Sunday, June 15, 2003

Pasta Wagon ready for franchise phase

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Barry Rubinstein, owner of Pasta Wagon in West Chester, wants to franchise his business to interested parties in the Cincinnati area.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
WEST CHESTER - For eight years, Barry Rubinstein has forged his own path through the forest of business development, carefully marking his trail so that he can help others replicate his success.

Rubinstein, owner of Pasta Wagon, has built both a business and a blueprint so that he can franchise his "Italian made American" quick-fare restaurant concept. Now, as he prepares to sell his first franchises, Rubinstein is fiercely proud of the fact that he's done almost all of the work himself.

"It's a kind of David versus Goliath battle to compete and survive as an independent start-up business in a world of money-backed chains," he said.

"I have learned much over the past 25 years and look forward to the next stage of my journey in this highly competitive industry."

What Rubinstein has learned he has carefully recorded in several documents, all preparatory work for those who will replicate his venture. He is in negotiations with his first franchisee.

Rubinstein's entrepreneurial passion was nourished in his teens, when he worked at an Italian restaurant in his hometown of St. Louis. It matured when he was a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, majoring in hotel and restaurant management.

"During a course in restaurant finance in 1983, the Pasta Wagon began to take shape on paper," he recalled.

"The concept was a quick-service Italian restaurant with counter service, great-tasting Italian food, clean and kid-friendly environment, fast and efficient service at a good value."

The dream sat on the back burner while the young graduate honed his skills at two St. Louis restaurants. He then met the owner of a Penn Station franchise who brought Rubinstein to Cincinnati to run and co-own the steak-and-sub eatery in Blue Ash.

Rubinstein had no money to invest, so he purchased his half of the business through sweat equity. In 1992 he bought out his partner, and in 1995 sold the restaurant and used the proceeds for capital to start his Pasta Wagon project.

He was still short of the full amount, so he turned to friends and family, from whom he borrowed $25,000. For the balance, about $125,000, he needed a commercial loan.

"Banks are scared to finance loans for restaurant projects, especially start-up concepts," he said. "I was turned down by several banks, but was finally successful in obtaining a loan with a bank with the help of the Small Business Administration. That meant I had to formulate a detailed business plan.

"I told the SBA, 'The only way you're going to say no to me is if you don't do restaurant loans.'"

For eight years Rubinstein has worked his plan, trademarking the name, refining his restaurant concept and using guerrilla marketing tactics to build his clientele.

"My target market is two-income families with kids," he said. "I don't pretend to be real Italian; it's a fun atmosphere.

"We have a strong commitment to customer service. I tell employees to treat everyone like they're your mother.

"To market Pasta Wagon, I do stuff that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. I have a car with a roof sign, I pass out door fliers and have gotten tied into schools and local youth sports teams."

Insights and procedures are detailed in an operations manual for future franchisees.

"I have an eight-year track record and have turned a 'C' location into a 'B'," said Rubinstein. "I've turned Pasta Wagon into a viable prototype and gotten through the three-year trial period and paid off all my loans. We've made money from day one, but didn't have positive cash flow for a while; so my wife continued to work full-time for three years."

The restaurant owner learned the importance of strong relationships: with employees, with suppliers and with customers.

He offers health care benefits, bonuses and other incentives to his full-time staff, and is pleased to note that three of his managers have stayed with him since the beginning.

He also developed a program that tracks his costs. "I can tell you every day what my food cost is and what my labor cost is," he said. "I also negotiated chain-like pricing with my suppliers to obtain quality products at competitive prices."

Ease of preparation is also key. To ensure that his restaurant operates smoothly whether he's on the premises or elsewhere, Rubinstein has streamlined procedures, made efficient use of ingredients and kept food preparation simple.

Said Rubinstein: "You need a 16-year-old to be able to do anything in the restaurant. It's got to be easy so it can be replicated."

When he was ready to gear up for franchising, Rubinstein decided to save money by doing as much as possible on his own.

"I researched for months on the Internet, learning what goes into a franchise operation. I collaborated with lawyers to construct a solid franchise agreement and uniform franchise circular. My operations manual covers everything from opening up to locking up.

"There are instructions for every new employee. I'm very proud of what I've done."

"Barry has done the utmost to grow his business and franchise organically," said Dan Jenkins, assistant vice president and branch manager at Fifth Third Bank's Beckett Ridge bank mart in West Chester. "It didn't enter his mind to franchise before he had developed his West Chester location into as well-oiled a machine as possible. He built his business with blood, sweat and tears. He's been patient, yet aggressive."

Purchasing a piece of the pasta

Barry Rubinstein wants his first group of franchisees to be owner-operators. A Pasta Wagon franchise will cost between $290,000 and $310,000, which includes the $25,000 franchise fee.

There will be shared advertising and purchasing.

Pasta Wagon offers dine-in, take out and delivery. Its "Italian made American" menu includes favorites such as spaghetti, lasagna, mostaccioli, ravioli and chicken wings, as well as salads, sub sandwiches and soups.

The restaurant also does catering. It recently provided a sit-down meal for 500 wedding guests.

Pasta Wagon is at 4877 Smith Road in West Chester. Information: 881-2244 or 607-7303 for franchise inquiries.E-mail

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