In a keynote address at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit, three restaurant execs discuss launching Buena Onda, which now has five locations. Seven more locations have been sold.
Strategic partnerships between restaurant brands and hospitality groups can result in success. That’s the thought process behind the keynote address at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Coral Gables, Florida.
The three-day RFIS event, being held this week and hosted by Networld Media Group, provides a forum for executives from leading brands to share success stories and how they are innovating to grow franchises. Networld Media Group’s next industry event is #QSRNext, a half-day virtual event catering specifically to fast food brands. Designed with busy schedules in mind, the 30-minute, back-to-back sessions will feature execs in the trenches, who will offer powerful insights on technology deployments, labor issues, franchising, menu development and more.
How a new brand came about
The keynote panel talk, sponsored by Schoox, included Scott Campanella, COO of Ideation Hospitality, celebrity chef Jose Garces, who is founder and chief culinary officer for the Garces Group and David Mesa, EVP and chief development officer for Ballard Brands. Together, the three have successfully launched the Buena Onda casual Mexican brand.
Garces spoke about what it takes to build and grow a brand. With several other concepts under his belt, Buena Onda seems destined for success. Garces and his team conceived the idea, Campanella’s group added professional management and Mesa’s group heads franchising with Ballard Brands.
“Coming from the world of fine dining, what was it that made you think ‘I should do a fast casual?'” Mesa asked Garces.
“There’s so many moving parts in the upscale casual dining sector,” Garces said, “and I always knew that I could create an experience that was somewhere in between quick serve and upscale casual, really utilizing different techniques, really great products that were available to me in the fine dining space or upscale casual space, so really taking that knowledge and applying it to Buena Onda.”
Garces has been cooking Mexican food since 2003. Looking at the market, there was a niche that wasn’t filled, and Buena Onda could step in and fill it, and the concept would be scalable.
“I’ve always prided myself on bringing authenticity and tradition to the bigger market,” Garces said, including some daring flavor profiles like the chipotle chicken, carnitas and more with unique flavors. Garces has confidence in his ability to market unusual flavor profiles.
At an affordable price point, customers are able to dabble in differing flavors than they usually might. Garces took into consideration execution, scalability and speed while still offering guests that option to choose and have a more unique experience.
Looking at the right square footage and design of the kitchen for scalability, thinking about the vibe and the energy, Garces launched the brand and it took off early despite having a B- or C+ location, he admitted. With fresh flavors and packaging, speed of execution and quality for the price point, it seemed to resonate with guests.
Garces said the concept was 10 years in the making as it found its niche between concepts like Qdoba and more expensive fine dining establishments. Thus, the partnership with Ideation helped the concept taken off.
Hospitality at its finest
Ideation Hospitality had many conversations with Buena Onda about how to bring the concept to the market. It was a normal, healthy discussion, and it leaned heavily on technology to speed the process up.
“I think we got lucky,” Campanella said. “Jose had had a number of products that were being build every day for a wide variety of restaurants.”
As a result, there was an infrastructure already built with a commissary concept. One commissary serves five Buena Onda locations.
Buena Onda was already well set up for carryout just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Garces’ restaurants did about 80% dine in and 20% carryout before the pandemic; just before COVID, those numbers had shifted to 65% dine in and 35% carryout. During the pandemic, 100% of business was carryout and delivery.
With a commissary backing up the brand, Buena Onda was already innovating and staying ahead of the curve. They were able to build five locations relatively easily.
“For me it’s about innovating and staying ahead of the trends,” Garces said.
Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Garces spoke of a restaurant at the King of Prussia Mall that was a second-generation spot. It was in the middle of a strip and anchored by a Shake Shack on a corner that took all the traffic. “Location, location, location still holds true,” Garces said.
COVID also caused the partners to pause and rethink their operations.
“Fortunately for us, Scott (Campanella) came with enough foresight to say ‘Hey we’ve got this commissary kitchen already. Why can’t we replicate it that way?'” Mesa asked.
The long-braised items that require the most cooking skill and take the most time to marinate are made in the commissary, allowing the partners to focus on the five restaurants that were built in 10 months.
Campanella admits he’s not a “franchise guy,” as his area of expertise lies in activating space with food. Ballad Brands provides the “best practices” for Buena Onda.
Franchising for the brand launched April of 2022. In the first year, deals have been inked for two non-traditional locations and five traditional licenses.
With one commissary kitchen, how do they scale? They’ve partnered with a national commissary chain called Corvis who was able to take the key elements Garces referred to and replicating them within their network for future growth. That includes 50 commissary kitchens they’re able to grow into to make Buena Onda a national brand.
“There was a lot great opportunity that excited us about being able to take this concept and growing it across the country,” Mesa said.
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.