Issue Date: Week of March 17 2008, Posted On: 3/14/2008

Vets and franchises are a good fit
VetFran initiative offers discounts on franchise fees


Maj. Mark Peterson is active-duty in the U.S. Air Force and works at Langley Air Force Base. He and his wife wanted to start a restaurant.

They had visions of a mom-and-pop, breakfast and lunch spot.

But they realized quickly that they were inexperienced, so they went looking for a franchise.

Peterson and his wife shopped around for a while, taste-testing and meeting company officials. They stumbled upon Virginia Barbeque, a Fredericksburg-based chain specializing in pulled pork barbecue.

Virginia Barbeque is a VetFran participant and offers discounts on fees to veterans.

“It was definitely an incentive and one of the deciding factors,” Peterson said.

Peterson received $5,000 off the $20,000 franchise fee through VetFran, the Veterans Transition Franchise Initiative.

The program is a collaboration between the International Franchise Association, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Corporation and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The program was started by the now-deceased Don Dwyer in 1991 during the Gulf War. It was revived in 2003 and Dwyer’s daughter, Dina Dwyer-Owens, now chairs the program. 

The incentives offered for VetFran participants vary as much as the prices of franchises, but most are in the form of a percentage discount off the franchise fee. 

So far more than 1,000 veterans have bought franchises through the VetFran program and more than 300 companies have signed on as participants, according to a spokesperson with the IFA.

Companies participating include Liberty Tax Service, Wing Zone, 1-800-GOT JUNK?, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, Gold’s Gym and Zero’s.

Last week, Peterson accepted the keys to a newly constructed building at The Shoppes at Eagle Harbor in Carrollton in Isle of Wight County. After build-out, it will be home to his first Virginia Barbeque location. Peterson is aiming to be open in two months.

He signed an area development agreement encompassing Chesapeake, Suffolk and Isle of Wight. He can open additional locations in this area or work as an area developer.

But opening a business isn’t that easy.

Peterson, a reservist, returned to active duty in October 2006.

“To do this, we had to find someone to manage the store,” Peterson said.

So Peterson’s son, who has experience in the food service industry, and his wife and granddaughter moved to Carrolton from Gastonia, N.C., to help open and run the restaurant.

Peterson, 54, also has a daughter.

“We’re all living together in one house,” he said. “It’s an interesting time.”

Virginia Barbeque only had six locations when Peterson first discussed buying a franchise with the company, but he liked the CEO’s drive to become the “McDonald’s of the barbecue industry.”

“We thought it would be a good time to do this,” Peterson said, “and hopefully catch the swell. We’re willing to wait.”

Virginia Barbeque has 10 locations open in Virginia and along the East Coast and three more on the way, according to its Web site.

It’s hard to tell whether military service members make better franchise owners, but Todd Waldemar, owner of three Wing Zone franchises in Hampton Roads and North Carolina, thinks the background helps.

“They want to have store owners who are leaders and know how to manage and implement systems,” Waldemar said. “People from the military are fairly adept at doing that.”

Waldemar opened his first Wing Zone franchise in Jacksonville, N.C., before moving with his wife and seven children to Hampton Roads to further develop his business.

He opened the first Hampton Roads Wing Zone on Tidewater Drive in Norfolk and recently opened a second near the corner of Holland Road and Independence Boulevard in Virginia Beach. He has an agreement with the company to open close to a dozen locations.

Wing Zone specializes in delivery and take-out hot wings.

Waldemar isn’t a VetFran participant, but is working with Wing Zone to attract more military service members and veterans to the franchise.

“It’s been a very good fit for me,” Waldemar said.

Waldemar is a former marine. He served for eight years before becoming a reservist for four years. He decided to go back and serve in February 2003 after the 9/11 attacks. He served another three years and did one tour of Iraq in Al Anbar province.

“When I came out of the military, I had little to no business experience,” Waldemar said.

But he was able to use his military experience to infuse values and practices into his business and to lead his employees.

“I use the Marine Corps leadership values of honor, courage and commitment,” he said. “In the military you’re taught to overcome all obstacles.”

Businesses are rife with obstacles and Waldemar said his military experience gave him confidence he doesn’t think he would have otherwise. He tries to teach his employees the same values, he said, including how to deal with setbacks and having a positive and professional attitude.

According to a recent report by the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, estimates of the number of veterans in Virginia are thought to be higher than previously reported.

The department estimates 807,326 veterans lived in Virginia as of Sept. 30, almost 80,000 more than previously estimated, moving Virginia from 11th to 8th in the nation for the number of veterans living in the state.