Native Grill & Wings Franchise Review: Matt Thiara of Tucson, Arizona

Experienced restaurant operator finds out how resilient Native Grill franchise system is when pandemic hits

Long-time restaurant operator Matt Thiara was excited for a new challenge when he opened his first Native Grill & Wings restaurant on March 1, 2020. He got a bigger challenge than expected, though, thanks to coronavirus. He was about 15 days into his new business when the shutdown order came. On the positive side, he learned what a truly great restaurant franchise he had joined. He shares his story in this Native Grill & Wings franchise review.

How did you find out about Native Grill?
I’ve been in the business 35 years and I’ve done mainly a lot of fast food and QSR. We were looking for something local here in Arizona and also something that’s in the casual dining segment. I had come across Native through a friend of mine, and what appealed to me was how accessible the leadership was and how simple operations are from a franchise owner standpoint.

What was it about Native Grill that appealed to you?
Well, a couple things. Native Grill, as everybody knows, is very, very small. It’s about the size of what some franchisees have in their own portfolio, businesses that they may have. And it’s local. They may have a small team, but (CEO) Dan Chaon is the face of the franchise. After just talking to him more and more every time, we found that this might be something we wanted to do. It seems very simple from a franchise owner standpoint. You’re small, so there’s a lot of interaction as far as getting things figured out. And the business model is pretty easy to figure out once you get going.

Where are your units located?
We have two units in Tucson. We bought them from an existing franchisee who was exiting. We’re probably looking to acquire more if something comes up.

And how many employees do you have?
Right before COVID, we had about 52 at one and 57 at the other, and then a structure of management. A general manager and two assistants at each of the locations.

How do you aim to attract and retain labor?
For us, it’s a little different than most franchise groups or franchise owners. My brother and I have been doing this a long time and we’ve been in different concepts. Our biggest attribute is retaining and keeping the full-timers. We’re very flexible in scheduling, very easy-going and we’re hands on. As owner-operator, I’m around a lot, I’m in and out interacting with folks. We also reward for performance. So the average length of service with us is about 10 years. People really do stay and they enjoy it. It’s a tough job. But we provide all the resources and tools that people need to do their job. We don’t penny-pinch or cut corners because we want people to have what they need. Then we expect good performance for the tools they have. So we really don’t have much of a retention problem.

You opened at such a tough time. During this process, did you ever have an “aha” moment that made you say, “Yes. I know I made the right decision to invest in a Native Grill”?
Yes. That’s a question that came up on March 16th and 17th when the shutdown went into effect. You know, we were 15 days into a brand new concept and a brand new business. The thing really is not, “Did we invest into the right thing or did we do the right thing?” This is an uncontrollable event. The good thing for us was that we figured it out: All right. We’re under these conditions now for limited service as far as curbside, pickup and delivery, and we’re adjusting to a model that’s brand new to us. But at the same time, that gives us an opportunity — while we wouldn’t have wanted to do it this way — to learn the operations, learn what’s going on, learn what the people are about and that kind of thing.

We actually found it was going to be okay. And the other thing is, in our past businesses, we did have a model in one of our businesses where we did delivery, pickup and all that stuff, so we were able to adapt very quickly. Our managers at each of our locations adapted so quickly that it was pretty good. We had the challenges like every other restaurant or business, but no regrets as far as investing or becoming a franchise owner with Native. Not at all. Not at all.

Oh, that’s wonderful. What are some of the other concepts that you’ve owned in the past?
We have been with Mr. Goodcents Subs and Pastas, a local chain out of Kansas City. And we were franchisees of Backyard Burgers. We were also franchisees of Frullati Cafe and Bakery out of Dallas for a little while. Currently, we have Native and we’re franchise owners of a large QSR chain. So we have a lot of experience in franchising. We’ve been doing this for 30 years. We don’t have any official partnerships but it’s all family, so we do everything together.

What kinds of support have you gotten from corporate as you have been ramping up?
For us it’s a little different. We don’t need much support. But Dan is always there. He’s a good man. Always helps out as needed. He’ll answer the phone anytime, weekends, nights, mornings. He’ll call a lot and say, “Hey, what’s going on with this and that?” But when we do need something, he will dispatch himself or someone else. It’s a small company but you can’t complain about resources.

Do you interact much with other franchisees in the system?
There’s a call every week and we text, we talk. It’s a small group, but a good group.

Is there anything else we haven’t really talked about that you think a prospective buyer should know about becoming a Native Grill franchisee?
If you’re not a seasoned operator or don’t have some type of franchising experience, you’re probably going to have a difficult time, and that’s just not with Native. I think that’s with anything… But overall, I think it’s good. I mean, it’s a different time and I think everybody’s doing what they can and trying to just navigate through this whole process. We really like it so far.

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