It’s rare to see a Savannah-based restaurant in other parts of the U.S. They usually feel like a treat you can only enjoy in the Hostess City which keeps people coming back to try “that one restaurant.”
But two Savannah-based restaurants are looking to expand and franchise, spreading that feeling to other parts of the country.
Savannah Seafood Shack and Zunzi’s are two fast-casual restaurants that have become staples of the downtown scene. The popular Broughton Street seafood spot opened in 2016 while the previous owners of Zunzi’s — Johnny and Gabby Debeer — started slinging South African-inspired sandwiches in 2005.
Since then, the two restaurants have amassed a loyal following of customers with Zunzi’s growing and changing as the years go by.
The cozy corner spot on York Street is now a dual-concept restaurant and bar on Drayton Street and is under the ownership of co-founder and CEO Chris Smith who bought Zunzi’s from the Debeers in 2014.
When Smith saw the opportunity to open a second Zunzi’s location in Atlanta in 2018, he took it, jumpstarting a franchising process that will potentially lead to five to 10 Zunzi’s and Zunzibar locations over the next 18 months.
The venture into franchising
Having been a franchisee for Five Guys for over ten years, Smith’s knowledge of what franchises want has come in handy.
“I think one of the key things in scaling growth is you really need to keep your models simple. And you need to really not change things a whole lot. As you’re growing it’s hard to manage a bunch of change in a growing system,” Smith said.
“The first thing that a franchisee wants is to make big money. … They’re looking for something that’s going to be a very good long-term investment, and they want something that’s going to be on trend with not just what’s happening now, but what’s moving on in the future.”
For relative newcomer Savannah Seafood Shack, the foray into franchising is a new adventure. Originally just a mom-and-pop shop, founder and CEO Christine Cutlip had dreams of one day expanding the restaurant.
“Right from the start, we would have people … after they’ve dined with us saying like, ‘Are you guys a franchise? If you are, this would be awesome where I live’ or ‘I would be really interested in opening something like this where I live because this would be great.’”
With five national TV features under their belt, Cutlip and her team were assured that more Savannah Seafood Shack locations were exactly what fans wanted. Fransmart CEO Dan Rowe reached out about the opportunity to expand in 2020, but when the pandemic hit the U.S in March of that year, conversations stalled.
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“I remember thinking to myself and telling him, ‘I’m really humbled about this, and what an incredible opportunity this sounds like, but reach back out to me in six months’ because honestly, I didn’t know if we would still be around then.”
But in 2020, Cutlip said Savannah Seafood Shack ended up with higher year-end sales than it did in 2019, and 2021 was their most successful year to date.
Cutlip was then confident enough for conversations to start back up again and knew the restaurant franchise development firm was the perfect partner as they sailed for new waters.
Business owner to franchisors
They soon had to change their mindset from being business owners to being a franchisor.
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“You’re no longer trying to attract customers. You’re now trying to attract investors,” Cutlip said. “And some of the questions we had to ask ourselves are one, is our restaurant successful? Is it profitable? Is it scalable? And obviously, these are key things that investors are going to want to know. Are we able to build a solid system that works?”
When considering stakeholders and partners, Smith’s focus has been on company culture.
“What we’re always striving to do is to have our stakeholders … leave saying ‘sh*t yeah!’ Nowadays, it’s not just good to be a good product anymore. You need to elicit a feeling and all of your partners in your business need to know why you’re in business. And so, as we venture into franchising, our culture is going to be really what differentiates us. We’re positioning ourselves as a franchise with purpose.”
As they make changes, his number one priority is keeping the Zunzi’s team first by continuing events like Zunzifest, a monthly appreciation event that celebrates customers, team and community with free sandwiches and charity partnerships, at all future locations.
As for those locations, both Zunzi’s and Savannah Seafood Shack are looking to start their growth in the Southeast. Smith said they’re targeting 10 states for development from Texas to Florida and up through Kentucky. Cutlip has partnered with a real estate broker to seek franchisees who are in major resort markets similar to Savannah to open a “handful” of restaurants in 2023.Franchise with purpose
Both restaurants have experienced the unpredictability that has plagued the hospitality industry since the pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020 from supply chain disruptions to labor shortages. However, as fast-casual restaurants, they were able to survive with a heavy lean on their ability to offer takeout, catering and delivery.
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Two years later, the opportunity to open more locations when the restaurant industry was so uncertain is not lost on them.
“If you have purpose in the business you’re in, no matter what business you’re in, then you’ll find fulfillment in it. And so for us, that’s really why we want to position ourselves as the franchise of purpose to where when you have those ups and downs you at least know why you’re doing it,” Smith said.
Savannah has made its mark on the dining scene in the South and has been listed on national lists as a place with some of the best restaurants. As Zunzi’s and Savannah Seafood Shack grow and expand, they look to put a bit of the city and its charm on the map.
“When people think of Savannah, they immediately think of the history, dripping Spanish moss trees, and, of course, our southern hospitality. So there’s this very fairytale-like feeling,” Cutlip said. “And I think we truly have some of the best food in the country, so it is exciting to be able to share that with the rest of the country.”
Laura Nwogu is the quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact her at LNwogu@gannett.com. Twitter: @lauranwogu_
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Seafood Shack, Zunzi’s to franchise outside of Georgia