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Can super-fan campaigns lure chain stores to Buffalo?

There are two kinds of people in Western New York: people who line up outside of new chain restaurants on opening day, and people who make fun of people who line up outside of new chain restaurants on opening day. ¶ Say what you will, some Western New Yorkers are passionate about their favorite brands. They are devoted to their favorite stores the way some people are devoted to the Bills and Sabres. They will camp outside in the cold in order to be the first in the door at a grand opening or, if there isn’t a location in town, they will drive hundreds of miles to reach one. ¶ These super-fans are so passionate, in fact, they have launched full-on campaigns in hopes of bringing the stores and restaurants they like to the Buffalo Niagara region. ¶ And in many cases, they have had their wishes granted. ¶ Fans clamored for Sonic Drive-In, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Nordstrom Rack, Popeye’s, Checkers and Cabela’s, and each of those brands have set up shop here. ¶ But how much did fan campaigns really have to do with those companies’ decisions to locate in Buffalo? And what can it tell us about current campaigns to bring brands such as Chick-fil-A, Costco and Steak ‘n Shake to the region? ¶ “From a franchise owner’s standpoint, yes, it definitely makes a difference,” said Kevin DiPirro, who just opened the region’s first Sonic Drive-In.

Sonic-mania

In 2011, with appetites whetted by national commercials, some local super-fans of Sonic Drive-In started a Facebook campaign called “Buffalo NY Needs a Sonic.” Members lobbied the Oklahoma-based company, commiserated about having to travel to Ohio to get their Sonic fix, and even tried to pool investors to crowdfund a Sonic location of their own.

A year later, a local radio station pulled an April Fools’ Day prank, posting a doctored picture of a “Sonic coming soon” sign on a construction site in Buffalo.

As the picture circulated, fans lost their minds.

The original Facebook post got thousands of likes. People’s social media feeds blew up with shares, and the radio station fielded hundreds of phone calls from fans wanting to know where the Sonic location would be.

DiPirro, who already owned franchises of Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon and Moe’s, watched it all unfold. He had already been looking to add another franchise and had liked what he’d seen with Sonic. All that fan support sealed the deal.

“When I brought Moe’s, nobody knew what it was. That was a hurdle, having to work for your fan base,” DiPirro said. “When you have a brand that the customer already wants, that they’re telling you they want, you’re already one leg up.”

In November, he opened the first of what will be eight local Sonics. More than 50 people were waiting outside the door and 110 vehicles had lined up in the parking lot. Some people had taken the day off of work or school to be there, others had made Sonic signs and T-shirts. It was the biggest opening day Sonic corporate had ever seen, he said.

Trader Joe’s, etc.

Starting in 2011, Trader Joe’s fans lobbied hard to get the California-based company to open a store in Kenmore. Members of the Kenmore Village Improvement Society made a 6-foot-tall “Kenmore Joe” mascot, which it photographed around the village. Fans started a Facebook campaign and sent pictures drawn by children to the company’s East Coast headquarters. A year later, the company announced it would open a store – but in Amherst instead of Kenmore.

The famously secretive company would not disclose what went into its decision to locate here. But the company does have a dedicated link on its website for fans who want to suggest a new location.

“There are no guarantees, but being wanted matters to us,” the site reads.

For Dinosaur Bar-B-Que founder John Stage, Buffalo seemed like the natural next step after the restaurant opened its Rochester location in 1994. Chains tend to expand their territory gradually within the same market areas, rather than hopscotch around the country, since it makes supplying new locations easier. Stage had heard from Buffalo super-fans who traveled regularly to eat at the Rochester restaurant, and had fielded phone calls and emails from Buffalonians requesting a location of their own.

“It was one of the deciding factors to expand there,” Stage said. “We knew we had a strong fan base already, so it really was a matter of finding that sweet spot.” That spot turned out to be in Franklin Street, between Chippewa and Tupper streets.

Over the years, Whole Foods often heard from fans in Western New York asking the company to bring a store to the region. Super-fans rejoiced in 2014, when the Texas-based grocer confirmed it would open a store in Amherst. While it wasn’t a primary or deciding factor in the company’s decision to build its store, it didn’t hurt.

“It always helps to know that there is a base of fans that not only are interested in bringing the store to the area, but are also willing to serve as advocates to help ensure it happens,” said Michael Sinatra, a spokesman for the Texas-based grocer.

Where’s White Castle?

But other campaigns have not been so successful. Impassioned pleas to White Castle, Waffle House and Steak ‘n Shake have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Vocal fans of IKEA had no luck luring the Swedish furniture retailer. All hopes were dashed in 2010 when the company said it would never locate in Buffalo because we don’t meet its minimum population requirement of 2 million people.

It wasn’t fans’ requests that brought Cabela’s to Cheektowaga. It was the dollars those fans were already spending on the company’s website and catalog. Nordstrom Rack had online customers here, too.

Wegmans wooers

Wegmans fields thousands of requests a year from super-fans across the country who want a store in their neighborhood.

So how do those fans’ petitions affect Wegmans’ expansion plans?

“The truth is, they don’t,” said Michele Mehaffy, a spokeswoman for the Rochester-based grocer. “We do not build stores based on requests.”

Instead, Wegmans targets market territories, then looks within those areas for places to locate. It chooses areas that are densely populated, then looks for easily accessible lots that are large enough to accommodate a store.

The company tends to open three to four stores per year, and is now focusing on growing in New England and the mid-Atlantic. And even though it is expanding into North Carolina, it is not because of a campaign by residents there that included a Facebook page called “Bring Wegmans to the NC Triangle Area.”

Tip the scales

Fan support may not be a deciding factor for most expansions, but it doesn’t hurt, according to Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Management.

There are more important factors that need to be in place before a company decides to locate somewhere, such as the appropriate population, demographics, property and supply chain.

Still, strong fan support can be the tipping point, or put a market on a company’s radar.

“It can be a signal to a firm’s management team that now is a good time to enter the market in question,” Lindsey said.

That’s especially the case with a franchise. A franchise may be ready to enter a market, but it often has to wait to find the right franchisee willing to sign on and build in a certain area, like Sonic did with DiPirro.

But the bottom line is this: if the numbers don’t work, no amount of love will bring your favorite brand home.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com

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