Talking fries with Scott Nelowet
1. Tell us about French Fry Heaven.
French Fry Heaven is a fry-only location that serves classic and sweet potato fries with 50+toppings. Our toppings range from the gravy and cheese of our Poutines to the sweet flavor of funnel cake on our Festival sweet potato fries.
2. When did you launch French Fry Heaven?
We had our first store in 2010 and started franchising in 2013.
3. What makes French Fry Heaven different from other places that sell french fries?
It starts with our singular focus on fries and our huge range of innovative toppings. From there it’s about how we make our fries that sets us apart.
French Fry Heaven started at a vegan festival, so while we maximize the flavor, we also pay attention to making our treats as healthy as we can. We use no trans fat oils, just 100% pure, cold pressed peanut oil. With the exception of our Poutine, everything is gluten free. Our menu is 95% vegetarian - items like our bacon bits are made with soy and our Cheezy Burger tastes like a cheese burger but is made entirely without meat.
Our fries are cooked Belgian style so they are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. They’re served fresh and hot and they aren’t greasy.
4. What exactly is a Belgian-style fry and how are they made?
To start with, they're fresh cut, not frozen, and a little thicker than normal fries. Then they're fried twice at slightly different temperatures to make them crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Serving the fries in a cone for easy carrying around is also a hallmark of the Belgian sytle. In Belgium it's also very common to have lots of innovative toppings - more than just ketchup, salt and vinegar that we're used to in the States. That makes for a lot more variety and deliciousness. We add our own twist by offering your choice of fries made with either classic potatoes (Angels) or sweet potatoes (Saints). Finally, our specially designed fryers are enclosed, resulting in a fry that uses 40% less oil than regular fryers.
5. What are Archangel fries and how are they different from the Angels?
Angels represent the classic side of our fries with toppings such as malt vinegar, ranch dressing, and ketchup. They’re the standards that people love. With the Archangels we’re stretching people a little and taking them in a slightly different direction with a more substantial, specialty offering. For each of the Archangels we start by rolling the fries in a spice and then we add a sauce. Our French Quarter Archangels, for example, are rolled in a spicy Cajun seasoning then covered with a creamy remoulade sauce.
6. Which are the most popular Archangels?
The popularity of the Archangels breaks down largely by age group. The two most popular with teenagers are the Cheezy Burger and the Baked Tater. The Cheezy Burger tastes like a cheeseburger but is made completely without meat, so it’s totally vegetarian. The Baked Tater tastes just like a loaded baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits. We use soy based bacon bits to keep the Baked Tater vegetarian as well.
Adults really like the Garlic-Parmesan fries, which are loaded with parmesan cheese and garlic. They’re especially good when they’re served with black truffle salt.
7. What can you recommend to someone looking for something a little different?
For people who like a little spice in their diet I’d recommend the ChaCha, which is both sweet and spicy. It starts with a sweet potato fry that we toss in cinnamon and sugar. Then we add a red chili sauce. To the classic ChaCha I’d add our ghost pepper salt, which is the hottest salt in the world. That’s going to be a flavor combination that’ll wake anyone up! The ChaCha itself is spicy but won’t burn your mouth out. I’d put it at about a 7 out of 10 on the heat scale when thinking of spicy cuisines. Ghost peppers on their own are very, very hot. We use ghost peppers to infuse a salt. With the salt you get a spicy kick without the burn at the end. So, the salt is a nice way to make the ChaCha a little spicier, without being too crazy.
Another great option is the Thanksgiving. We get a lot of teenagers, especially, who either don’t like sweet potato fries, or haven’t tried them. For these people we suggest they give one fry a chance, to see what they think. The Thanksgiving is like a piece of sweet potato pie. For many people, they’re used to sweet potato fries being done just like a normal french fry - they’re not used to them being done dessert style. When they taste the Thanksgiving they’re blown away because it’s done in a way they’ve never seen before.
8. Overall, what’s the most popular fry you serve?
It’s the simple classics that are the biggest sellers - straight up fries with ketchup, barbecue sauce and ranch dressing - those sorts of things. A lot of people just love fries and we serve a great, classic fry. For people who want to stick with what they know and love we’ll often suggest a slight modification. For example, if you want barbecue sauce you can add our Bonfire Salt, which has a really smoky taste. It takes the barbecue and makes it taste like it just came off the campfire. It takes something familiar and adds a little extra to it.
9. Are there regional differences in what people like for toppings?
The Poutines are quite regional. They’re based on a popular style of Canadian fry made with brown gravy and loads of cheese. They tend to be a real hit or a miss, depending on the area of the country. In the North and Southeast people are attracted to the brown gravy of the Poutines but in the Southwest people don’t get the attraction of brown gravy nearly as much.
Another interesting regional aspect has to do with the fact that we have very little meat on the menu. To keep our fries as healthy as possible and to have them appeal to a wide variety of people we make the fries vegetarian as often as we can. That’s why our bacon bits are made with soy, for example. They taste like bacon, but they’re not. Well, in the Southwest they love their meat and want to see it on the menu. We came up with a recipe that combines the Poutine with our Arizona spice, which is a chili based spice, and the Bonfire Salt. It tastes just like brisket, even though it doesn’t contain meat, and it’s a huge hit in the Southwest.
10. Do you get a lot of topping requests from your customers?
All the time! Every 3 months we introduce a set of new flavors on a trial basis to see what people think. A lot of these come from our franchisees or our customers. The Baked Tater came from a suggestion we received. On our website we have this growing secret menu which our customers have put together by combining flavors that are on the standard menu into unique offerings. A lot of what we see in terms of regional favorites come from the secret menu. You can access the secret menu by signing into the Happy Souls section of our website.
11. Who’s your audience?
Everyone who loves fries! It’s one of the most universal foods out there. For students, that goes double! Every poll done puts pizza and french fries at the top of the list for most favorite food on campus. So we start with a universal food that everyone likes and we cook it in a way that makes it as healthy as possible. From there we have a few different kinds of customers. The first is anyone who’s been to Europe. When they see our stands it brings them back to wherever they were and the style of french fry served in Europe. Our second type of customer is the person who likes to try something new. We offer something that’s unique in that there aren’t a lot of fry stands out there. And then we offer our fries in a way that’s just totally different from what anyone else is doing. The third type of customer is the person who’s looking for fries and loves the idea of gourmet fries. These people are the ones who are specifically coming to French Fry Heaven to get some unusual fries.
12. How did you come up with the name French Fry Heaven?
We knew we were going to be selling french fries. We we looking around for a good name and wanted something that would work well into the future. The first name we came up with was French Fry Paradise. It had a beachy feel to it, which was good and bad. In the end we kept associating fries with sand and they didn’t go well together. My wife then came up with the idea of French Fry Heaven. That allowed us to play with the idea of Saints and Angels for our different types of fries. We loved the flexibility and opportunities we had with French Fry Heaven. The one thing we worried about was whether or not we would get boxed in with the name. We do a lot of charitable service and want a good, wholesome image for our brand, but we also like to be a little irreverent at times and have some fun. We didn’t want to get into a position where having fun was taken the wrong way and upset people. To make sure our name would be viewed in the way we wanted I went to a few evangelical groups and sat down with them to find out what they thought of us using the name French Fry Heaven. I showed them our menu and some of the ideas we had to see if there was anything that bothered them. What we heard repeatedly was that our approach was positive and fun and didn’t bother anyone. I did the same thing with various other religious groups to make sure we weren’t offending anyone and the feedback was the same. There were a few minor tweaks we made but we didn’t encounter any major concerns. We thought the name was catchy and like the flexibility it gives us.
13. Your mission statement says that you want to make “a significant impact on the world.” What do you mean by that?
That refers to the charitable aspect of French Fry Heaven. We build our charitable giving into the ad funds because typically franchisees send money for us to do advertising for them. Instead, we want them to take those funds and do something locally in their own communities. We want people getting out there making an impact - that’s why we require that they put in time or give out food. It can’t be just about cutting a check. It’s up to the local franchisee to determine what works best for them. The charitable work of our franchisees is one part. The other part is that everyone we hire has to have a charitable service background. I think it makes them good, warm people. I think that food service has a unique opportunity to bring happiness into people’s lives. You can be having a crappy day when you come into French Fry Heaven and we have an opportunity to serve you something that’s going to put a smile on your face and make your day a little brighter. When you’re feeling better you’re going to have a more positive impact on all the people around you. It’s a small thing but it’s something we can do over and over with a positive result.
14. What was Fries Across America?
Oh man! When the recession hit a lot of people were down and I’d hear over and over that nothing could be done until the recession was over or until some politician did something to fix things. I’m an entrepreneur and in my view it’s everyday people who do things to get things going and we shouldn’t wait around for events or politicians to make things happen. I’d just bought this food truck and came up with the idea of driving across America, serving fries and talking to people about entrepreneurship and encouraging them to take control of their own lives. I wanted to spread the message of getting out and doing something and not waiting around for someone else to fix things. I started in Houston and did talks in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, Indianapolis, Louisville, Atlanta and here in Jacksonville. We got some great crowds out, which I appreciated, but the thing I liked the most was the feedback I got afterwards from people who wrote to tell me that they’d decided to take some action and make a change or open a business. That really made the whole thing fun.
15. Do you have a food truck now?
Yes. It’s mostly used for special events, usually with a charitable aspect to them. I’d really love to find someone who could run it full time but haven’t found the right person.
16. Have you ever considered having a fleet of french fry food trucks? Food trucks and french fries seem like a great fit.
It’s a great idea. As a starting point we need someone here, locally, in Jacksonville who can run it. We’re a small company that’s growing quickly and we have our hands full with that growth. To launch a whole new aspect to the business would require the right person who could oversee it and make it successful. The right person would have to be able to run the business and also write the how-to guide for other food trucks that would have the French Fry Heaven brand.
17. How long does it take to open a store, from the time a potential franchisee calls you until they’re in business?
For most people it’s a 4 - 6 month process that includes the discussions with us, finding a location, getting the right permits, building a kiosk, hiring staff and so on. Finding the right location, where there’s a lot of foot traffic, is the main thing that can add time. Some people come to us with a location in mind and that speeds things up a lot.
18. How many locations do you have?
We have 18 now [June 2014] with another 5 about to open and 50 in the works. We have two locations in Jacksonville and one in St. Augustine.
19. What makes French Fry Heaven a good franchise opportunity for someone looking to open a business?
If you ask anyone in the restaurant business about their highest margin items they’ll tell you it’s fries, drinks and alcohol. All our stores carry two of the items and some are allowed to have alcohol. That gives us a great basis for a strong business. We systematize all aspects of the business so that it’s easy to understand and people can get started quickly. Everything is trademarked and copyrighted to protect the brand. The sauces, spices and salts are all proprietary and unique to French Fry Heaven. You don’t have to worry about setting up and having someone steal your business idea and set up next to you. We’re selling a great product that people love and it comes with a strong business system.
20. What do you look for in a franchisee?
We’re in a good position because we can be selective about who we work with. We make sure someone’s a fit before we bring them on. That’s good for us and it’s good for them.
As a business, one of our cornerstones is charitable service and it’s foundational for who we work with. For franchisees the idea of charitable service has to make sense to them.
The second thing we look for is people who are aggressive about building their business. You have to want to grow. We don’t want 100,000 stores and 100,000 franchisees. We want to have franchisees who are looking to open multiple locations. We want people who want to help us grow the brand in a significant way. We want to do this with as few people as possible because it lets us operate more as a family that can work closely together and help each other out.
We also want people who are competitive and want to win. Part of winning is making sure that every customer walks away happy. It’s also making sure that you maximize your selling and marketing efforts. You can’t sit back and be passive. You need to work to wow your customers and introduce them to new things and new experiences. And you have to get out there and get your message heard.
Lastly, it’s a business with a bottom line so a good franchisee has to be bottom line focused. Those are the key things we’re looking for.
21. Are there any lessons you’ve learned from watching your franchisees?
Something I’ve seen, and it’s not just here at French Fry Heaven, is that when people start something, and it could be anything, they’re usually full of enthusiasm and have this idea that things are going to take off like crazy. Well, no matter what you do, year one of anything is just work. Lots of it. It takes a lot of effort and dedication and you have to be willing to put in that work to be successful. I see people who come with unrealistic expectations and think they’ll set up and the rewards will pour in. They’re always going to be disappointed. Other people jump in and go full bore. They embrace the work and get things done. They know it takes time and they’re willing to put in the effort and the time. We had one guy who opened up and within weeks of his opening you saw French Fry Heaven menus everywhere. It was sheer effort on his part to get the word out. But that’s what it takes. It’s all about the operator who’s willing to put in the effort to be successful.
22. Will you expand outside of the US?
We get a lot of interest from people who want us to expand that way. It’s easy to do because everything we do can be done internationally. The only challenge is in the name, but even there it sounds very American and that’s appealing to a lot of people. So, we have the interest and we’ll do it at some point but our first focus is to be successful here in the US and that’s what we’re working on now.
23. What’s the biggest challenge in scaling French Fry Heaven?
It’s staffing. We got a lot of money initially to launch the business. We built a lot of systems to allow the company to scale to 1,500 locations. But supporting a business of that size takes a lot of great people and we have to work hard to find them and attract them to come work for us.
24. Why did you start writing your BLOG and what’s the goal of the BLOG?
When I started the business I started getting lots of questions from people who wanted advice on what it would take to be successful. The only thing I could share is what other successful people had told me. But I also realized that a lot of successful people don’t really know what made them successful and weren’t able to offer more than platitudes to work harder or obvious things like that. It’s not that people didn’t want to help but that they didn’t always remember what they did to really become successful. What successful people did remember, vividly, was the things they’d botched. I found that it really helped to hear about mistakes people had made. Not many people write about their screw ups so there’s not much information about what not to do out there. I love writing and it got me thinking that maybe there was an opportunity to share some real world experiences that could help others. I think it’s important to see that people who are successful also make mistakes and you can learn from those mistakes.
25. What did you do before French Fry Heaven?
I was into college academics for about 20 years. I was a teacher, a professor, and did some administration work. Before that I’d been in sales and marketing. I’d worked for MTV. And before that I was in the Peace Corps. I’ve got an undergraduate degree in Communications, a Masters in Education, and a Post-graduate Fellowship in Multi-media. I was one of those 1994 web guys.
26. How did you go from all that to French Fry Heaven?
I was tired of academia and looking for something else. My wife and I were traveling to Europe for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. We wanted to find something that was being done in Europe that we could adapt and bring back to the US. French Fry Heaven is what came out of that. It was either french fries or a herring stand.
27. Where do you think French Fry Heaven will be in 5 years or so?
I think there’ll be 300 stores or so by then. You’ll be able to go to any major city and find a French Fry Heaven.
28. Have you ever thought of branching out beyond french fries?
French Fry Heaven will always be about french fries. We may add milkshakes, and one of our locations is adding craft beer, but everything will revolve around french fries. If we have an idea beyond french fries we’ll create a different brand. One of the things we found when we went around the world to research our toppings is that in a lot of countries people were putting full meals on their french fries - using the fries as a base for the rest of the meal. That doesn’t really fit with our snack brand but it may open the door for a separate business. There are a lot of great opportunities out there.