Having a social media strategy in place is important for all businesses – and it’s of particular value when you’re involved in the development of franchises.

Dean Salomone of popular Italian food franchise Rozzi’s Fresh Kitchen is an authority in the world of Australian franchising. At the helm of a quickly-expanding nationwide franchise, Dean sat down with Iolanthe from Ruby Assembly to discuss the challenges faced by the food industry, ethical franchising and the passion that drives Rozzi’s excellence.

Iolanthe: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Dean: That’s a good question. I never had a particular path. I wasn’t one of those kids that said, “That’s me.” Although, in high school, I probably wanted to be an actor. I liked doing drama and all that kind of stuff. But I probably didn’t have the drive to pursue it at that age. I probably wasn’t strong enough when I was a teenager to go, “Screw what my mates think and screw what the girls think. I’m actually going to go off and do this!” But I also had my Mum saying, “You really like cooking. Do you want to open a restaurant? We can do that! I’ll cook in the back, and I’ll do this, and you’ll do that.” But I was too much of a self-absorbed teenager to see the opportunities around it at that stage. So I just did what every other boy did – I went to high school. I became a qualified accountant, but I never worked in the industry, ’cause I realised I hated it.

Iolanthe: What traits or strengths from your earlier years inform the business of franchising that you do today?

Dean: Definitely the ability to get up in a group and talk about things. I can take people along for a journey. I was never shy in front of a group, and I still do a little bit of emceeing on the side. In franchising, I’ve really married my business interests and my personal traits. At the end of the day we’re all acting in some shape or form when we’re working. So, looking back now, I was using all those skillsets unbeknownst to me at that time. Plus, I like to make people feel good, ’cause I think that’s how you break down barriers for people. You make them feel comfortable. I think that’s a good place to be, because people realise that, yeah – you’re serious – but at the end of the day work’s work. You’ve got to like what you do, but it’s really just work. I think as you get older, you start to realise you don’t sweat the small stuff. Whenever I’m stressed out at work, I always go, “This is just a function of what’s happening right now at this moment in time.” I breathe. I go, “Tomorrow will be different.” But it took me a bit of time to realise that.

Iolanthe: What do you enjoy most about being a business owner?

Dean: Taking something and making it grow. I’ve never taken an easy path, ever. That’s probably just ’cause I’m a Scorpio, and I have to learn my own way. My own stubbornness has been my downfall many times. I’ll go off and do my own thing, and I’ll learn from my mistakes. I kind of think that I’ve always been destined to take the tough road on things.

Iolanthe: Why is that?

Dean: Because I know if I take the easy road, I won’t appreciate it. I think that’s how I’m hardwired. If someone says, “You can take that now and you can get ten thousand dollars,” versus “There’s a harder option, yeah, and it’s not open to guarantee, but you may get fifty thousand dollars,” I’ll go the fifty option every time. I’ve earned the ten plenty times in my life and I’ve burnt it before. I don’t want to take something for granted: my theory is it’s never the easy road, but the least-traveled path’s always the better path.

Iolanthe: Dean, how do you help your clients, and who do you define as your customer, given that you’re in a franchise business?

Dean: Our key stakeholders are the consumers that buy our products. That includes our franchise partners, ’cause they’re in business with us – so they’re technically customers too. Our suppliers are also stakeholders, as are our landlords. As long as we have a value-add proposition for all those stakeholders. Our suppliers are super-critical to us, as we don’t grow our business without their support.

Iolanthe: So you have a complex series of relationships with a variety of customers and stakeholders simultaneously.

Dean: Yes. If we were a one-shop retailer, the equation would be simpler. Customers would be customers, suppliers would be suppliers. Our job as franchise developers is to influence our franchise partners, to make sure that their customers get a great experience every time. We also have a different type of relationship with our franchise partners, because they have a different expectation of us. Everything’s got its own challenge. I like it, as it’s a mixed bag. I’m dealing with lawyers; I’m buying stuff; I’m dealing with shopping centre managers on issues; I’m dealing with franchisees that are emotional. We deal with everything, and that’s just a function of our growth. I think it’s really good for us to know all those different parts of the business.

Iolanthe: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the franchising industry?

Dean: Australia’s got a heavily competitive food environment. It’s one of the sectors that’s actually growing at the moment. It has significant competition as anyone can open a café. The barriers of entry are quite low. If you break it down within the food game and focus on Italian-themed food, we don’t think there’s a lot of competition for Rozzi’s Fresh Kitchen on a chain or a network level. That’s one of the reasons why we to get into this business, ’cause I saw a massive gap in that marketplace for quality Italian-supplied food. Ironically, if you listen to newsmedia over the last 12 to 24 months, you’d assume that all franchise systems are rogue operators ripping staff off. Did you know that Australia has the second-highest unskilled labour rates in the world? We’ve got massive employment pressures on our industry at the moment. There’s a pressure point that every business has  – they need to be more than stable, they need to be profitable. These pressures include the cost of goods and wages and rent. It’s an interesting time that we live in for business.

Iolanthe: What do you think sets Rozzi’s Fresh Kitchen apart from your competitors?

Dean: I think what we’ve tried to do is bring a really modern, contemporary feel to our shops. I guess what really sets us apart is that we’re not pretending to be a high-end Italian restaurant, which some of other players do. We’re trying to find that sweet spot in the middle with our pricing, and with our fit outs. As a franchise business, I think what  sets us apart is that the Directors of our business have owned and operated franchise businesses over a long period of time. My business partner Miles has owned 20 Pizza Huts as a franchisee, so he’s lived and breathed the other end of the franchise experience. We get both sides of the story. With a lot of these systems, there’s an entrepreneurial guy that’s owned one or two shops, and then loses touch with his business. We don’t. We still own and operate shops.

Iolanthe: Can you tell me about the two objects that you brought and what they mean to you?

Dean:  This one’s my Dad’s hat. My Dad was typical little Italian bloke. He had a receding hairline when he was 30. I think back in the seventies, there was this notion of, “If you shave your head, it’ll grow back thicker.” He decided to do that in winter, so the story goes – which is why my Mum knitted this hat and scarf for him. I guess this, to me, just typifies family. Just, you do something for your family member. So, it’s nothing special. It’s just a classic, hand-knitted wool beanie. My mum knitted it for him in classic seventies’ style. Mum was a full-time worker too –  she wasn’t the atypical Italian housewife that stayed at home. She was a manager for a carpet factory.

Iolanthe: And is there a time when you wear the hat that reminds you of your Dad?

Dean: That’s when I make these. (Brings out home-made Italian sausages with a flourish.)

Iolanthe: Ah, excellent! (Claps with delight.)

Dean: ‘Cause I make these sausages in winter, right? I make them in the garage. It’s got to be freezing cold to make salami. So for the last 10 years, I’ve worn Dad’s hat. My Dad was highly-strung, like a typical Italian.When the salamis were on, it was mass-production, going crazy, screaming this and that. I started making sausages with my mates six or seven years ago. Now I have a tribe of people come in to make sausages with me – my business partners, their kids, all that stuff. It’s actually a really calm day. So to me, this is family. This is food. I guess this is the reason why I wanted to get into Rozzi’s. It’s a combination of family and food and business.

Iolanthe: I want to cry, Dean, that’s a really beautiful story! *Dean hands Iolanthe a sausage to keep.* I’m going to be putting this on our pizza at home. Thank you.

Dean: Throw a little bit of chilli on it – you can slice it up really thin and have a glass of wine and cheese!

Iolanthe: How important a role does marketing, social media, and communications play in the franchise game?

Dean: I guess franchise businesses by their nature always bat above their average from a marketing point of view right from the outset. This is because they compel every store to contribute to group marketing from day one, which is really unusual for businesses full stop. Typically, if we turn over thirty million dollars as a group, we’ve got x amount of dollars every year that we set aside just for marketing. You’re not obliged to spend it all, but you have this pool of funds set aside for this purpose. For Rozzi’s Fresh Kitchen, social media is critical. My whole intent when it comes to social media marketing is awareness of brand. Once we reach a critical mass and become well-known to landlords and consumers, we can begin to drive marketing programmes around specific products. For us, marketing and digital strategy is critical, absolutely, and it will continue to be. Marketing support is one of the reasons people like getting into franchise businesses. They can do things and access suppliers they wouldn’t be able to as an individual operator.

Iolanthe:  What is one piece of advice you’d offer an entrepreneur who wanted to become a franchisor?

Dean: If you’re going to become a franchisor, you really need to understand your business model and make sure that there is profitability for everybody. Perhaps even accept that franchisees will make more money than you, at least for the first couple of years. It means swallowing your pride a bit. It also means that you need to know what your growth strategy is.. Are you growing your franchise to onsell it? Are you growing ’cause you want to keep it as your own baby, this big sustainable business? At the end of the day you’re custodians of a lot of people’s money. That’s what I say. Every time someone invests with us, we don’t want to see them lose that investment.

Iolanthe: What has been your biggest business success?

Dean: Well, I guess our biggest-winning success was opening our first Rozzi’s Fresh Kitchen concept store in Highpoint. To me that was the litmus test. We put a new operator in there who didn’t know anything about our business, and they smashed it. For us, big success lay in taking something that worked in theory to a real-world proposition that achieved really good results. That proved the market was prepared to accept our offering.

Learn more about the Rozzi’s Fresh Kitchen opportunity here.

Contact Ruby Assembly to support your franchise with social media strategy here.

Photography: Breeana Dunbar
Location: Brunswick East