But in 1992, Hough’s Gainesville company, MSE Branded Foods, introduced a concept of multiple brands sharing a common kitchen and management at North Georgia Premium Outlets.
The concept has worked, and MSE is now a major player in providing nationally branded foods at malls, airports and colleges in the East and Midwest.
The company operates the food court at North Georgia Premium Outlets in Dawsonville, where national and regional brands like Sbarro Pizza, Java Coast Coffee, Mrs. Fields cookies, Mayfield Ice Cream and Freshen’s Yogurt each have a separate vending site, but can share staff and other resources. The outlet food court also includes hot dogs, a deli, Jump Asian Express and the company’s signature brand Buckhead Grill.
The company headquarters is a former residence in Gainesville from which the operations at six regional airports, three outlet malls, a regional mall and a hospital are managed.
The newest site for the company is a licensed Chick-fil-A unit at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Ill.
But working on college campuses is not new to MSE, which has been a consultant to colleges including Auburn University, the University of Georgia, Furman University and the University of Maine.
While MSE has found a niche in the shared brands, the company strives to maintain the quality and integrity of the franchised product.
"Everything runs so the brand integrity is protected, but behind the line it is a shared functionality," Hough said.
The multiple eateries share sinks, walk-in coolers, preparation space and dish washing facilities.
"Everything we do today is in a nontraditional environment," Hough said. Some companies, such as Chick-fil-A, grant a license for locations in airports, colleges and hospitals.
"If I have a Chick-fil-A in an airport, am I damaging the Chick-fil-A that is a mile away from the airport? The answer is no, I’ve got a captive audience," Hough said.
Operating in the airport environment has become more challenging following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. All of MSE’s employees who work at airport locations must undergo a complete background check by the Transportation Security Agency. That includes Hough, who must wear the proper airport identification when he visits his airport locations.
The airport locations range from a variety of food, snack and beverage brands up to a full-service restaurant at the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport.
The college business has also been a growing part of MSE’s branded products.
"If there are 40,000 students at a college, you can put a good quality brand that they like there," Hough said. "Those kids have money and don’t necessarily want to go off campus and eat."
The company has seen its greatest growth in the past 12 years as the multi-branded concept has grown in acceptance with both the public and the franchising companies.
"We present ourselves as a top-line operator, but as a smaller company than our competitors, we pay more attention and are a better operator," said Hough, who points to numerous awards that have been presented by franchise companies for top operations.
Hough is equally proud of his company’s signature brand, Buckhead Grill, which specializes in a high quality Black Angus beef hamburger."We set out to find the best hamburger that we could," he said. "We must have tested 40 different suppliers. Our hamburger is the best on the market."
The burger is complemented by fresh-cut fries and comes in quarter and half-pound versions.
As for the future, MSE continues to pursue airport, college and hospital business, having recently won the contract for the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport in Mississippi and currently competing for a major college contract in Michigan.