see what’s working, what’s not, where our successes are coming from and where we need to be to grow in the future,” confirms area developer and franchisee, Martyn.

The accolades go both ways. “We attribute a lot of our success to the people who work for us,” says Alex. “It goes beyond just a paycheque. They’re just as passionate as we are about the business; it’s not just a job for them.”

The employees and operators are acknowledged at Town Hall meetings and given company awards and prizes for their dedication to the job and embodiment of company values.

That clear value-driven mandate is integral to the company’s continued growth, which isn’t slowing anytime soon. “For the next concept we’re going back to our roots; back to our heritage,” says Mark, offering a tidbit about the company’s new Via Cibo Italian street food brand expected to launch next year.

All this from the young guys who were mocked for opening a pita concept: “That’s a satisfying piece, when you travel across the country, the United States or different markets and people recognize the brands and recognize the product for being very relevant in today’s environment,” muses Black.

No longer the minnows in a big pond, a clear vision is propelling this young brand forward. “We’re trying to impact people’s lives for a short period of time;” that, says Alex, is the key to extreme success.  In fact, it’s why the founder is already talking about moving into a bigger office.

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