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Domino’s may have conquered the world, but it won’t be on top forever. Not if Buck’s Pizza and Pizza Inn and Pizzeria Regina and Villa Pizza and Pizza Place and Fun Time Pizza have anything to say about it. Their preternaturally chipper salespeople spend a lot of time talking about being “the next Domino’s.”
For three days in April, while the rest of D.C. goes about its daily shopping errands, 13,250 people and 200 franchises are taking part in the Washington Convention Center’s International Franchise Expobuying and selling the chain names that they hope will dominate commerce from Kansas City to Karachi in the next century.
The folks who have yet to be enfranchised have arrived with visions of deep fryers and improbably yellow cheese and teenaged employees in stupid hats. In their mind’s eye, the future is framed by fluorescent lights, clean tiled floors, and corporate stationery. They have come for familiar names like Blockbuster, and strange ones, like the ominously trademarked Dr. Vinyl and Associates. They want something of their very own that just happens to have sprung from someone else’s imagination. Franchising has the ready-mix ease of a package of Sea-Monkeysonly instead of water you add lots of cash. The parent company tells you exactly how to conduct business. And all you have to do in return is send generous payments to them for the life of your franchise.
“Everyone wants a slice of the American dream,” says Don DeBolt, president of the International Franchise Association, “and franchising is the best way to get it. It’s a way to be in business for yourself, but not by yourself.”
The booths at the D.C. conclave are staffed by U.S. franchisers who want to expand internationally and international franchisers who want to expand into the U.S. Interspersed amidst the international suits, I spot the occasional mom and pop, hoping to find a franchise deal that’ll get them off the clock and striding down Easy Street. In franchise lingo, they’re “shopping for a concept.” In reality, they’re wandering around a maze of cubicles looking for their own piece of tomorrow’s mass-marketing landscape.
As it turns out, window-shopping for a mall concept is a lot more fun than window-shopping at a mall’s tenants. Strolling into the expo, I decide I’ll find my own ideal franchise. I personally prefer not to make my fortune off the fat of the land, so I decide to ignore the come-ons from Blimpie, Tubby’s, and Pudgie’s Famous Chicken. As I pass the glossy posters of fried goodies, I’m careful to look in some far-off location and avoid eye contact with the lonely booth attendants.
And then I spot my first million-dollar fantasy phrase: “Friendly to the environment, lethal for gum.” It’s the GumBusters booth! Larry Browne, the upbeat rooster of a guy who bought the North American rights to GumBusters, tells me the concept is imported from Holland. After years of research, Dutch scientists apparently discovered a way to safely remove gum from almost any surface. He’s looking for franchisees to help him expand into the U.S. market.
Browne’s video presentation ought to help: The theme to Ghostbusters plays along as three men hop out of “GumCarts”vans with smiling gum globs painted on their sidesdressed like low-budget superheros, in white jumpsuits, bright green galoshes, and blue baseball caps. “Who ya gonna call? GumBusters!” A voice-over explains the problem: “Chewing gum pollution is a social problem for which, until recently, there was no adequate solution.” With wands that are somehowtrade secrets prevent me from disclosing the mechanicsemitting steam, the men begin to melt the gum off a cobblestone street. “The chewing gum so carelessly thrown away is often later trodden into carpets, where it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove,” the voice-over continues.
GumCarts will cruise into restaurant chains, amusement parks, and cities. Browne seems excited about his future fighting gum pollution. Before moving on, I ask Browne if he’ll buy into his own concept and purchase one of those GumCarts. “I’ll have a whole fleet of ’em!” he says.
A few booths away is Hot Dog on a Stick. They sell only four productscorn dog, cheese on a stick, fresh-squeezed lemonade in a cup (not on a stick), and French fries (also stickless). It’s a simple concept. I know this from growing up in California, where the business originates. I enter the Stick’s domain feeling strangely proud and supportive. The booth’s counters are strewn with paraphernalia: notepads, buttons, folders. “Can I help you?” Hot Dog on a Stick’s rep calls out, not bothering to come over.
“I’m interested in franchise opportunities,” I say, sticking to the script.
She harrumphs as if she’s doing me a favor. “We’re looking for international franchisees,” she says with a tight smile. “The U.S. is taken.” In the world of Hot Dog on a Stick, I’m a small fry. They’re interested in people who will buy rights to an entire country: the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the like. Someone’s going to make a lot of money selling corn dogs to the Indonesian archipelago, and this woman knows I won’t be that someone.
I saunter by the six pizza palaces and wind up at the other end of the food chain. Swisher International features a giant diagram of a public restroom, with a small arrow pointing to the inside of a urinal: “Prevents odors and fixture clogging,” the text reads. The firm stocks and cleans public restrooms everywhere.
And then there’s Ann Summers, a British chain looking to branch into the American market. Motto: “It’s a business doing pleasure with you.” Their rep, a man in a pinstriped suit, tells me that Ann Summers is a more outré version of Victoria’s Secret and mentions erotic edibles, like penis-shaped pasta.
It’s a lot more family-friendly under the canopy of balloons at the Party Land booth. It’s crammed with productsracks of napkins and plates and streamersand there are two complete party tables set up, one with an array of Teletubby gear, including what appear to be Tinky Winky chopsticks. John Barry, the vice president of franchise development, greets me with a fistful of confetti thrown at my face. He’s wearing a denim shirt with a Party Land applique and a Party Land tie. “It’s all about the customer! What does she want?” he says, looking at me. “We’ll take her by the hand!”
A good thing, too, since by now there’s a slippery layer of confetti on the ground under Barry’s customers, including me. He’s also equipped with a box of party poppers, which detonate with a startling explosion of tiny curly streamers; he shoots them off compulsively. A smiling Indian family walks by, and Barry takes a moment to frighten them with a popper assault.
To open my own Party Land, all I’ll need is slightly more than a quarter million dollars and a certificate of graduation from Party Land University in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Still, I want to know which countries are available for franchising, so Barry leads me to a map of the world with a red dot for every Party Land store. “Beirut is taken,” I say.
“They really know how to party there!” Barry yells, launching a popper at me. “Pakistan is available!”
I get a perfect score at the BEVINCO booth. It’s late in the day, and I’ve found a winner. Just in time for Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ new D.C., BEVINCO brings the charm and efficiency of an accountant into the barroom. The company specializes in ridding the world of generous bartenders by curbing the abundance of their shots. Once a week, a BEVINCO representative visits bars to weigh bottles and compare use and sales to account for “every drop” of booze. The company claims to save its clients 20 percent in liquor losses. Because I regularly rely on the charity of my bartending friends, I think this is a terrible idea. But still, I’m drawn to the promotion taking place at the booth.
“Can you pour a perfect shot?” a sign asks. If you can, if you can pour exactly 1.000 ouncethree decimal placesthen you win a bottle of liquor.
I choose a bottle of Grand Marnier and pour a bit of its contents into a tall glass. I pour a little more for good measure. The man behind the counter shows me the BEVINCO systemhe places the bottle on a small scale attached to a laptop that automatically subtracts the bottle’s current weight from its previous weight.
I tap my foot in anticipation of my results. And then it appears, blinking by the cursor: 1.000. “We got a perfect shot!” the representative announces with genuine surprise. I jump up and down as I take delivery on the free booze. Screw all those bartenders who winked and poured when I was lonely or happy or just in need. It’s a franchised world out there, and I want my shot. CP