Young and In Charge: Franchising Duck Donuts with Family

It was at Duck Donuts’ opening launch in Virginia when a store shelf holding the donut icing suddenly wasn’t. “Icing was everywhere,” remembers Allie Wagner, the company’s director of operations at Duck Donuts Franchising Co.

And in the world of perfect timing, customers were lining up for orders.

Wagner didn’t panic. She went automatic.

She delegated, pitch in, wiped up the sticky mess, found topping replenishments and kept the assembly line moving with freshly made, warm, vanilla cake donuts for which the chain is famous.

“Something happens at every opening,” Wagner said, rattling off a list. At the Lancaster store, a toaster caught on fire. At the Carlisle Pike location in Hampden Township, the doughnut fryer went on the fritz. Wagner’s sister, Marissa DiGilio, the head of training and operations for Duck Franchising, jumped in to fix the fryer. DiGilio and Wagner know they can’t—pardon the overused phrase—let anyone see them sweat.

Employees, many of whom are new to the work, need guidance, someone they can trust to help them. Someone dependable. “How you react to your team is important,” Wagner said. “You can’t be scared.”

“People are watching you,” DiGilio said. “You are on stage if you will.”

Spoken like seasoned leaders, right? Wagner is 25. DiGilio is 30. Both women agreed to give the Business Journal a peek into what it’s like to help lead a growing franchise business as a young leader.

But first, a little company history:

The first Duck Donuts was opened in North Carolina by Russ DiGilio, the company’s founder and CEO (and Allie and Marissa’s father). It’s named after the barrier island town of Duck, where the family vacationed.

The franchise has expanded to dozens of other locations, from North Carolina to Connecticut, and west to Ohio. It hopes to have 35 stores open this year. One of Duck’s newest stores is in Cumberland County, also home to its franchise training headquarters.

The DiGilio family calls the mid state home so the local openings in the past few months are especially important. For children, to siblings to in-laws and spouses, Duck is a family operation.

Allie Wagner, Director of Franchise Operations

Wagner has been working for Duck off and on since she was a teenager, when her dad opened his first location. She earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science from Eastern University in 2012. Her professors at Eastern and her mom are among her mentors. “They pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she said.

The family aspect at Duck motivates her. “We want to put the hard work in because it’s our livelihood,” Wagner said. “Dad put so much work in. That drives us.”

As Director of Franchise Operations, Wagner is the support structure behind every franchisee. As of early September, 26 stores were operational. “What can I do to support our franchisees more and make it easier on them?” she asked. “What can I do to improve the brand? What can I do to make our stores more successful?”

She knows her age might be a factor in some meetings, but she doesn’t dwell on it. “Lead by example, and show them why you exceed the role you are in—change their mind from their first impression,” she said. “After two and a half years, I have come a long way.”

Marissa DiGilio, Head of Training and Operations

DiGilio’s path to working with Duck full time wasn’t so straightforward. She spent the better part of the last decade in Boston with schooling. She attended and later graduated from Montserrat College of Art in 2008 and earned a master’s degree in art therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge in 2014.

Two years ago, the family beckoned her back home. “I was a May 2014 graduate and started working full-time (for Duck) in 2014,” she said. “It wasn’t easy coming back, but it did make financial sense, and personal sense.

“I’ve been gone since graduating high school,” DiGilio said. “With my brother having kids, I wanted to be close to them. It was the hardest decision. But it’s reality. Boston is really expensive to live and when I broke it down, it was more about quality of life…not having to work three jobs.

“In 2007, we saw the potential (of Duck),” she continued. “I’m so proud of my dad. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Who knew that DiGilio’s art therapy skills would transfer nicely to her role at Duck? She works with hundreds of employees, each with their own challenges, needs, and backgrounds. In addition to franchise training, she also manages the Cumberland County store. Each new store has about 30 personnel. “Everyone is different. It’s about reading people and adapting to their needs,” she said. “You have people coming from different backgrounds, different demographics… and we do care for them and it’s important to let your employees know that you care about them.”

Allie and Marissa

On a recent summer weekday morning at the Cumberland County training center/store, a half dozen employees work quickly to fill orders. A steady stream of customers line up the length of the store. Employees man the register and greet customers as an assembly line of workers decorate and fill each made-to-order donuts. Behind a glass-enclosed room at the back of the store is the franchise training area. Sitting at a long table, the sisters answer questions about their work. The conversation naturally shifts to hard work and the desire to see the family succeed.

“I consider myself very lucky,” Wagner said. “There isn’t a weekend that I’m not on my laptop checking on the franchises. I don’t get to relax after 5. It’s different, but at the same time, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Factoring in the family factor, the water cooler conversations are definitely different, DiGilio said. “Family is always going to be there for you. They are always going to have your back,” she said. “You want to represent them.”