Michael Johnston

Burger Wisconsin’s focus on profitability pays off for franchisees

Michael Johnston is taking off his Burger Wisconsin hat for the last time. The long-time Gisborne franchisee has decided the time has come to retire at last, and is selling his store. It brings to a close a career in franchising that started almost two decades ago – and Michael says that the last few years have been the best.

‘In the last three to four years, this business has become really profitable,’ he says. ‘When the Burger Wisconsin franchise was bought by new owners Mariposa Restaurant Holdings (MRH), the family business behind the Mexicali Fresh chain, it was the best thing that could have happened. They made increased profitability a key target for all us franchisees – I only wish they’d taken over sooner! Whoever buys my store will be taking over a really good local business that’s backed by a solid, established franchise.’

a good keen man

A new franchisor might worry many people, but Michael has always enjoyed the challenge of change. He grew up in Ruatoria on the east coast and milked cows seven days a week while attending school. ‘Then I went to work for my uncle shearing sheep, before moving to Southland when I was about 23 and building my own shearing gang. It was the right place to be in those days – plenty of sheep – and at the peak I had about 40 people working for me. I saved enough to come back to Gisborne, and went into partnership putting in the grape and kiwifruit infrastructure, but that came to an end, of course, so it looked like forestry or fencing for me.’

Deciding he was getting a little old to be tramping the wild hill country, Michael was persuaded by his wife to train as a chef. ‘I qualified and got a job as a tutor at the local marae, as well as a part-time cooking job at the hospital. However, I was pushing 60 by this stage and no-one wants to employ old fellows. So I realised I was going to have to buy myself a job.’

With his chef’s experience, the opportunity that presented itself was the local Burger Wisconsin, which 17 years ago was quite a different proposition to today. ‘It was hardly a franchise – more of a loose buying arrangement. The decor was different in every store and there was no uniformity at all.’

Complicating things further, Michael says Gisborne as an area ‘was not exactly thriving’ when he bought the business. ‘All the other Burger Wisconsin stores did much better than us but that was down to the place, not the brand. Then come the Rhythm and Vines festival we took $54,000 in six days! That kept us going all winter and beyond,’ he chuckles.

a whole heap of benefits

After surviving rather than thriving for many years, things changed when MRH bought Burger Wisconsin and brought a whole heap of benefits. ‘Everything has improved in the last three years or so,’ Michael says. ‘The new franchise team has given us all the benefits of bulk buying power, good systems and fresh décor without damaging the local purchasing relationships and friendliness we were known for. We still have the same gourmet quality, the same old favourites, but there are new menu items, too. I’ve seen receipts shoot up since MRH took over, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

‘I’ll be 78 in July, so I figure I should have some retirement, but I’m quite sure of one thing: the buyer of my business is on to a good thing. The changes to Burger Wisconsin have made a massive difference to its potential and Gisborne has begun to change rapidly, too. People are seeking this place out and there is more money around. In short, we are growing, and now is a great time to get in.’ It’s a familiar story in many parts of New Zealand now as people leave the big cities in search of less traffic and a better lifestyle.

ready for the next generation

Burger Wisconsin was founded in New Zealand in 1989. ‘So much of the original concept was ahead of its time, with fresh local produce complementing superb gourmet burgers,’ says Conor Kerlin of MRH. ‘When we bought the company, our challenge was to improve the returns franchisees were achieving without mucking up any of the best parts. Now we’ve re-energised the brand it’s living up to the potential it always had and producing real results, as Michael has demonstrated only too well.’

Burger Wisconsin is keen to attract the next generation of franchisees for new and existing locations nationwide. ‘We don’t necessarily want chefs or people with food experience – we just need people who can see the opportunity and are prepared to do what it takes to succeed. The cost of a new outlet is between $300,000 and $350,000 +gst. Much of that can be financed and the potential return on investment is excellent.’

As Michael says, ‘If you are prepared to work hard and make the most of the opportunities the new Burger Wisconsin offers, it will reward you handsomely. I kind of wish I was staying on ...’

26 June 2018
Franchise New Zealand Magazine