“We just felt like we had the framework for a pretty good team,” Avila said.
It was from that pairing that VooDoo BBQ & Grill was born in 2002. In the nine years since then, the company, which is based in Prairieville but opened its first restaurant in New Orleans, has grown wildly through franchising, even as franchise expansion has tapered off nationwide. Most recently, VooDoo in August announced plans to expand into Austin, Texas, with five locations. Other franchises are planned in Mississippi, Florida and North and South Carolina.
“The dream is to be a national brand,” Avila said. “In barbecue you have a lot of regional players, but you don’t have a nationally recognized barbecue concept.”
An unlikely forte
Louisiana seems like an odd place from which a barbecue chain would spring. Although the state is known for its food, barbecue probably wouldn’t come up in conversations about the various Creole and Cajun offerings. But Avila said the choice of cuisine was by design.
“We decided on barbecue because we felt like there was really an opportunity in New Orleans to do something there,” Avila said. “A lot of people discouraged us. They told us people don’t like barbecue here. I thought that was crazy. At an LSU tailgate there are people barbecuing. They might do things different than traditional barbecue and have jambalaya and gumbo to go with it, but they are barbecuing.”
The first VooDoo BBQ & Grill restaurant opened on St. Charles Ave. on Mardi Gras in 2002 as the Zulu and Rex parades rolled by. The group thought that would be a good way to get maximum exposure. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best debut, Avila said, as throngs of people lined up to use the restaurant’s restrooms.
“It was absolute chaos. We had no idea what it would be like to have thousands of people outside,” Avila said. “What a crazy way to start your business. But it was a great way to get our name out there.”
By 2007, the restaurant’s name was on five restaurants in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas. Those five stores were initially company-owned; two of them have since been turned into franchises.
Avila said the company did not intend to franchise, but it always had plans to expand outside Louisiana and to become a national brand, similar to a Subway or McDonald’s. As the requests for franchise opportunities began coming in, the company decided the best way to grow without taking on an exorbitant amount of debt or bringing aboard investors would be to franchise.
Rapid expansion under way
Today, there are 12 VooDoo restaurants, all in Louisiana. Franchise deals have been signed for another 41 restaurants, four to six of which will open in the next year, Avila said. Twenty-six of those restaurants will be in Florida, seven in South Carolina, five in Austin and one each in Lafayette; Biloxi, Miss.; and Asheville, N.C. The franchisees have 10 years to develop their restaurants, according to the licensing agreements they signed with VooDoo.
VooDoo’s aggressive expansion is impressive, given that it comes at a time when franchise growth has slowed, said Matt Haller, a spokesman for the International Franchise Association, a Washington, D.C.-based association that represents franchise executives. The industry is projecting 2.5 percent franchise growth this year, across all franchise models. That’s better than in 2009 and 2010, when job and franchise establishment growth declined and remained flat, respectively.
But the modest growth forecast for this year doesn’t take into account the increase in skepticism of franchise executives about the industry outlook. According to a International Franchise Association study released Wednesday, 47.3 percent of franchise executives said they expected their businesses to do better this year, down from the 54.9 percent who thought they would see improvement in March.
“From a confidence standpoint and from an outlook standpoint, it’s not as rosy,” Haller said. “In the past, franchising has bucked the trend of down economies. We tend not to be impacted as much, but with the credit crunch, we really have taken a hit.”
Haller said the International Franchise Association predicts a 20 percent shortfall in franchise lending this year.
VooDoo will need to think of creative ways to distinguish itself to complete its deals and continue growing if access to capital doesn’t improve, Haller said.
“It seems like they’ve had some success in doing that,” Haller said.
Avila said VooDoo has been diligent about reviewing potential franchisees’ financial plans and management ability before agreeing to licensing deals, so that it can forgo any pratfalls.
Selling ‘a New Orleans feel’
The company also is hoping that its barbecue concept will continue to separate it from other chain restaurants. VooDoo will get challenged as it expands, especially into markets that already have established barbecue names and that prefer certain styles of barbecue.
“It can be a challenge. We’ll have one guest say this is as close to barbecue that he’s had. And you’ll get another that says it isn’t real barbecue.”
But Avila said VooDoo will find success in other markets because the restaurant will sell not just barbecue, but a distinct experience based in New Orleans culture.
“It’s great for us because at a lot of barbecue places you walk in and there’s pigs on the wall, a Texas-style country western feel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we just wanted to separate and have a different-style feel than those. The ambiance has a New Orleans feel,” Avila said. “We have said we’re a New Orleans-style barbecue. There’s a little extra spice and flavor to our food and extra emphasis on side items,” Avila said. For instance, in addition to traditional barbecue sides like cole slaw and baked beans, customers can order “gris-gris greens” and corn pudding at VooDoo.
“We haven’t reinvented barbecue by any means,” Avila said. “We just doing some things differently.”
Still, Avila recognizes that it might be difficult to sell some people on the idea of New Orleans-style barbecue. With that in mind, the chain is hedging its bets, somewhat, with plans to offer barbecue sauces that are popular in various regions. Much like how McDonald’s offers the McLobster sandwich in New England, VooDoo will offer a vinegar-based barbecue sauce popular in the Carolinas, where that combination is popular.
“The goal is to keep the menu as uniform as we can, but maybe make some changes and exceptions from state to state,” Avila said.
Jaquetta White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3494.