Photo: JR P via Flickr

University of Georgia graduate Drew French returned to Athens eight years ago with the hopes of starting a pizza restaurant that could serve the quality Italian food he tasted during his honeymoon in Italy.

French’s restaurant, Your Pie, now has more than 20 locations in seven states, with dozens of new stores set to open across the country in the next year alone. Your Pie, along with other Athens-based franchises such as Barberitos, has exploded in popularity ever since getting its beginnings in the Classic City.

“The cool thing about Athens is that the community is willing to try new things,” French said. “[When Your Pie started] the university was great, and the local community was great with really just trying us out and spreading the word.”

The company’s founder said he looks back on the restaurant’s early years as a time of more organic growth, much of which was owed to Athens’ openness to his new restaurant.

“That’s kind of how we grew,” French said. “We didn’t have a marketing budget, so to speak, so it was more about providing a great experience and a great pizza to our customers.”

However, the popularity that many Athens franchises see in their hometown has a downside too, as it sometimes makes expanding to new markets more difficult.

“In Athens, we have tremendous brand awareness, whereas outside we don’t,” Downing Barber, founder of Barberitos, said. “So we have to do a lot more educating and talking to the customers about our food and what we do.”

Advertising in other cities and states doesn’t seem to trouble Barber’s restaurants too much, though. Since its first store opened in early 2000, Barberitos has opened around 40 stores in six states total.

In addition the success seen by Your Pie and Barberitos, Jittery Joe’s, whose first store opened in downtown Athens in 1994, has also now spread much further than its Classic City origins. The coffee shop chain has locations throughout the state — as well as one in Tennessee — and its coffee grounds are sold wholesale to stores throughout the country.

While the spread of Your Pie has been more sporadic, with restaurants opening soon in far away states like Arizona, California and Illinois, Barberitos has been more concentrated in its growth. The custom-made burrito chain has yet to open any stores outside of the Southeast, a strategy that Barber said is done intentionally.

“What we do is circular growth, where we draw a circle around Athens and spread from there,” Barber said. “We try to fill in and grow out that way.”

For Barber, the restaurant’s growth is still somewhat shocking because Barberitos wasn’t started to become a multi-state company; it just happened that way.

“The growth happened organically, we didn’t form this thing to grow more franchises,” Barber said. “I never thought about growing, but then people would come to me and be like ‘Hey you should put one of these on the east side of town.’ And then someone came to me like ‘Hey I wanna buy one.’”

After offers started to come in from individuals looking to open their own stores, Barber said he realized that growth was inevitable. French gives credit to his franchise owners as well, as he believes that much of Your Pie’s expansion is due to the people who took the risk to open a new restaurant far away from the company’s home base.

“We were kind of lucky early on to have people want to expand the brand in their local markets and be passionate about it,” French said.

Since those first few stores opened outside of Athens, French has now consciously turned his focus toward a more expansive growth strategy.

“It’s really been in the last two years or so that we’ve made a decision to grow nationally,” French said. “We’ve made some decisions to help us better compete in markets across the country.”

Despite how quickly the companies continue to grow, Barber and French still give credit to the town where it all started.

“I think that the people of Athens embraced me and embraced Barberitos,” Barber said. “And I think they still today embrace us.”