Venezuelan native Mario Contreras, 32, heads up his own multi-national company, Elbardi International Management, a Charley’s Grilled Subs franchise with units in Florida, the Carolinas, California, Venezuela, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He was the first of the chain’s franchisees to enter Latin America and paved the way for big expansion there, clearing multiple hurdles to ensure brand integrity.
“I wanted to start my own business and decided to become a franchisee. Charley’s had very little presence in the South Florida market. I loved the concept, saw opportunity and borrowed money from my father to open my first store in Miami,” he says. “It was very difficult. I was 23 and had never run a business. That location has increased sales 15 to 20 percent every year since 2004 and is now Charley’s No. 1 food court location.”
Needless to say, jumping from a U.S. mall food court to Latin America was challenging. “We went into Venezuela first and quickly learned how tough operating in a different country and different culture would be,” he says. “We didn’t have product, we had to source everything locally... In the U.S., our meats come pre-sliced, pre-portioned, vacuum-packed and ready to open and cook. In Latin American, resources are very limited. Nobody’s going to change their production line to produce the meat just how we need it. With corporate’s blessing, we decided we would do all of our production in-house, using specialized slicers to slice and portion bulk frozen meats.”
Learning each country’s labor laws, all of which Contreras says are different and significantly more restrictive than those in the U.S., was another challenge, as was simply figuring out local tastes.
Catering to a more value-conscious consumer, he’s reduced portion sizes to keep prices down and adapted the menu to incorporate more set combo choices. “In the U.S., you menu the sandwich and then offer an option to make it a combo meal,” he says. “In Latin America, we found out that’s confusing. They’re used to straight combos so our new menus have combos built in.”
Contreras has taken on two partners and recently brought on a district manager to oversee international units. Additional stores are planned for Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Panama, as well as in the U.S., and is set on reaching 300 units.