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Rise to the occasion Featured

10:01am EDT February 26, 2004
Jerry Couvaras was seconds away from walking away from his future. Ten years ago, the Johannesburg native stopped by a Sandy Springs sandwich shop called the Atlanta Bread Co. for lunch, and almost went somewhere else when he saw the line snaking out the door.

But he waited, and it was worth it.

"I got the sandwich and I got soup, and it was just absolutely phenomenal," Couvaras recalls.

Couvaras, who immigrated to Atlanta in 1994, went back to the sandwich shop and talked the owners into allowing him to open a third restaurant. But he wanted to improve the business systems so the restaurant would run more efficiently and sell more food in less time.

His efforts paid off, and today the Atlanta Bread Co. is one of the fastest growing quick-casual chains in the country, with 170 restaurants in 24 states and $214.5 million in sales.

Courvaras wants to take the chain to 500 restaurants in the next four years. The trick, he says, will be finding the right kind of franchisee.

"We aren't looking for someone who's getting in to get out," Couvaras says. "We're looking for someone who wants to stay the distance with us."

Couvaras spoke with Smart Business about building his franchise and how he plans to become the major player in the quick-casual restaurant industry.

What was the idea behind Atlanta Bread Co.?

I'm an investment banker by profession. What I did in my previous life back in South Africa, part of my investment banking investments were in food.

I was involved in a fried chicken franchise in South Africa; I was involved in a couple steak houses; I started the first Mexican restaurant in South Africa. That was a good part of our investment portfolio.

When I came here, I was taken to a small sandwich shop called the Atlanta Bread Company, and they had two cash registers, they had five sandwiches, one soup and one salad, and people were waiting in line -- I just couldn't believe it. People were waiting in line; there was very slow service.

As they would ring up the receipt, they would take money and send the receipt down the sandwich line. In the end, they would call No. 25, and the guy would come to pick up his sandwich. It would just take forever.

I didn't even want to wait in this line. I was with a business broker, looking for a business when I immigrated here 10 years ago. When eventually I got the sandwich and I got soup, it was just absolutely phenomenal. I said, 'Wow, I'm glad I waited. These guys have really got it down.'

I went back a few times and spoke to the owner, and we started a joint venture together where we opened our third store. They had two stores and I opened up the third. Our store did almost triple what their store was doing.

We put monitors in, we put systems in -- it was just phenomenal. We had different kinds of soups, salads and different things, and no one had to wait anymore. We got rid of the lines. and we thought the stores weren't busy, but the stores were doing three times more.

Then we started concentrating on the staff, the training. We took the commissary that was in the back of the shop and we put it into real industrial facility. We had state-of-the-art bread-making machinery. And we just put a lot into it -- a lot of expertise, a lot of money, and took it to the next level.

What was your expansion strategy in the early days?

The investment banker in me, I thought this should be on every street corner. I thought what I needed to do is to get it right first because obviously we had a limited source of income, we had limited funds, we were immigrants.

The best way to do it, I thought, was to get involved and understand the business. For the first nine months to a year, I was stuck in the business, understanding and really putting a UFOC (Uniform Franchise Offering Circular) together, and getting a good understanding of what this whole thing took. Once I did that, then we started opening stores just in Atlanta, and two years after that, we went down to South Carolina, we started in Greenville, we went to North Carolina, so we just started growing in concentric circles around Atlanta.

We have 170 stories in 24 states, and we're going to five more states this year. We'll open about 50 stores this year. Ultimately, we think this country will hold 1,500 stores, and we'd like to have 500 in the next four years.

How have you controlled growth?

We have good franchisees, we have a good support center, and we have great people within the company who are able to execute that.

You control it by virtue of the caliber of the franchisee you allow into your system. You control it by the real estate you get.

It's everything. The model itself has got to work. The actual system should work. Our system does work. It obviously works better in some places than others, and with certain people than it does with other people. The trick we have is to find the right people who fit our model and our culture, and the second thing is to find the right real estate, and everything else should just work.

What do you look for in a franchisee?

We look for someone who shares the same sort of core values that we have. We look for someone who shares the same vision for business as what we do -- the same philosophy. We aren't looking for someone who's getting in to get out.

We're looking at people who are looking at this as a long-term business, which we believe. Wealth comes with longevity in the same business role, rather than wheeling and dealing in different businesses. We're looking for someone who wants to stay the distance with us, and someone who enjoys doing what our franchisees are doing, which is going out and negotiating real estate, building the store and ultimately selling soup, salads, and sandwiches.

We want someone who enjoys people, and who cares, and that's a big word in our culture. Not only for us and for the business, but also for the guests. And being in the hospitality business, that's one of the single most important things that we look for are caring people.

At the end of the day, you need to love what you're doing. How to reach: Atlanta Bread Co. (800) 398-3728 or www.atlantabread.com