Symposium Cafe’s Excellent Adventure

Restaurant franchise wins the 2017 Traditional Franchises Grand Prize

Photo of Symposium Cafe franchisees at a restaurant location

Symposium Cafe set a big goal for itself this year: win the Grand Prize at the CFA’s Awards of Excellence within three years. It was a big one, because winning one of the two prizes means your company’s franchisee relations are the strongest of any participating CFA franchise in the country. It wouldn’t be easy to achieve, especially in year one.

So when a tableful of the Symposium crew took their seats at the awards gala in Niagara Falls in April, no one was really expecting to win. Which you would have seen and heard quite clearly if you were in the room when Symposium Cafe was announced as the Grand Prize winner in the Traditional Franchises category.

“I think we broke the decibel level record in there!” says Symposium Co-owner Bill Argo with a laugh. “We couldn’t have been more proud or happy. Right now we have the best group of franchisees we’ve had in the 13 years we’ve been franchising, and this award just shows it.”

There are 24 of those franchisees across Ontario now, with another six opening by the end of 2017, most in smaller centres, the average with yearly sales of between $1.4 million and $1.5 million. All of them offer casual, contemporary dining for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night. That means everything from eggs Benedict to steaks, cappuccinos to Caesars, cheesecakes to salads. Inside or out on the patio, the décor is casual and contemporary, with plush seating, dark colours, and Renaissance-inspired stone art walls. Raphael’s famous The School of Athens is a visual centrepiece in each restaurant.

But Raphael didn’t paint his fresco in a day. It’s taken Bill and his brother Terry more than 21 years to get their company to this point.

Dessert to start

The Argo brothers were 16 years into previous careers before opening their first Symposium location in 1996 in London, Ontario. Bill worked in finance, Terry in operations, so their skills were a good match. Plus their dad had owned a full service restaurant in Toronto since the 1950s, so they knew the industry.

They went in a slightly different direction than their dad, though, launching Symposium as a dessert café. “That was the hot trend back then, with places like Just Desserts and Coffee, Tea or Me having success,” says Bill. “But we tried to be a little different and wanted a concept with this artwork by Raphael at the core. It shows ideas being exchanged in a town square, and we started with the idea of people coming to exchange ideas, having conversations in a modern-day setting.”

And those people did come in steady numbers throughout the first eight years. So much so that Bill and Terry began franchising in 2004. Their first franchise outside of London was in Waterloo, and it was a key turning point. They convinced the new franchisee there to invest $25,000 in exhaust systems so she could serve hot meals. It was a good choice, as the franchise’s annual sales doubled in a year.

“The rest was history,” says Bill. Franchise growth was gradual and steady over the next 10 years, but over the past few, it’s gotten even stronger. The reasons, he says, have a lot to do with a dedicated head office and a robust franchise system that allows franchisees to find success if they just follow the formula.

Franchising success

Finding that kind of franchise success begins with finding the right franchisees, says Bill. “As much as you want someone who’s an entrepreneur and who can come up with new ideas, you really want that person who says ‘Okay, I’m committing to a Symposium Cafe, I trust the value of the brand, and I’m going to follow their systems.’ And you don’t even need restaurant experience to succeed here.”

Zaki Agha had no restaurant experience when he started the Ajax franchise in 2013. A trained accountant, he just knew he was ready for a new start. “I looked at other franchise options, but I fell in love with Symposium,” he says. “It was the unique idea, catering to all ages, seven-day promotions, and the upscale dining feel when you go in – all of these drew me in.”

It wasn’t easy for Agha at the beginning, however. With 120 menu items and 40 staff members, there was a lot to learn and manage. His weekly sales number in the first few months hovered around $20,000. What began to turn things around was his familiarity and trust in Symposium’s systems, he says, not to mention the extensive hands-on training he received.

Every new franchisee starts with three months of training in another franchise, followed by about 10 weeks of support from at least four head office staff once they’re in the new franchise. “We’ll also help franchisees with hiring their key people,” says Mike Fox, Symposium’s VP of Operations. “And we have a system where we certify staff, and a part of that is ensuring they know the system well. That helps to get things flowing at the start, because it’s really the systems that run the stores.”

After the 10 weeks of in-store training are up, there are at least two visits per week from an operations team member for the next three months. And if a franchisee needs even more support, head office will provide it.

Such was the case for Zaki Agha, who was struggling to get people in the door in his first few months. Head office stepped up with marketing and advertising support, and it worked. “Within the first four or five months, I was doing very well,” says Agha, “and now I’m in the top three restaurants in Ajax on Trip Advisor.” His sales have more than doubled, to between $40,000 and $45,000 per week, and in 2015 and 2016, he was named Symposium’s franchisee of the year.

Small-town proud

It may seem strange to hear that Zaki Agha is having that success at a franchise location that isn’t exactly in the most highly visible area. But it’s not so strange to Symposium franchisees, as customers see them as destination restaurants. The company’s top-grossing franchise is in the back of a plaza in Milton that you can’t even see from a nearby major intersection. “That was franchisee John Palumbo, who convinced us to open there in 2008,” says Bill. “We took a chance, and it worked out. It opened our eyes and told us you don’t need to be front and centre, and that we should try these smaller towns.”

And so they did, avoiding the congested downtowns of major centres, which turned out to be a smart tactic for a few reasons. One, there’s less competition. Two, rents are lower. But most importantly, the concept of a one-stop-restaurant tends to work very well in smaller centres. It’s not unusual to see customers regularly for breakfast and then a few times a week for dinner, says Mike Fox.

One fortunate offshoot of seeing and knowing those regulars is that it tends to foster a strong sense of community between franchisees and their town or city. Many Symposium franchisees volunteer with different community organizations, and the company as a whole supports Welcome Wagon, local sports teams, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, and other charities. Plus, a portion of every daily special goes to the Breakfast Club of Canada, which helps feed 163,000 students every day in 1,455 schools. Each month, Symposium donates between $7,000 and $10,000 to the club.

Future Symposiums

Community involvement is the key to Symposium’s success if it’s to hit its goal of having a total of 60 stores within five years. All of them will likely be in Ontario, none in Toronto, though the company is exploring outside the province if the right opportunity arises. This year and next alone, it plans to open 12 franchises, one of which may be Zaki Agha’s second location.

What’s also going to be a big help in getting to 60 stores is the Advisory Board the company recently put in place, says Bill. In fact, it already has been. “Made up of outside professionals with experience in HR, Marketing, Sales, Finance, and Operations, they’ve been instrumental in helping navigate and plan out the next five years. We also probably have the best lease advisor in Ontario on that board. So they all give us a foundation on which to grow.”

Maybe they’ll give Symposium a foundation to keep on winning CFA Grand Prizes, too. “We want to win that for the next 20 years, but for now we’re going to work hard to win it again next year,” says Bill.

If they do, they may just break that decibel level record again.

Learn more about Symposium Cafe franchise opportunities


By Jordan Whitehouse