In February, Firehouse added a new member to its C-suite for the first time in 11 years (the position sat vacant since 2009 when Fox was promoted to CEO). Mike Hancock, a 6-foot-7 former defensive end who played in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts, joined as chief operating officer. The nine-year RBI vet held the same post at Tim Hortons. Before, he clocked five years at Burger King directing operations across North America, Southern Europe, Turkey, and Africa.
The move wasn’t a cryptic one—it was a signal sender. “That just adds great firepower to an already great team,” Fox says.
“He’s been operating in an arena where we aspire to go,” he adds of Tim Hortons. “So that real-world experience is of incredible value. And again, I’ve been in the industry for 48 years, but I haven’t operated at a level with a 5,000-unit brand.”
Bringing Firehouse On
Since close, Cil says RBI worked to integrate and elevate Firehouse. On the back-end, it’s connected the chain to RBI’s infrastructure—accounting, IT, and financial systems.
RBI has more than 200 engineers working through tech. The company created an in-house stack, including loyalty programs and a CRM engine. It’s also invested in white-label delivery alongside aggregator partnerships and continues to update menuboards to dynamic digital formats across the system, with an added focus on suggestive sell capabilities.
Firehouse already had a mobile app complete with order and pay and loyalty capabilities, as well as more than 3.5 million members. In 2021, 2 to 2.5X more dollars came via off-premises channels than pre-COVID-19. That October, 14 percent of sales owed to delivery alone. Rewards grew at a clip of 50,000 users per month and reached 10 percent of Firehouse’s total transactions.
“It’s so energizing when you know you’ve got these great, great assets that consumers love,” Fox says. “And know it’s more like fine tuning, with the technical side of the business to really unleash it.”
Cil says the more important integration piece, perhaps, is the “business standpoint mindset.”
With Fox now in the fold, RBI has a team of four presidents running each brand. They meet once a week and chat about performance and perspectives. Cil calls it a “sharing of best practices” that’s gone both ways since Firehouse arrived.
It extends from HQ analytics to site selection to format innovation and franchise recruitment. Yet it rests on economics, Cil says. “There’s no gaming that,” he notes. “You’ve got to have strong revenues, strong profitability, a good return on investment for a franchisee to invest and grow. And we think we have a great case here, and Mike and Don and the rest of the team will help accelerate that in years to come.”
One element Cil believes RBI can learn from Firehouse is its Public Safety Foundation. The program awarded $69 million over the years to “hometown heroes” and benefitted 5,700-plus organizations. Recently, RBI hosted its first Firehouse Public Safety Foundation event after it donated 17 automatic external defibrillators—good for $25,000—to the West Miami Police Department. The chief, major, and newly appointed mayor showed up. A speaker shared how a previously donated defibrillator saved a life in the last year.
“That’s pretty tangible,” Cil says. “And very direct and super powerful message for all of us. And for our team as well.”
At Tim Hortons, more than $27 million (cad) was raised in 2021 and early 2022 for the chain’s “Foundation Camps” and other initiatives. Burger King has provided nearly $55 million in scholarships to high school seniors and corporate and franchisee employees since 2002. The Popeyes foundation donated over $1.2 million to Support No Kid Hungry as of March.
So it’s yet another synergy RBI wants to build on, Cil says.
Returning to growth
Cil adds RBI isn’t in a hurry to open Firehouse units just because it can. “What we’re doing now is taking time to do the research, to understand what consumers expect from the sandwich category in these markets that we think have the potential for growth,” Cil says. “We’re doing research on product; on taste; on naming conventions for products. We’re thinking about what types of formats; how does technology fit in; what’s the right price and menu architecture to consider; and format innovation.”
Just like its expansion prospects in general, Firehouse has ample room to maneuver here, too. Through the first four weeks of the pandemic, Firehouse’s sales plunged 45 percent, year-over-year. The Monday of COVID’s “official” landing (March 16), it stopped collecting royalties. A day later, Firehouse did the same for ad fees. In fact, it would be months before the brand asked operators for either, and even then, it came as deferred payments.
The goal, Fox says, was to keep cash in the wallets of franchisees and provide them with ammo for whatever twist came next. However, what ended up happening was a return to prior-year levels after only 10 weeks. Come summer, Firehouse forgave deferred royalties and surged ahead.
“For us, what was very compelling was that the pandemic, and the initial stage of it, produced an environment where people in increasing numbers used us in a way that was perhaps different than they considered using us before,” Fox says.
But the positive spin was Firehouse had already begun to consider this. COVID didn’t invent off-premises realities as much as it provided kindling. The brand completed digital and packaging work pre-2020.
In 2012, Firehouse’s dine-in business accounted for 52.4 percent of sales (unusual for a sandwich shop, as most of its rivals were predominantly takeout, Fox notes). During succeeding years, the contribution from dine-in began to decline. In 2014, it dropped narrowly below 50 percent. Two years later, dine-in mixed just 46.5 percent. Fast forward to 2019 and it was down to 38 percent.
This was hardly a Firehouse-specific tale. From 2012–2019, fast casual showed a 5 percentage-point decline in dine-in. And more telling during the same span—a drop of 17 percentage points for a hefty collection of quick-service brands.
Close to 90 percent of Firehouse’s sales in 2012 came from a customer placing an order with a cashier at the point of sale. In 2019, the share of what the chain considered its “traditional channel of trade,” slid to 75.3 percent. Meanwhile, looking at 2012–2019, catering, online ordering, third-party delivery, drive-thru, and even phone orders, all grew.
Traditional ordering dropped below 40 percent of sales during COVID depths. It returned to 56 percent by year’s close.
The key here, Fox says, is Firehouse had assets in place. It only had to lay into advertising and promotion to jumpstart awareness. RBI can help with that.
“And that traffic that we’ve picked up has been lasting,” he says. “People are continuing to use us in that off-premises experience.”
Firehouse’s “Rapid Rescue,” or internal online ordering, plus third-party delivery, remains double what it was in 2019. “It has created a fundamental shift in how the consumer uses us,” Fox says. “I get so excited by the fact that RBI’s strategy was already in line with that in terms of the embracing of digital in particular. … Being able to leverage those resources, it’ll be much more impactful than if I had been left to my own devices under private ownership for the foreseeable future.”
Fox says RBI’s tools will help the company anticipate further change as the sector’s recovery marches on. In particular, the deal instantly gave Firehouse a drive-thru playbook that stems from operating more than 12,000 across North America.
Firehouse has nearly 70 today and they’re over-indexing sales in most cases, Fox says. The sandwich industry, in general, is not rife with windows like, say burgers are, which is one reason the category rebounded slower. “The vast majority of the system is in traditional in-line units, but in every instance where the business case is strong to look for drive-thru locations we’ve leaned into that,” Fox says.
As noted before, RBI spent the last 12–18 months modernizing its drive-thru fleet. Namely around digital menuboards. Those learnings are going to cascade to Firehouse.
“We think there’s an opportunity there to share best practices and you can basically cut to the chase versus iterate, which many of us have had to do over the past five, six years,” Cil says.
Adds Fox, who pushed “more Whoppers out windows than I can ever count,” in his 23 years with Burger King: “RBI can quickly make us better drive-thru operators. We are a great sandwich brand. We know how to make the best food. Do we have opportunity to learn how to serve it better?”
All told, Fox says, there are clear, myriad ways to grow Firehouse and generate more transactions. But it’s going to start with guest experience.
What he wants to bring to the portfolio from Firehouse “is that love of Firehouse.” RBI’s value core of “building the most-loved restaurant brands in the world,” is a vision Fox feels the chain fits right into.
“The thing is, we just have to make more customers aware of us so even more people can love us,” he says.