WATERLOO — When ReShonda Young started Popcorn Heaven, she did not want it to look like a “mom and pop shop.” She wanted her gourmet popcorn and fudge store to feel like a place people had seen and heard of before.
Little did she know how successful she would be.
Ten months after Popcorn Heaven popped into existence near downtown Waterloo in February 2014, another store popped up in South Carolina. Then another. Then another and another. And more are on the way.
“I can honestly say I didn’t necessarily plan for it,” Young said of how she came to own a franchise operation.
Young says by looking like a franchise from the start, she attracted potential franchisees within three months of opening her Waterloo shop.
That business acumen leads people throughout the United States to buy into franchises. Customers look for the familiar, and would-be business owners aren’t always interested in reinventing the wheel to launch their endeavors.
For precisely those reasons, Gary Grace started a Jimmy John’s franchise in Waverly.
Grace knew from his son’s recurring debit purchases as a graduate student the restaurant draws regular customers, particularly in a college town.
And as a recently retired vice president for administration at Wartburg College, Grace wasn’t interested in “re-inventing the wheel” when he decided to go into business to diversify his retirement plan.
“I can’t really tell you why we chose to get into business, but it just seemed like something that would be interesting,” Grace said. “So far, it’s been fun, been a good investment and I think we picked a good brand.”
Grace’s intuition about Jimmy John’s turned out to be spot-on. The restaurant was the top franchise in 2016 on Entrepreneur’s annual Franchise 500 list.
Grace opened his first store in Waverly in 2013, and has since opened a store each in Waterloo and Cedar Falls with plans to open more.
Dale Emmert, now of Art Van Furniture, recently began running a franchise after years of operating Simpson Furniture independently. He hasn’t looked back since the storefront reopened in July.
“For us, it was almost what they call a no-brainer,” Emmert said.
It wasn’t just about having a brand customers are familiar with — though there are more than 100 Art Van franchises throughout the Midwest. Emmert also wanted to expand the selection he offers at his Cedar Falls and Coralville locations.
Plus, a franchise gave Emmert more buying power so he could offer an wider selection for a lower price.
While many were surprised Simpson Furniture closed its doors after 70 years, Emmert saw it as the right move.
Feeling the franchise
That doesn’t make it right for everyone.
Grace and Emmert have found success, but many of the upsides of owning a franchise can be seen by others as downsides.
Dan Beenken, regional director of Iowa’s Small Business Development Center, says the ups and downs of owning a franchise are often the same qualities.
The startup costs can be high, and in some ways can seem like “paying for blue sky” — things an owner can’t see. But blue sky includes name recognition and access to buying power.
That buying power, however, can lock owners into contracts an independent operator doesn’t have. But it also brings a proven business model.
Most importantly, Beenken stresses franchises are not a “get rich quick scheme.” Some franchises fail, and those that don’t still require a lot of work.
Grace visits each of his stores every day. When he owned only the Waverly shop, he managed the store and worked every job in the place.
Just like ‘Heaven’
With a franchise, there’s a network of people who can discuss industry issues clear benchmarks for success.
Young, of Popcorn Heaven, says even as a licenser she has found strength in having a support network.
“If everything were rosy and easy, I don’t think I’d be as effective with leading others,” Young said. “The combination of all those experiences has made me a much better leader for them.”
She knows the pitfalls other stores must avoid. She also welcomes input from other owners about ways they’re finding success.
While it hasn’t been easy, it has been rewarding.
“I think I put them in my path so early to keep me from quitting, because I know they look to me for leadership,” Young said. “They keep me motivated.”