A story by Denise Deveau / Photography by Drew Hadley

What happens when a serial entrepreneur has a mid-life ‘aha’ moment on the merits of healthy eating
and lifestyle? If you’re Rio Infantino, that moment’s end result is the launch of Copper Branch, a fast-
casual dining concept offering tasty plant-based dishes as a healthy alternative to your typical fast food
fare.
“I decided I wanted to create something that was going to benefit people, and I wanted to make it
affordable and acceptable,” says Infantino, the company’s founder and CEO, and a long-time
entrepreneur with a host of successful businesses behind him.
Prior to starting up Copper Branch, Infantino owned and operated multiple Subway franchises – 16 at
one point. He was at the top of his game and all was going according to plan, at least professionally. On
the personal side though, he let his health and general well-being slide. One day he found himself
tipping the scales at 300 pounds and that’s when he had his lightbulb moment.
Infantino realized he had to invest in a healthier lifestyle, and given his keen eye for business, he
extended that investment into his professional life as well. “I decided to create a healthy restaurant
chain that’s plant-based – something that would ultimately improve people’s lives,” says Infantino, who
started selling his Subway franchises and setting the groundwork for Copper Branch, a concept that
embraces natural, vegan eating.
The brand’s menu reflects this. There are super bowls filled with eggplant, chickpeas and goji berries,
four different veggie burgers, oven-baked fries and nachos, and the company’s own twist on a Montreal
classic: a lip-smacking poutine with a creamy cremini mushroom sauce. For dessert you’ve got chocolate
zucchini brownies, and the coffee is – as expected – free trade. “There’s plenty of texture and plenty of
flavour,” boasts Infantino, who swears his Copper Branch veggie burger can give any meat burger a run
for its money.

Serial entrepreneur
Not everyone looking to lose a few pounds decides to start a new restaurant brand – most people
battling a mid-life bulge are happy with a new gym membership and cutting out carbs. But Infantino is
not most people. The diehard go-getter started his first business – a janitorial service – at just 17 and
grew it into a 12-employee venture. By the time he reached his 20s, he had launched a dry-cleaning
business with just $6,000 in capital, expanding it into multiple locations and later selling it for “about 25
times more.” There was also a TV repair business along the way.
How exactly does someone so young develop the acumen and wherewithal to start not one, but
multiple profitable businesses? For Infantino, it was surprisingly simple. “I read a book called ‘Starting a
Business on a Shoestring’ and pretty much followed all the advice it gave,” he says.
During a lull in his enterprising activities, a job opportunity opened up at a local McDonald’s and
Infantino jumped at the chance to learn more about running a business from a franchise behemoth.
While he had studied business at Montreal’s Concordia University, he knew a brilliant learning
opportunity when he saw one, and for just under two years worked as a McDonald’s first assistant
manager. “I thought it would be an amazing learning experience, and it was,” he says. “The training is
extensive and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about systems, teambuilding and
operations.”
That experience primed Infantino for his 20-year stretch as a multiple-unit Subway franchisee. He
bought his first location when the brand was just starting out in Canada and grew his business to 16
units in the first seven years.
Yet despite his obvious success, Infantino’s expanding waistline and budding interest in healthier living,
combined with his strong entrepreneurial spirit and what he viewed as a saturated market, eventually
pushed him to set his sights on something new. He wanted to launch his own, healthier, franchise brand.
“It was a combination of reasons,” says Infantino of his decision to wade into fairly risky new territory.
“It was definitely my entrepreneurial spirit – I had my own vision and an ability to drive a company. But I
also wanted to do something that I truly believed in.”

All in
Pumping $2-million of his own money into his new undertaking, Infantino got the ball rolling by
conducting extensive market research and working closely with consultants to develop a viable concept.
He also brought at least one family member into the fold – his son Andrew designed the Copper Branch
website and now works as the company’s marketing director.
Menu development was key and posed the biggest challenge. Initial dishes created for the budding
vegan business were all scrapped – at a cost of around $30,000. As delicious as they were, it was soon
apparent they wouldn’t work in a quick-service model where everything had to be prepared by people
with limited food experience. Daunted but not deterred, Infantino changed course and spearheaded the
diverse yet doable menu on offer today.
The first corporate Copper Branch location opened in 2014 and the company started franchising the
following year. There are now 26 stores in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta – all franchised – and the
company has whirlwind plans to expand into other provinces and beyond. The goal is to have 40
locations by the end of the year and to actively branch into the U.S., where they just sold their first
location in Maine. They are also eyeing France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco and the Netherlands to
gain a foothold in the European market. The overarching goal is to grow to 2,000 units over the next
nine years.
Infantino is obviously not one to do anything in half-measures, and he believes wholeheartedly (no pun
intended!) in the burgeoning demand for healthier, ethically-sourced food. “People are looking for
something revolutionary, so there’s definitely space for Copper Branch in the marketplace,” he says.
“Our menu and branding target the mainstream consumer who wants to live more healthily and have
accessible, tasty, quality food, and that’s a big market.”
Copper Branch franchisees tend to be keen believers as well: most are people who want to both run
their own business and who see healthier eating habits as the way of the future. They include a varied
mix of professionals – doctors and engineers among them – who all bring their enthusiasm for healthy
eating to the table. As Andrew Infantino notes: “We have quite an educated bunch and they all basically
want to do something different. They have a passion for running a plant-based business and for the
plant-based movement.”

That passion recently led the company to team up with the Rain Forest Trust to run a loyalty program
steering a percentage of sales into Rain Forest land mass purchases. In just eight short weeks the
company has already bought and saved 700 acres of Rain Forest.
Initiatives like this give Rio Infantino his biggest buzz as he goes about building his newest business
venture. What he enjoys most is helping people, and by extension, helping the planet. For this diehard
businessman, it’s no longer all about making money. It’s about doing something far greater than that. “I
love knowing that every day we’re making people’s lives better, that every day we’re helping the planet
and that every day we’re saving a lot of animals by delivering plant-based offerings,” he says.
“McDonald’s has their ‘Billions Served’ slogan; well one day we’re going to have our ‘Billions Saved’
slogan.”
It’s a lofty, benevolent and highly ambitious goal, but one that clearly taps into the zeitgeist of the time.
If anyone can turn a vegan concept into a powerful, mainstream brand, it’s Infantino. After all, he had an
exceptionally early start in business, and he’s still going strong.

Copper Branch Stats
Franchise units in Canada: 9
Corporate units in Canada: 8
Franchise fee: $35K
Investment required: $300K-$450K
Training: Yes, full training
Available territories: All of Canada, U.S., International
In business since: 2014
Franchising since: 2016
CFA member since: 2015

 

https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/fullscreen/62378206/february-2019-digital-issue