Franchisee hopefuls flock to D.C. expo

WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY

April 11, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- There's no way the Dukehart family of Cockeysville is going into the ostrich-breeding business. Gina Dukehart made that crystal clear.

Still, her husband, Jim, couldn't help but stop and listen as Peggy Hoshall of Stickler Premium Ostriches in Wynnewood, Okla., gave her spiel about "the health food of the future" at the International Franchise Expo here yesterday.

The Dukeharts were among thousands of entrepreneurs -- would-be and actual -- who turned out for the first day of an expo that continues through tomorrow at the Washington Convention Center. The show, billed by its organizers in the International Franchise Association (IFA) as the biggest franchise show ever held, brings together more than 300 franchise companies from around the world.

The franchisers ranged from familiar names such as Burger King and Pearle Vision to unconventional businesses such as Florida-based International Pearl Inc., which sells pearls in the oyster.

The global-economy contingent included a Brazilian computer-training company and a Japanese designer of an arcade game called Pachinko that you'll probably see on the Ocean City Boardwalk by 1993.

At one booth, two slinky models wearing black tights and "Star Wars"-style vest-packs carried on a high-tech game of "bang-bang-you're-dead" with laser pistols. They were demonstrating a game called Quasar, which a British company is convinced will take the gun-happy United States by storm.

The Dukeharts weren't playing games, however. For them, the expo was a chance to window-shop for an American dream.

"Our goal is to move out West," said Mr. Dukehart, who makes lipstick at the Procter & Gamble cosmetics and fragrances division in Hunt Valley. "This is basically just a start for thinking about what I might do."

Mrs. Dukehart, who works at the Columbia Hilton, shares her husband's dream of forsaking city life for the mountains of Colorado. She said they were looking for "something that equally fits our interests" and doesn't require a hefty capital investment.

Their search carried them through Cookie Man, an Australian company that lured potential franchisees with samples of its wares, to Mr. Miniblind, Subway and Carvel Ice Cream. At each stop, a company representative delivered the pitch -- painting a picture of opportunity for the entrepreneur with skills, energy and capital.

At the Bike Line booth, franchise development coordinator Ron Santillo was preaching the virtues of his West Chester, Pa.-based bicycle store chain. "We're here to expand nationally," he said. It's a tall order for a 22-store chain, but Mr. Santillo spoke with conviction.

"He was the best one yet," Gina Dukehart confided later. Bike Line had made the first cut.

The couple wandered on past displays for a swimming pool leak-detection company, a closet-organizing company and a horde of fast-food chains.

"It's a real education just walking through here," Mr. Dukehart said. "Who could think you could make money cleaning barbecue grills?" (Answer: Barbe-Clean International of Niagara Falls, Ontario.)

John Reynolds, vice president of the IFA, said the average regional franchise show draws 5,000 to 6,000 visitors but that the Washington expo is expected to lure as many as 30,000 from around the world.

Typically, about 1 percent of the visitors end up buying franchises, Mr. Reynolds said. But he said he was hopeful that the percentage would be higher at this show. There were more serious investors, he said, and fewer "tourists."

For Jack Csicsek, vice president for franchise development at Ellicott City-based Boardwalk Fries, yesterday's turnout was an economic indicator. "We're seeing consumer confidence all over this room," he said.

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