What Will Replace Blenz Coffee at Pacific Centre?

On May 24, 2014 the VCSFA published an article called ‘Yet Another Prestigious Blenz Closes: Pacific Centre on Granville’  about the sudden disappearance of the landmark Blenz Coffee at Pacific Centre at 609 Granville Street. At that point it was rumoured that another clothing retailer had won the prized retail location ousting Blenz in a similar leasing situation as what occurred at Robson and Burrard. Both of these locations were high volume, and high visibility locations for the Vancouver brand.

For the owners (Franchisees) of these locations, they witnessed the entire value of whatever amount of goodwill they paid for their respective locations, evaporate before their eyes, leaving them with nothing more than whatever street value their aged and depreciated equipment was worth at the moment of loss – Not a pretty picture for their ‘franchise partners’ as Blenz likes to call them.
Some assumed that the loss of these prime locations and subsequent appearance of a new retailer was a deal agreed upon between Blenz corporate, the Blenz Franchisee, and the new retailer. The assumption, namely because there weren’t any indications otherwise, was that perhaps all stakeholders in the deal agreed that these locations were not well suited for coffee. Our new reports reveal that they may have assumed incorrectly and the now-stranded Franchisees may not have been involved in the lease negotiations at all.  Now wouldn’t that be a tad unfair to their ‘partner’?

Blenz Coffee, as do other Vancouver franchises, sets itself up as direct tenant in their commercial leases.  In this common franchise-model arrangement, the Franchisee is then responsible, by means of a sub-lease agreement, for cutting rent cheques directly to the landlord.  The Franchisee assumes this agreement is in place so that the Franchisor (in this case Blenz) can wield their powerful branded sword forcing the landlord into obedient submission resulting in the acquisition of prime retail locations (in this case Robson/Burrard and Pacific Centre) at rates that allow for a profitable business.  A green Franchisee typically does not understand these complex commercial arrangements and therefore trusts their Franchisor to be looking out for their mutual best interest.  In law this is called ‘to act in good faith‘ or ‘responsibility of good faith’.  In the case of Blenz, failing to renew a lease, or failing to secure a lease rate that is competitive and/or reasonable in the marketplace would equate to the fast destruction of the investment.

All eyes are now on Pacific Centre. Will it become another Lulu Lemon situation like at Burrard and Robson where a retailer from a totally separate industry takes over?

If it becomes a clothing retailer, or something completely removed from the food and beverage sector, then Blenz Coffee might be able to explain to this former (and probably rather upset) Franchisee that this location is not well suited for a retail coffee business, or their coffee brand or that the person who won the space had higher profit margins than them and are therefore able to justify doing business in Pacific Centre. It would be difficult for the former franchisee to have enough know-how to fight that battle.

If something like a Tim Horton’s were to open at 609 Granville, the Franchisee would then be able to present a good argument that Blenz Coffee just ‘let’ another similar business come in and ‘take’ their space, leaving them with nothing. However, Blenz might then be able to say something like ‘Well, Tim Horton’s is different. It’s more of a food-based model with cheaper price points – much different from the ideal Blenz customer.’

But if something were to open in the same space like a Waves Coffee, Starbucks, Take Five, Caffe Artigiano, or any other similarly-branded Italian-style coffee shop (especially those our Francouver list) with the standard espresso-based offerings and a few pastries spattered on the side, then the question will quickly become: How hard did Blenz the Canadian Coffee Company negotiate with the Pacific Centre landlord to maintain their prized location and assure the longevity of the Franchisee’s investment?

How hard did Blenz the Canadian Coffee Company negotiate with the Pacific Centre landlord to maintain their prized location and assure the longevity of the Franchisees investment?

If the answer turns out to be ‘not very hard’, then the next logical question would be “why not?”.

But only time will tell as the lease-hold improvements take place behind the boarded up windows at 609 Granville Street.

What do Burger’s and Coffee Have in Common?

The answer to the title of this article is, “They are poster-boys for the franchise business for better or for worse.”

A CBC story about Marufa Ahmed and her husband Mohammed Hashen, caught the eye of a VCSFA reader who forwarded the article to us. Marufa and Mohammed purchased a Lick’s burger franchise (they operate in Ontario), gave up 18 months of their lives, day in and day out, only to have the store taken from them.  Here in Vancouver, the VCSFA has received reports of ex-coffee Franchisees who spent well over half a million dollars (CND$) on their investment and over 60 months of their lives only to lose it in an even worse way than this couple.

What the reader needs to understand is that Franchising is not your ‘own’ business.  In fact, if one were to take a few steps back he or she would realize it is perhaps the furthest thing possible from having ‘your own business’, other than the fact it requires a capital investment and the financial business model is similar.  The time when the Franchisee sooner or later comes to realize this, is when they encounter the triangular relationship between the Landlord, the Franchisor, and the Franchisee.

The ‘relationship’ is held together by hand-crafted and very clever legal documents.  In some reputable franchises, the Franchisor actually works side-by-side with the Franchisee to establish the best possible rent rates.  They are transparent and they work diligently to make sure their front line soldiers (the Franchisees) are comfortable with the decisions. Conversely, in other franchises,  the Franchisor will sign lease documents with the Landlord with ‘unknown motives’ and will keep the Franchisee completely in the dark throughout the experience.

We have a current member who asked his Franchisor for lease details over 36 months ago (he was trying to sell) and the Franchisor refused to provide the information he needed claiming ‘we don’t know what the future holds’.  Then, when the very last legal deadline to begin lease negotiations with the Landlord was upon them, they slowly started the process, but still keeping the Franchisee completely in the dark throughout.  The Franchisee today still has no idea what will happen to his store in the fall because nothing has been provided him on paper and there are less than three months remaining in his lease term.  This is definitely not ‘owning your own business’.

We have just become aware of another location where the Franchisor may have paid above market rents in comparison to other similar businesses in the area, and the Franchisee will now be paying for that decision each month.

Before purchasing a Franchise, it is extremely important that you investigate – in great depth – this relationship between the Franchisor, Franchisee and Landlord.  If something seems fishy, or there is any lack of transparency, run and do not look back.  On the contrary, if you find that all the books are open and all the relationships where you stand to lose or gain are open, then you may have found a good Franchisor.

As always, do not hesitate to contact the VCSFA if you have any questions.  We are always happy to help.

Five Things you should know Before you Buy a Coffee Shop Franchise

Well here is the $200,000 + article that I wish I read.  Part of our goal here at the VCSFA is to educate the public about some of what goes on behind the scenes in Vancouver because we do not have government legislation to help.  If you are reading this before you buy a coffee shop franchise, make sure that you go over each one of these points and make sure you understand their implications.  If you don’t understand, always feel free to email us and we’ll offer our help.  If you already own one, you should immediately become a member of VCSFA and work with us to help fix some of these issues that bring such a dark cloud over the franchise business model – we believe at the VCSFA that it could and should be a very win-win industry.  We hope that someone will benefit from this and please feel free to send us donations. This advice has come at a price tag of literally millions of lost dollars. Give generously to the VCSFA and it will always come back to benefit society.

1.  The Franchisor can and does mark up the product before it reaches the store

The franchisor is always very quick to teach the following basic business concept to its new franchisees (you have probably heard it already yourselves):

It’s easier to get more money out of your existing customers than finding a new one.

How true!

But… Who would expect that the Franchisor would perform the very same thing on its Franchisees (partners) the whole time?

Most people think that the franchise owner enjoys the benefit of group buying power from all those stores out there and thus receives better prices so they can make more money.  Wrong.  Written in many Franchisee agreements is a clause that looks somewhat like this

“The Franchisor has the right to take that group buying discount and keep it for themselves and you agree that this is ok.”

Of course it looks much more ‘legal’ in the real contract but that’s what it says so fool after fool signs it and while doing so signs away the lion’s share of their profit.  This is a severely punishing situation.  It has been reported to us that one large coffee chain in Vancouver marks up their coffee up to FORTY PERCENT before it reaches the store!  On the poor Franchisees’ largest expense outside of rent and labour the Franchisor enjoys a nice income while the Franchisee pays the same as the independent shop across the road.  You probably think to yourself, ‘That’s ok.  In a chain like that they probably don’t charge a royalty or they charge less.’  Not so quick, Sherlock.  The same aforementioned chain charges the weighty 8% royalty with another 2% marketing pool and even has the right to raise those rates over time.

It has been reported to us that some chains in Vancouver even own their own supply chain and therefore it would be even more difficult to find out what they really pay for their product. Very smart.  I’m sure none of the Franchisees would complain if those prices at least felt like wholesale prices but that is rarely the case.

2.  The Franchisor does not have to reveal to it’s Franchisees what they are planning to do with the lease

Imagine you buy a store with a supposed ten year lease.  They call it a ‘ten year lease’ when in reality it’s usually a five year lease with a five year renewal option.  And that still sounds reasonable except… the renewal option is exercised by the Franchisor, not the Franchisee!  Read that last part again if it didn’t sink in.  Imagine, you are on year number two.  Your wife has a baby so you decide you don’t want the headaches associated with running a coffee shop franchise (and if you didn’t know there would be headaches you definitely need to get out and do some serious research!).  So you call up the head office and say “I’ve decided to sell.  It was so much fun working with you but my wife had a baby and I need to move on.  Can you please put in writing that I have three years plus five years left on my lease so they can move forward with the purchase?”  To your surprise they reply back “We’re not sure what we’re doing with your store so we can’t put that in writing.”  That’s right.  They completely deny your request to put in writing that they will exercise that option – and they don’t have to contractually do anything until about six months before the lease ends.  So, your store now has three years left on the lease that you can guarantee to your buyer.  Good luck selling that one.  In some cases, we have heard rumours that a Franchisee will just walk out one day because they can’t sell their store and then magically the store is reopened a few days later by a new owner or is being run by head office complete with a nicely extended lease.  Hmm…..

3.  The Franchisor Can Deny Your Buyer

So, let’s say you finally got a buyer to agree to buy your store.  They pull out their money from the bank and flash it in front of you to prove it.  Nice.  Everything’s ready to go.  You sign the offer, the deposit is transferred into the trust account and all we’re waiting for is one subject to be removed from the contract: “Subject to Approval by Franchisor’

Of course, these folks always reassure you that the basis that they would deny a buyer would be on ‘reasonable’ grounds… like English level, for example.  It seems reasonable that they should be able to deny on the grounds of English level because they have to communicate with their Franchisees effectively, right?  Except…in one coffee shop franchise chain it is rumoured that one of the executives struggles immensely with his ability to communicate effectively in English!  In fact, much of this chain’s head office staff are new immigrants and their free help (interns) as well.  Not only that, but if you go around town and sample the English level of recent Franchisees, you’ll note quickly that there is some ill communication out there – some Bad English if you will.  This ‘English level’ card is pulled regularly to deny legitimate buyers and much research should be done in this area to bring this to light.  So, then, you might ask yourself “Who is the best kind of buyer? Who will they approve quickly?” Our answer: Your guess is as good as ours – kind of like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

4. The Franchisor Profits When you Sell Your Store

How would you like to pay your Franchisor 40% more than you should for your bag of coffee, then pay them another 10% when the customer pays you for their coffee, and then, when you sell your store, pay them another 7.5% on the total sale price?  Now THAT’S how you get more money out of your customers!  Why bother expanding when you can keep introducing new ways to suck more out of your existing ‘Franchisee Base”?  I guess that’s ‘free enterprise’, right?

5. The Franchisor May Force a Renovation Upon You

Imagine this: the economy crashes because of, say, a housing bubble.  The whole economy falters and customers stop buying lattes because their local newspapers tell them to do that.  Sales drop.  Business is bad.  Your lease is coming to an end in a few months.  You go to your mailbox and what do you find?  A letter from your Franchisor informing you that you will be renovating your store on your tab if you wish to continue to have the right to run this money-losing business.  Golly, Beaver.  I don’t have any money!  That’s ok.  You’ll find the money.  You’ll borrow it from your family, or, if they can’t find it in their bank, you may have to take out a loan against your house.  If you were a member of the VCSFA you could rally financial support to get you through it as one member did. In one case in the lower mainland, a store was reported to have done a partial renovation and then magically shut down about a year later.  The owners lost their house.

Or, you could do what those other people did and just lock the door and walk away only to see your store appear open again under new management.   What’s really funny to us over at the VCSFA is that the corporate owned store of one of the biggest chains in Vancouver has not been renovated since before Noah’s ark came to dry land.  It would be good for all reader’s of this article to ask where the corporate store is and make sure they are staying on the cutting edge of their ‘new look’.

In conclusion, the VCSFA is here to help.  Don’t hesitate to contact us.