The Bottom Line
When to Expand Internationally and How to Do It
International expansion may seem like an impossible goal on the surface, but in reality isn’t that much different than domestic expansion. In some cases, international expansion can even be easier than opening a new location just a few miles away. Of course the circumstances vary based on the restaurant, but for the most part, international expansion involves a framework paralleling that of a budding franchise.
Whether you’re looking to copy your current restaurant or open an entirely new concept, take some of these pointers into account when taking your business abroad.
Have a firm hold on your current restaurant(s).
Before expanding internationally, it’s imperative to demonstrate financial and operational success in your current location(s). If you’re struggling with sales, sourcing, staffing or any other element of running a restaurant, that obstacle will be even harder overseas. Expanding before solving any current issues will divert necessary attention away from these pressing issues, and before you know it you’ll be struggling with properties both at home and abroad.
Only when you’ve established a firm foundation can you think about expansion. With a firm foundation comes staff you can trust…more on that later.
Know your potential audience and make tweaks accordingly.
Different countries mean different cultures—different tastes in food, ambiance, presentation, service and so much more. What works at home may, and likely will, need to adapt to your target audience abroad. For example, a US-based taco shop looking to open a location in India will likely need to place a heavier focus on non-beef products, given that certain regions don’t eat beef.
Décor and layout are additional elements that may change drastically. Get a feel for your direct competitors in the new area. Study their color schemes and table setups, and note which facets you should incorporate into your concept. It may be that you go so far as to transform your full-service restaurant into a fast-casual concept, or vice-versa.
In the same way that you’ve shaped your restaurant around your local clientele, you’ll want to make changes to meet the needs of the new neighborhood, whether that neighborhood is 10 or 10,000 miles away.
Partner with locals.
Once you’ve done some initial research on your own and have a firm understanding of what you think you want, it’s imperative to find a partner with local roots. A local partner is going to help you navigate the business landscape in a way you’d never be able to accomplish on your own. Building codes, health codes, permitting, licenses, suppliers and other infrastructure elements will be manageable only with someone who knows how the local system works.
From there, your partner will build on your foundation of menu, ambiance and service. Chances are that they know your target audience in a way that observational research can’t match. They should take it a level further by knowing the marketing channels and promotional tactics that work best.
Partnerships like this can take one of several forms:
•Hiring an advisor in a consultant-style role
•Hiring a full-on business partner, whereby they will hold ownership in the business
•Pursuing a joint-venture, where you’re partnering with a pre-existing local business and leveraging their network and buying power
•Franchising, where an overseas owner will do the vast majority of the work while you collect royalties
Finding a partner in any of the above capacities is always a challenge, and will come through time spent in the area, networking in the same way you did to establish your initial location(s).
Have trusted staff on the ground.
When you’re not able to physically be in the new location, a reliable contact is imperative. Inquire with your staff at home if anyone is willing to relocate. While this will be a huge ask, having someone you know, and who knows your business, will help tremendously in achieving the balance between the demands of the new local market and your restaurant’s core values.
If nobody on your staff is able to relocate, you will need to spend significant time onboarding your staff abroad. Involve your partner(s) in the process as much as possible, so that you have a well-oiled machine up and running.
Designate key points of contact so you can get regular status updates. Maintain consistent communication and trust your people to make changes when you’re not present. And, of course, be sure to visit on a regular basis to ensure quality and brand control.