Inspire Brands Multi-Unit Franchise Owner Jerome Johnson Shares Keys to His Success with Dunkin’ and Sonic
In 2002, Jerome Johnson Sr. and his son Jerome Jr. were the first to open a Dunkin’ store in the Pentagon. Now, Jerome Johnson Jr. is a multi-unit franchisee owning 20-plus units from the Inspire Brands portfolio, including Dunkin’, Baskin-Robbins and Sonic Drive-In.
Johnson didn’t start out planning to be a multi-unit, multi-brand franchise owner. “I never imagined opening a Sonic. My father, Jerome Sr., and I had been Dunkin’ franchise owners since 2002, and I never thought about owning other brands. From 2002 to 2009 we opened nine Dunkin’s and four Baskin-Robbins, all really focused inside government buildings. We’re inside the Pentagon, Defense Intelligence Agency, and on military bases. In 2009, we made a purchase that was a bad decision. We took over a store that was in the middle of construction, and the owners were having
conflicts. We were asked to step in and take over the business and given certain assurances that weren’t kept. It took us a while to recover from that. While fighting to get back on track, other franchisees started to enter the market, buying up territory around us. In 2013, we were finally ready to start growing again but were boxed in. That’s when I started to look at other opportunities,” explained Johnson.
No Such Thing as Coincidence
There are no coincidences in business. “People would ask me, ‘If you were to purchase another franchise, what would it be?’ and my answer was always ‘Sonic,’ Johnson recalled. “At the time, the closest Sonic was 45 minutes to an hour away, but they were always running commercials. In 2014 I attended the Multi-Unit Franchising Conference and met a Sonic rep. Two years later I signed a franchise agreement, and in 2019 we opened.”
Being a franchise owner opens you up to many different opportunities. By already being part of a franchise family, particularly one with multiple brands, you’re usually first at the table for opportunities, and that’s where Johnson found himself.
Inspire Brands is the perfect example. With its powerful portfolio of food brands, also including Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Jimmy John’s, franchise owners have opportunities to expand their portfolio by opening new brands or acquiring existing ones.
“That’s one of the great things about buying into a franchise. The training that happens is incredible,” said Johnson. “They literally walk you through everything you need to know, from helping with the construction to making the products. I always tell people I graduated from Dunkin’ University. That’s an eight-week, hands-on training program.”
In addition to the extensive training, there are brand meetings with fellow owners who collaborate and network, plus business consultants who help owners scale their organizations.
Get Rich Quick? Hardly
In a 2016 article from the Dunkin’ Donuts Independent Franchise Owners website, Johnson Sr. said, “The thing I always tell people is that this is no get rich quick scheme. It takes time to build an organization. Unless you have deep pockets to fund your business, it takes time to pay off those small business loans, and I’m anticipating the time when all my hard work will reap the rewards.” Johnson, Jr. echoes that sentiment and goes even further: “I reduced the amount we paid ourselves. We are big believers in delayed gratification— I get that from my dad,” he said. “We paid ourselves the bare minimum and reinvested the rest back into the business because we knew we were looking to scale.”
Johnson, Jr. also advises those planning to quit their job, open one store, and get rich to think again. “You’re replacing your 40-hour a week job with a 60-plus hour a week job. Focus on building and investing in your people while starting up. One of my favorite sayings is ‘Your network is your net worth.’ Don’t try and do these things on your own. If you’re looking to start a business, I highly suggest you attend a conference centered around whatever you’re planning to do. Start talking to people. Doing this changed my life. I talked to people next to me at conferences — one owned 100 restaurants, another 250! People are willing to share information — but you have to ask.”
Success Isn’t Without Fear
With the success that Johnson Jr. has had comes risk. “Who doesn’t have those fears that everything will come crashing down? Especially knowing that you have a family that depends on you, and having all those employees’ families counting on you. We have several Dunkin’, Baskin, and Sonic babies. I’ve even had my own — my wife gave me one for every brand! Some employees have been with us for over a decade and started their families working for us. So with every decision we make, we do our best to keep everybody in mind. We’re all eating from this same tree.
“I use the fear to push me forward. When I have a fear of doing something, I do it anyway. I get a lot more out of doing the uncommon or unexpected. I think that’s how you become a serial entrepreneur — going toward things that scare you. On social media I always use the hashtag ‘motiv8.’ I like to motivate people and shine light to show that this can be done. Thanks to my father, I started franchising when I was 22, and I now have 20 years of experience. As an African American, when I walk into a crowded room with other successful business owners, I still stand out, but I’m working to change that.”