Milky Lane is building from its social media power to enter the QSR segment

Co-founder Christian Avant discusses the upcoming format and his thoughts on building a brand for social media.

Eclectic sounds from disk jockeys on the weekends, neon lights complementing the murals and graffiti of rap and R&B titans, and an unashamedly indulgent menu that grabs attention on Instagram.

Milky Lane prides itself in offering this bespoke, colourful utopia to consumers. And now, they’re seeking a path to carry and deliver a similar experience in the QSR space.

Speaking to QSR Media, co-founder Christian Avant confirmed a quick-serve format is targeted to debut next year, with the business currently building a team assigned to design the format whilst getting advice from former CEOs with QSR experience. They have also been in talks with Scentre Group Leasing to potentially house these formats in Westfield locations.

The five-year-old chain will open the first five or ten locations themselves before offering them to potential franchise partners.

“The goal was to create a model that's more easily scaled,” he said. “Whilst it's fantastic, and it will always serve its purpose, and will drive the excitement of Milky Lane, to think that I could do 150 or 200 of these [full service restaurants] across Australia is not realistic.”

Avant, who has a background in operating nightclubs and bars, said they have “capped” the full-service model at 45 to 50 stores, 25 of which have already been sold. The brand, which started five years ago in Bondi, currently has 12 stores. An outlet in Perth is set to open this September.

“Next year, I want to open 10 to 12 and then just launch the QSR model in line with that,” he said.

Whilst specifics are still being ironed out, Avant shared what the business wants from the “smaller, slightly more basic” version of their current proposition. Seeing demand for vegan and plant-based items, vegan-compliant sections are also being explored.

“We still want to have that element of dining, we still want to have a liquor license. We will have a number of our top selling cocktails pre-batched into RTD (ready to drink) bottles, which is stuff that we're looking into at the moment. I think the most important part is how we transfer that Milky Lane experience that we pride ourselves on,” he said.

“I would like to hit the peak of our QSR threshold probably five or six years from opening. I want to have all of the full Milky Lane restaurant models opened within the next two and a half years.”

The QSR model, Avant said, will also be the primary model they’ll employ to scale globally but clarified that they’ll first showcase the experience with full-service flagships. Discussions with operators in the U.S., Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to bring the Milky Lane beyond Australia, but the business has no plans to hurry.

“Any holes that we have in our operations here will be exposed ten times overseas,” he explained. “We don't want to go into the potentially right relationship with the wrong person because [the brand] sells very quickly. We're just making sure that we're with the right people.”

The brand, having made waves for being a popular stop for celebrities, almost had an A-list backer in Grammy-award winner Ed Sheeran at one point.

“We did have an opportunity, probably three years ago, where Ed Sheeran was going to buy into the Milky Lane holding company. Sadly, that didn't eventuate but he was looking to invest. This was after we met him and he tried Milky Lane. His business manager said, “Yeah, we'd like to buy 20% of your company.” So I always wonder where we'd be now, if that had happened. But sadly, it didn't. I don't think that door’s closed...I'd love to reopen it again.”

“We created a brand for social media”
Avant’s confidence in the brand is also informed by its immense social media following. As of this writing, Milky Lane boasts over 180,000 followers on Instagram - beating traditional fast food heavyweights - filled primarily with close-up shots of its burgers and cocktails. The business currently waived franchise and marketing royalties during the lockdown and opted to invest more in social media, leveraging its younger, more tech-savvy audience.

“Within 24 hours, I can assign a franchisee in a location that I know is going to work and create a cult following there within three months just from social media. We really are using that to drive a lot of what we do at the moment,” he said.

“We created a brand for social media. The idea, originally, was to do everything with the thought process of [whether] this look(s) good online; that's the products we create, that's the murals we put on our walls, that's the style of venues that we build. The more shareable it is across social media, the bigger our reach and network becomes.”

In some cases, the business also utilises social media to assess where their customers want them to open next.

For Avant, who’s in charge of their social media strategy, having fun with their food connected is also key.

“Nothing’s serious on our menu. Maybe they're not cocktails that people are going to drink five or ten of - it's going to draw them in. So if it doesn't look good on our social media, it doesn't bring people in [and] it doesn't have a place on our menu.” 

They’re also advancing this by creating new video content and venturing into TikTok, a platform already being used by chains from simple clips to recruitment.

Avant also revealed that most of their franchise inquiries come as a result of their content.

“We're getting maybe 10 to 15 franchise inquiries per week and that's just all coming through our head office email, which is kind of crazy because I hear about companies spending so much money trying to chase down one single lead,” he said.

Indulging on specials, centralised hub for franchisees eyed
Avant also says that the chain's approach to developing the products themselves also separates them apart. Milky Lane, according to him, does five monthly specials - some of which eventually get to their permanent menu. To make sure expectations are met, the business implements training videos and online quizzes whilst being firm on supply chain.

Along with a select few, Avant devotes a couple of days solely for creating new items. 

“We've almost set the bar so high for ourselves that if we do not hit that level, people throw us to the wolves, and they can be quite savage,” Avant jokingly said.

“We've never once tried to kind of pretend that we are anything but indulgent, calorie-dense food. We tried to launch a salad at one point, and it fell flat on its face.”

Upcoming plans also include an app with a loyalty program, slated to launch this year, along with tightening of all of their backend systems for a “centralized hub” for franchisees to run their training and onboarding-related concerns. The former will also be leveraged to do more influencer marketing, Avant said.

“We opened one store, and it was just meant to be a place for me to go and drink beers with my friends. And then it just skyrocketed. I want to compete. I want people to look at us,” he said. When they talk about growth, I want them to talk about Milky Lane.”

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