Excellence in Franchising

Little Kickers and Symposium Cafe franchise systems add to their CFA award collection

Little Kickers is going to have to start thinking about renovating the franchise’s head office to include a trophy room. Since 1992, the Canadian Franchise Association (CFA) has been recognizing its members with strong franchisor-franchisee relationships at its annual Awards of Excellence gala. The apex of the Awards of Excellence is the Grand Prize, which is awarded to one traditional, and one non-traditional franchise system.

Little Kickers – a non-traditional franchise that pro­vides pre-school aged kids with introductory soccer les­sons – has become a regular at the event. Accomplishing a feat no other CFA member has achieved, Little Kickers took home a fourth Grand Prize at the 27th annual CFA National Convention in Ottawa, Ontario on April 22-24.

“It really is the pinnacle of our achievements,” Little Kickers Canada’s Chief Executive Officer Frank Stan­schus says of winning yet another CFA Grand Prize. While Stanschus is quite proud of his franchise’s accumulation of hardware, he’s even more proud of the reason why Little Kickers has become a fixture at the awards gala: they are a franchise system that puts franchisees first. “When we get up every day and look at our workload for the day, it’s about making sure that our franchisees this month have a good experience.”

A Franchising Dynasty: Four-Time Grand Prize Winners

The Grand Prize recognizes franchise systems with rock-solid franchisor-franchisee relationships, as dem­onstrated by the results of an independent survey of participating franchisees. According to Stanschus, Little Kickers does everything it can to develop ster­ling relationships with its franchise system members. As far as Stanschus is concerned, his franchisees are his customers, and he believes he has a responsibility to those who have put their faith, trust, and “cold-hard cash” into the franchise to fulfill his promises.

Little Kickers franchisees are supported throughout all aspects of the business, with a head office team of specialists providing guidance in key operational areas including coaching, IT systems, finance, and marketing. Franchisees also have access to an online platform that was custom-made for Little Kickers’ needs, and facili­tates constant communication with the franchisor. When issues are brought forward on the platform, Stanschus reaches out to the franchisee personally.

“What it boils down to is that we deliver on the prom­ise that we give to our franchisees from the onset,” says Stanschus when asked why he thinks Little Kickers has won four CFA Grand Prizes (2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018). “We have different support people at our head office that support our brand new franchisees as well as our fran­chisees that have been with us for years. It’s that tailor-made service and sticking to what we believe in that makes everyone really happy. Franchisees are always involved in our ongoing development of the business, and are never unhappy with what we deliver.”

The Beautiful Game for Budding Stars

The Little Kickers concept is simple: introducing chil­dren ages one and a half to seven-years-old to the sport of soccer in a friendly, non-competitive, and pressure-free environment. On a beautiful Thursday evening in an east-end Toronto park, cheerful instructors lead a class of Little Kickers. There’s no coach screaming commands at the kids like a drill instructor, but rather a compas­sionate and energetic team of instructors leading a class with a “play, not push” mentality.

Little Kickers started in London, England when fran­chise founder and CEO Christine Kelly spotted a gap in the market when trying to find pre-school soccer classes for her son. Child obesity was becoming a hot topic and Kelly was dismayed by the fact that there weren’t pre-school classes to get young children involved in and enjoy sport. The rest is history.

What makes Little Kickers unique, Stanschus says, is that they’re teaching more than just soccer skills.

“We blend the fundamentals of soccer skills with early learning goals,” explains Stanschus. “The kids learn colours, numbers, and life skills such as taking turns, and listening to instructors who aren’t their parents, which is a fundamental step for kids in this age group. By blending it all together, we are able to run classes that are professional and teach the kids a lot of stuff in a fun and imaginative way.”

Forward Momentum

When it comes to expansion, Little Kickers has big aspi­rations. Since the franchise first touched down in Canada in 2009, the company has established a strong foothold in Ontario and British Columbia. Recently, they added franchises in Alberta and Manitoba to their roster, turn­ing Little Kickers into what Stanschus believes is now a Canada-wide business.

Moving forward into 2019, Stanschus eyes continued Canadian expansion into Quebec and further east to the Maritimes. However, he doesn’t want Little Kickers to get too big for its britches. He’d like to see the com­pany expand, but also maintain the standard of franchi­see support that has seen them become a fixture at CFA award ceremonies.

“I feel really passionate that we want to be in every province and territory,” explains Stanschus. “But say­ing that, we also want to make sure we don’t grow too quickly and that we don’t grow at the expense of not doing our due diligence and getting the right franchisees on board.”

Before aggressively expanding, Stanschus adds, the Little Kickers head office team needs to ensure that all of their newer franchisees are being lifted up and receiving the support they need to achieve the same levels of suc­cess as their more experienced counterparts. Stanschus wants to see consistency across the board.

A commitment to that consistency, Stanschus contin­ues, is why Little Kickers is recognized for its tremen­dous franchisor-franchisee support system.

“If you look at it as sort of a bell curve, we don’t want the spread to be too far. We don’t want some franchisees with 1,000 kids coming to class, and others with only 100 because then the needs of our franchisees spread too far out,” he explains. “In a perfect world, we want to help new franchisees to bridge the gap and get closer so that curve is narrower.”

Symposium Cafe

When it comes to the fast-paced and always changing restaurant industry, Symposium Cafe Co-CEO and Co-Owner Bill Argo under­stands that his franchisees are in the trenches. Con­stantly wrestling with the evolving tastes of customers, increasing rates from suppliers, and high employee turn­over, franchisees in the food service industry are a tena­cious bunch, and listening to their feedback is critical.

Symposium has become a regular at the CFA’s annual Awards Gala. In the Traditional Franchise category, Sym­posium won a second-straight Grand Prize with their system of upscale-casual restaurants at the 2018 awards. According to Argo, keeping a pulse on Symposium’s fran­chisees has been key to the brand’s success. In fact, it was through listening with an open ear to what fran­chisees have to say that helped Symposium overcome major operational hurdles and implement key initiatives.

Argo credits Symposium franchisees with the launch of several community initiatives, along with providing invaluable feedback to help the organization mitigate the costs associated with Ontario’s recent minimum wage increase legislation.

“A successful franchisor has to listen to their fran­chisees. They are engaged in the battle everyday with customers, suppliers, and employee turnover. We have to listen,” explains Argo, adding how some of the com­pany’s brightest ideas have come from franchisees. “Our franchisee in Milton, Ontario came up with the idea of a local golf tournament 11 years ago, which started with 40 golfers. We recently had our 11th annual tournament with 270 golfers, and have raised $50,000 a year over the last three years for the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. This all came from the idea of a local franchisee who was really passionate about it, and it grew into something very strong for the company.”

Two-Time Award-Winning Franchisee Support

While listening to franchisees has been instrumental to Symposium’s success, being a franchisor that fran­chisees can lean on has been equally critical. As far as Argo’s concerned, Symposium provides one of the best franchisee support programs in the province. He boasts how over the last 14 years, Symposium has had to close down just one location, and this was because they could not negotiate a lease extension. Once a location is open, Argo says, all hands are on deck to ensure its success.

“We don’t have the franchisee sign their name to the lease, we’ll sign the lease and sublease it to them, which means that we are invested to make that location work,” says Argo “Whereas other franchise systems will let the franchisee sign the lease, and if they don’t make it they’ll just close the store down. We don’t operate that way. We’re invested in the system.”

Symposium franchisees benefit from a three month training program, two weeks of support prior to Grand Opening, and a supportive head office team backed by a highly experienced board of advisors.

The food service industry, Argo notes, is all about profit margins. From ordering the right volume of napkins to portion control, what might seem like the smallest detail could cost a restaurant thousands of extra dollars a year. At Symposium, a regional manager visits fran­chise locations on a monthly basis, to guide franchisees in the right direction when it comes to the little things that can make a big impact on the bottom line.

“It might sound mundane, but we go in there and spend an hour just making sure they are portioning things properly,” Argo says. “It’s very easy to lose money on the small things in this business. At the end of the year, it’s not something dramatic that causes a franchi­see to lose market share or percentage profit, it’s a thou­sand different things.”

Renaissance Style in Modern Times

Symposium was born in 1996, when brothers Bill and Terry Argo decided to leverage their skills developed in careers in the finance and operations sectors to enter the food service industry. It is after all, in their blood, as their father had owned a full-service restaurant in the 1950s.

They went on to open the first Symposium location in 1996 in London, Ontario as a dessert café. While Sympo­sium’s menu has since expanded to include a vast array of breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and drink options, one thing has remained a constant since the beginning: the restaurant’s trademark décor.

All 28 of Symposium’s franchise locations have the same distinct Renaissance-inspired décor centered around the artworks of Raphael. It is all designed to bring patrons back to the days when people converged on the town square for an exchange of ideas and deep conversation.

“When we started this concept, we wanted to do some­thing very unique,” Argo says of Symposium’s décor and façade. “There’s nobody who can duplicate our look. Our look is so unique that when people talk about Sympo­sium, they can’t compare it to our competitors.”

Big Aspirations, Small Town Spirit

Since winning the 2017 Grand Prize, Symposium has undergone an aggressive expansion campaign. With 28 locations located across Ontario, the franchise eyes further expansion throughout Ontario, especially in smaller cities such as Coburg, Bowmanville, and Grimsby. Argo says he and Symposium’s head office team have identified up to 50 untapped opportunities in Ontario to fulfill the company’s strategy of opening up in tight-knit communities, with a community-minded franchisee at the helm.

“We could not be a 28 store, $44-million concept without the franchisees. They are hands-on. Our concept appeals and caters to local communities and small towns,” explains Argo. “You can’t get that small-town feel without a franchisee being involved in the community. They are absolutely paramount to our success. From sponsoring local teams to learning the customers by name, that’s critical.”

Lower rental rates and less competition are just two reasons why Symposium prefers to set up shop in smaller communities. Argo explains how the franchise is tailored-made for tight-knit communities where one par­ticular location can expect to see the same faces come in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner on a daily basis. In choos­ing a franchisee, Symposium looks for local entrepre­neurs who are known in their community.

“We’re very proud to be Canadian-owned and oper­ated,” he says. “We thrive in small markets where a fran­chisee can get involved in the community and be the community-based restaurant. It’s important that they have a feel for the community, that people know their name.”


By Andrew Schopp