In compiling our second annual ranking of the fastest-growing up-and-coming restaurant chains in America —the ones tallying sales between $25 million and $50 million—we were struck by how many new growth stories there were to tell. Thirty-one of this year’s Future 50 growth chains, or 62 percent, are entirely new to the list. That tells us that the entrepreneurial spirit thrives in 2007, and that the restaurant business is still where it lives.
1. Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina Charlotte, NC
2006 Systemwide sales: $40,500,000*/153.1% change
2006 Total units: 75*/188.5% change
2006 Average unit volume: $800,000*/0% change all percent changes vs. 2005
2. HuHot Mongolian Grill
5S $27.5 million*/83.3%
5A $1.7 million*/1.5%
With HuHot, Montana’s Yap family, which cut its teeth as Godfather’s Pizza franchisees, has set out to conquer an untapped fast-casual niche. Their inspiration? Genghis Khan, who viewed competitors with disdain and the world as ripe for conquest.
3. Seasons 52
5S $31.2 million*/73.3%
5A $5.9 million*/1.7%
Darden Restaurants moves decidedly up market with Seasons 52, a stylish grill and wine bar. Fresh, seasonal ingredients and healthful preparations form the menu, which boasts that no item exceeds 475 calories (see page F8).
4. Tijuana Flats
5S $40.9 million/60.4%
5A $1 million/8.1%
Brian Wheeler founded this quick service Tex-Mex in 1995 and began expanding almost immediately. He created Tijuana Flats Hot Foods Inc. to consolidate the restaurants and specialty products (a line of “Smack my Ass and Call me Sally” hot sauces, for instance) and is now one of the largest distributors of hot sauces in the southeast.
5. Pappas Bar-B-Que
5S $33 million*/50%
5A $2.2 million*/0%
This 40-year-old concept is part of the growing, multi-concept Pappas Restaurants group. Established by Chris and Harris Pappas as The Brisket House in downtown Houston in 1967, the name was changed in 1996 to Pappas Bar-B-Que and it was positioned with other operations under the Pappas corporate brand for growth. (Among the family’s other concepts are Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, Pappasito’s Cantina, Pappas Seafood House, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappas Burger and Pappas Grill Steakhouse.) By 2005, the barbecue chain had grown to six restaurants and today comprises 20. Almost all are clustered in and around Houston, with one unit in Dallas. The casual, “real Texas barbecue” concept serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers dine-in, take-out and catering.
6. RA Sushi Bar Restaurant
5S $33.7 million/50%
5A $3.2 million/12.3%
Founded in 1996 by childhood buddies Scott Kilpatrick and Rich Howland, the ultra-hip RA Sushi Bar Restaurant grew to four units in Phoenix before catching the corporate eye of Benihana, Inc. In December 2002, Benihana acquired RA and commenced taking the sushi and sake sensation into urban markets throughout the country.
7. Ker’s WingHouse Bar & Grill
5S $36 million*/44%
5A $2.1 million*/1.2%
As the name suggests, wings—mild, medium, hot, House on Fire, Dallas (served with a honey-barbecue sauce) and Naked (skinless and baked)—are the order of the day at this casual sports bar complete with WingHouse Girls and TVs everywhere you turn. Founder, CEO and former NFL star Crawford Ker attributes the chain’s success to its mission of being “brilliant at the basics.” He expects to add at least three to four new units annually.
5S $42 million*/40%
5A $1.1 million*/7.1%
Established in 1989, Crispers took its time about growing: It was almost a decade before a second unit opened. Since then, growth has clearly been on this fast-casual gourmet salad and sandwich chain’s agenda. That’s due in part to resources and strategic positioning provided by Publix, the Florida-based supermarket chain that in 2005 bought a majority interest in Crispers.
9. Juice It Up!
5S $28 million*/40%
When Juice It Up! came on the scene in 1995, smoothie joints were just beginning to jump in the southern California market. Conceived of as a way for founder Larry Sidoti to ditch a suit-and-tie advertising career, the concept struck a chord and has since evolved from a low-key local favorite into a fast-track national franchise.
10. RedBrick Pizza
5S $33.5 million*/39.6%
Jim and Lynn Minidis may be starting out relatively small, but their goal is to become the largest fast-casual gourmet pizza chain in the world. The couple, former Little Caesar’s franchisees, decided in 1998 to strike out on their own. RedBrick has grown by double digits in each of the past three years and is now well positioned for national and international growth (see page F20).
11. Cantina Laredo
5S $48 million*/39.1%
5A $3 million*/0%
Cantina Laredo takes a gourmet approach to Mexican fare, with dishes such as pork roast with chipotle-wine sauce, and an upscale modern atmosphere. The chain is owned by Consolidated Restaurant Operations, Inc., which owns El Chico, Good Eats, Lucky’s and Cool River, plus the prime steakhouses III Forks and Silver Fox. CRO is expanding into the Middle East with one location now open in Cairo, Egypt. Five to seven new Cantina Laredos are slated for this year.
12. Bice Ristorante
New York, NY
5S $26.8 million*/37.4%
5A $3.3 million*/1.5%
The Bice chain got its start in Milan in 1926, when Beatrice Ruggeri, known as Bice, opened a neighborhood trattoria. Her sons, Roberto and Remo, developed a second location in exclusive Porto Cervo, on the island of Sardinia, in 1978, and an American beachhead in New York in 1987. In addition to what are now nine U.S. locations, Bice restaurants have opened in Tokyo, Paris, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo, under joint ventures and licensing agreements. The company also runs Café Med, a casual dining concept with three U.S. locations.
13. Not Your Average Joe’s
5S $40 million/33.3%
5A $3.2 million/6.7%
Living in the suburbs shouldn’t mean you’re doomed to eat at mediocre restaurants for exorbitant prices. That was Steve Silverstein’s gripe back in 1994, when the former CPA and retail executive founded Not Your Average Joe’s. Now with a baker’s dozen units—all in Massachusetts, plus one in Leesburg, Virginia—the casual dining chain offers a varied menu ranging from mustard-crusted chicken to vegetarian stir fry and Tuscan shrimp scampi. Silverstein expects to open three units this year.
14. Panchero’s Mexican Grill
5S $29 million*/31.8%
Rodney Anderson and his father founded Panchero’s in 1992 with two units in midwestern college towns. A few years later they hit on their signature offering: fresh, made-to-order tortillas. That took Panchero’s from the college belt to the suburbs, where its fast-casual, fresh Mexican concept—think quesadillas, burritos, fajitas and tacos, with no freezers, microwaves or fryers on the premises—is winning fans. These days, the chain is definitely in expansion mode, with plans to open new Panchero’s units in Florida, Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and North Dakota.
15. Maui Wowi
Greenwood Village, CO
5S $46 million*/31.4%
In 1983, founders Jeff and Jill Summerhays built Maui Wowi Hawaiian to provide their Ohana (or family) a healthy alternative to foods high in fat and sugar. Maui Wowi is known for its fresh-fruit smoothies and Hawaiian coffees such as the sought-after 100% Kona.
16. Robeks Fruit Smoothies
& Healthy Eats
Manhattan Beach, CA
5S $34 million*/31.3%
Billing itself as an easy way to get your daily fruits and veggies, Robeks is aggressively expanding under CEO Sheri Miksa. Founded in 1996 and franchising since 2001, Robeks roots are in southern California—only natural for a chain promising its customers an easy way to a healthier lifestyle. Today it has locations in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Owned by investors including Emigrant Capital, Maverick Capital, John Cushman III, Robert Kirby, Halsey Minor and Robert Pitts Jr., Robeks plans to add 70 new units in 2007.
17. Pizza Patrón
5S $31.5 million*/31.3%
“Más Pizza. Menos Dinero.” (“More Pizza. Less Money.”) is the tagline for Pizza Patrón, a chain that targets Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. The chain drew national media attention earlier this year for its “Pizza por Pesos” program, which founder Antonio Swad credits for a 35 percent increase in same-store sales in the first two months of the program. When franchising began in March 2003, Pizza Patrón went from four locations to 65, with 40 more currently under development. Swad had developed another concept, Wingstop, in 1998, but sold it in 2003.
18. Jump Asian Express
5S $37.2 million*/30.5%
This quick-serve Asian was founded by Lewis Rutherfurd and Jim Hawes, classmates at Harvard Business School. Most of the prep is done in Jump’s plant, where sauces are made and proteins are trimmed, marinated and 60 to 90 percent pre-cooked. Vegetables are delivered to each store daily. The only item fully cooked on site is starch: rice or Udon noodles.
19. Stoney River Legendary Steaks
5S $33.5 million/28.8%
5A $4 million*/0.9%
The emphasis here is on service, aged steaks and four dozen wines by the glass, but the upscale mountain lodge atmosphere and price point just below that of the premium steakhouse chains convey an image that’s accessible to a wider range of diners.
20. Chicken Express
Mineral Wells, TX
5S $40 million*/27%
Richard and Nancy Stuart dreamed up the Chicken Express concept—quick-service fried chicken, with sides ranging from the traditional (fried okra, mashed potatoes and gravy) to the nouveau (jalapenos, cheese sticks)—in 1988. They opened their first franchise location in 1990, and are firm believers in the owner-operator model. So as they grow beyond their locations in Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma—Nancy Stuart says Chicken Express hopes to add a dozen units in contiguous states this year—they’re focused on finding “the finest, hardest-working individuals” to sign on the dotted line.
21. Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill
5S $38 million*/26.7%
5A $3.2 million*/3.2%
In this chain’s contemporary-rustic lodges, smoky aromas from a large stone fireplace prime customers for dishes like seasoned steaks grilled over the open flame. Partners Dennis Thompson, Douglas Glendenning, Mark Wattles and Leslie Rudd plan eight more locations in the next three years.
22. The Loop Pizza Grill
5S $33.5 million*/26.1%
5A $1.2 million*/3.3%
China, glass, indirect lighting and upscale furnishings—doesn’t sound like the neighborhood pizza joint, does it? But that’s what Mike and Terry Schneider created when they launched The Loop in 1981. Customers order specialty thin-crust pizzas, burgers and salads at the counter, then enjoy them in a funky, eclectic dining room. The Schneiders, now divorced, continue to run the business together, aiming for six new units by the end of the year and 50 more by 2010.
Los Angeles, CA
5S $45.2 million*/25.7%
5A $1.8 million/18.5%
A spinoff of California Pizza Kitchen, ASAP offers a limited selection of CPK’s pizzas,
salads, sandwiches and appetizers. The concept, which was launched in 1996, provides CPK with “additional development opportunities in attractive high traffic venues.” Nineteen ASAP locations are located in airports under a licensing agreement with HMSHost; the other units are either company-owned or franchised.
24. Montana Mike’s Steakhouse
5S $36.4 million/25.1%
5A $1.6 million/(1.9%)
Since 1998, Montana Mike’s has prospered in B and C niche markets by offering large portions of naturally aged steaks hand cut in house, at moderate prices. Today they’re seeking growth with a new 7,000-square-foot, ground-up construction modeled after a rustic mountain lodge. Owned by Tom Ford, Terry Harstad, Steve Schmidt and Doug Freiling, the restaurants are part of Stockade Companies, LLC, which also owns the Sirloin Stockade and Coyote Canyon chains.
25. Bandana’s Bar-B-Q
5S $32.5 million*/25%
5A $1.6 million*/3.1%
At Bandana’s Bar-B-Q, slow-cooked Southern barbecue is the order of the day. That means the pork, beef, chicken and turkey spend 11 to 14 hours in the smoker along with green hardwoods and founder David Seitz’s 50-year-old dry rub recipes. Though the food is cooked slowly, it’s served fast, with Bandana’s promising a meal for four in 30 minutes or less. Seitz brought Southern barbecue to St. Louis in 1996, and now has locations throughout Missouri, as well as in Colorado, Iowa and Illinois.
26. Tommy Bahama
5S $27.5 million/25%
5A $3.1 million*/0%
An extension of the popular clothing and home decor brand, Tommy Bahama’s Tropical Café and Emporium is located in resort destinations such as Naples, Florida; Palm Desert, California; and Kamuela, Hawaii. The menu is in keeping with the brand’s “life is one long weekend” mindset, offering “a cosmopolitan collection of dishes inspired by diverse getaways to Jamaica, Barbados and beyond.” That means lots of salads, plenty of seafood and a plethora of umbrella drinks—not to mention an array of retail goods ready for purchase on a moment’s notice.
27. Great Wraps
5S $34.4 million*/24%
Mark Kaplan and Bob Solomon acquired a tiny Mediterranean chain in 1989, and repositioned it. Great Wraps offers a line of Hot Wrapped Sandwiches, Grilled Subs and Flatbread Sandwiches, and customers can custom their hot sandwiches with premium ingredients as they watch them being made. The Company recently launched the Great Wraps Spice Bar where customers can custom spice their Idaho Kurly Fries.
28. Ham’s Restaurants
5S $40 million*/23.3%
5A $1.7 million*/4.8%
Founded in 1935, Ham’s originally offered curbside service, kosher meats and deli takeout. These days, the self-described “value-casual” chain offers Southern classics like chicken-fried chicken and baby back ribs alongside chicken parmesan and an array of burgers—not to mention the wide variety of beers that have been a Ham’s mainstay since the early days. Charlie Erwin, who bought the original Ham’s in 1984, signed his first franchise partner in 2004. He plans to open three restaurants a year for the next three to four years while developing the infrastructure to support “explosive growth” thereafter.
29. Keg Restaurants
5S $40 million*/23.1%
5A $2.5 million*/2%
The first Keg Steakhouse & Bar opened in 1971 in Vancouver, British Columbia, by entrepreneur George Tidball, and the chain has grown slowly and steadily ever since. Now the restaurants number 97, of which 17 are in the United States. However, the company plans to focus growth on this side of the border, where steak, once bedeviled, is now very much back in vogue.
30. Elephant & Castle
5S $30.3 million/21%
5A $2.8 million/13.6%
The English-style pub opened its first North American location in Vancouver, British Columbia, almost 30 years ago. E&C offers over 100 beers as well as an extensive menu of favorites from both sides of the pond.
31. Bad Ass Coffee Co.
Salt Lake City, UT
5S $26 million*/20.9%
Named after the donkeys that hauled coffee up and down the mountains of Kona, Hawaii, the Bad Ass Coffee Co. is infused with Hawaiian culture, from the “Aloha” uttered to customers to the tropical decor and, of course, the coffee beans themselves. Founded in Kona in 1989, Bad Ass was bought by Utah businessman Michael Bilanzich in 1995 and opened its first franchise the same year. “We want to expand everywhere,” says Harold Hill, the company’s president, CEO and co-owner with Bilanzich, noting that Bad Ass plans to build 17 franchise locations this year.
32. Fadó Irish Pub
5S $42 million*/20%
5A $4 million*/3.9%
Fadó Irish Pub, founded by CEO and President Kieran McGill with a group of entrepreneurs in 1996 in Atlanta, imports authentic interiors and decor to create a different type of Irish pub in the New World, honoring the culture, food and music of the Emerald Isles. A unit opened in Lincoln Park, Rhode Island, at a greyhound track this year, two are slated for St. Louis, plus a third in Annapolis, Maryland.
5S $46 million*/19.5%
5A $3.3 million*/2.3%
This full-service Texas-based Mexican family restaurant began as Mercado in 1987, evolved into Posados and this year is testing a new concept, Posaditos. The newest venture is designed for smaller markets with a population of 10,000 to 20,000, compared to the 50,000-plus markets that Posados targets. With a smaller (5,000 sq. ft.) footprint, it offers lower price points, according to chief operating officer Scott Norton. Posados operates in Texas and Louisiana, serving entrees priced from $7.99 to $17.99. Growth plans call for one to two new units a year.
Ft. Lauderdale, FL
5S $25 million*/19%
5A $3.2 million/0%
Paul and Margo Flanigan opened their “Florida casual” concept in 1966 with sliding windows and a large covered patio, along with a marine/surfing ambiance for a neighborhood clientele. Each unit is “built to its market” on company-owned real estate. Flanigan expects slower growth ahead, as the chain deals with rising real estate taxes and construction costs.
35. Wildfire Restaurant
5S $28.5 million*/18.8%
5A $4.2 million*/6.3%
Wildfire offers a step back in time to the 1940s when dining out meant a special occasion, with a steak and chophouse concept featuring open-flame cooking and food spit-roasted over wood. Owned by Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the concept is overseen by LEYE senior VP and Wildfire president Howard Katz who began his industry career flipping burgers at a Morton Grove, Illinois, Ground Round. Moving out from its midwest base where it began in 1999, Wildfire opened in Atlanta this year and plans an eighth unit this fall in McLean, Virginia.
Salt Lake City, UT
5S $37.8 million/18.4%
5A $1 million*/5%
Eric and Scott Slaymaker were no newcomers to franchising when they opened Winger’s in 1993; the brothers had already owned T.G.I. Friday’s and Tony Roma’s restaurants. They opened their first Winger’s in Bountiful, Utah, inside a 1940s Pullman car, where they upgraded chicken wings from an appetizer to an entree.
37. Locos Grill and Pub
5S $35.5 million*/18.3%
5A $1.2 million*/2.1%
In 1988, two University of Georgia students, Hughes Lowrance and Jamey Loftin, invested $10,000 in an existing Athens, Georgia, convenience store to sell sandwiches, milk, toilet paper and other basics to college students. Today, all 10 original sandwiches remain on the menu. The chain goes through 1.5 million pounds of chicken wings each year.
38. Olga’s Kitchen
5S $42 million*/18.3%
5A $1.4 million*/6.1%
Olga Loizon founded Olga’s in 1970 in Troy, Michigan, later taking her “Original Olga” broiled, seasoned beef and lamb sandwiches with onions, tomatoes and “Olga sauce” to strip centers, malls and freestanding sites. Olga’s, which sees itself as an alternative to fast food and fast casual choices, has three new units in the works for 2007. Marketing director Steven Frank also notes plans for Olga’s to team up with Michigan-based TEAM Schostak Family Restaurants to open up to 10 units in St. Louis, plus 15 set for Michigan and Ohio, a joint venture expected to double sales.
39. Up the Creek
5S $39 million*/16.4%
5A $3 million*/3.4%
When Bill Palmer, co-creator of Applebee’s, went fishing for a new concept, he landed an under-served niche: casual seafood. The chain riffs on a fishing lodge, thus the woody interior, rods and vintage photos on the wall and a 400-gallon aquarium. Palmer’s company owns seven restaurants in Georgia and has seven franchises, mostly in the South.
40. Lizard’s Thicket
5S $29 million/16%
5A $2.4 million/9.8%
The name Lizard’s Thicket was one its founders, Bob and Anna Williams, heard while in Alabama 30 years ago and later decided fit their “country cooking” concept in Columbia, South Carolina. It just had its first price change in two years due to a 12 percent increase in the cost of cornmeal and other items on its menu of 10 meats and 20 vegetables daily. Today the Williams’ seven children operate the chain of 12 units with 600 employees, dishing up fried catfish, fried Bologna sandwiches and other dishes. No new units are planned this year.
41. Kabuki Japanese Restaurants
5S $30 million*/15.4%
5A $3.6 million*/2.9%
For 16 years Kabuki’s mission has been to
be the “best Japanese restaurant” in southern California, with innovative concepts and creative menus. Three will open this year, two in Phoenix and one in Las Vegas. “Fresh, top-quality gourmet dishes” comprise its dinnerhouse menus. “We’re in the planning stages for national expansion,” says marketing director Young Kim.
42. Planet Smoothie
5S $34.5 million*/15%
Founded in 1995 by Martin Sprock, Planet Smoothie, the original concept in the Raving Brands portfolio, is re-energizing itself as Planet Smoothie Café and plans to add 35 stores this year to the 140 now in operation; 150 new units are expected to open over the next three years as the chain targets southern Florida, southern California, Arizona, the midwest and northeast. A healthy foods menu of wraps, sandwiches and salads is intended to boost sales at breakfast and lunch and provide options for stores in colder climates.
43. Le Pain Quotidien
New York, NY
5S $32 million*/14.3%
5A $1.7 million*/2.4%
These rustic Belgian bakery-cafes, whose centerpiece is a large communal table, sell organic, Fair Trade priced coffee and an increasing number of products from self-sustaining, bio-diverse farms. The brand was founded in Brussels in 1990 by Alain Coumont, and the Belgian owners, PQ Licensing S.A. They opened the first stateside store in 1999.
44. Sticky Fingers
Mt. Pleasant, SC
5S $48 million*/14.3%
5A $2.7 million*/1.9%
The first Sticky Fingers opened in March of 1992 by lifelong friends Todd Eischeid, Jeff Goldstein and Chad Walldorf, all recent college graduates who had made a pact to eventually start a business together. “We opened our first restaurant with zero money and absolutely no idea of what were doing,” Goldstein admits. The trio learned quickly. Each unit is run by managing partners, most of whom started as servers, cooks or dishwashers. The restaurants specialize in hickory-smoked Memphis-style barbecue.
45. DoubleDave’s PizzaWorks
5S $28.7 million*/13.9%
Double Dave’s founder, David Davydd Miller, set out to create a neighborhood pizza place in 1984 in Austin, Texas. This year there are 48 units and 15 more ready to open including the chain’s first outside of Texas in Norman, Oklahoma, says CEO Chuck Thorp. Seven more are on the books for 2008 starting with one in San Antonio. Finding good managers, employees and drivers continues to be a challenge this year, says Thorp.
46. Taco Mac
5S $28.9 million*/13.8%
5A $1.4 million/(5.1)%
Two young men from Buffalo, New York,
were heading to Florida in 1979 when they stopped in Atlanta, where they wound up buying a small taco shack called Taco Mac’s and founding a chain specializing in Buffalo wings. The chain, under the banner of the Tappan Street Restaurant Group, claims to have the largest selection of micro-brewed and imported beers in the South. Buffalo wings dominate the menu along with a variety of moderately priced entrees.
47. Barnie’s Coffee and Tea
5S $45 million/12.5%
Barnie’s is refocusing its efforts on e-commerce and franchising this year, and starting this fall, the chain expects to open a new store a week. Presently some 15 units are in the development pipeline. A new policy now allows sales of single-unit franchises as well as area development agreements. A mall-based coffeehouse for 25-plus years, Barnie’s is now expanding into beer, wine and sandwiches in addition to its coffee, tea and pastries.
Coconut Creek, FL
5S $36 million/12.5%
Joseph Bilotti opened his first Rotelli’s Pizza and Pasta restaurant in 1999. This is pasta the old-fashioned way: baked ziti, linguini and clam sauce and penne alla vodka. The pizza is New York style. Most of the chain’s restaurants are in Florida with newer markets developing in the Carolinas, Colorado, Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
49. Surf City Squeeze
5S $44.5 million/12.2%
Founder Kevin Blackwell created the Surf City concept back in 1981. The company designs, builds and franchises units targeted for siting at premier fitness clubs, upscale shopping centers and university campuses. The chain’s menu is aimed at the health and fitness crowd.
50. Larry’s Giant Subs
5S $38.5 million*/10%
Brothers Mitchell and Larry Raikes opened their first shop in Jacksonville in 1982. Larry’s has an encyclopedic list of submarines (hot or cold), hoagies, deli sandwiches and Philly cheese steaks.
The Fresh Mex
Salsarita’s is on fire—and we’re not talking about the food.
Bruce Willette thought he had a pretty original idea when he dreamed up the Salsarita’s concept in the late 1990s. He’d never seen a Qdoba Mexican Grill, Chipotle or Moe’s, and admits to a lack of research. But he knew what he liked and what local property managers told him was missing in their food courts: fast-casual Mexican. That niche is now among the industry’s hottest and Salsarita’s is out to spice it up. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based chain, owned by Willette and three managing partners, last year grew from 26 to 70-plus units, all but three franchised. Sales jumped by more than 150 percent to an estimated $40.5 million. Twenty-five additional units are under construction, taking the company well beyond its familiar mid-Atlantic and southeast territories. What’s more, franchise agreements have been inked with both Compass Group and Host Marriott to open Salsarita’s on college campuses and in airports.
Willette invested heavily upfront to create vibrant cantina-style interiors in which curved taco bars serving made-to-order foods, margaritas, beer and frozen cocktails are marquee attractions. Think sushi bar: Customers take a seat at the bar, fill out an order sheet, watch their selections being prepared and eat them right there.
The menu stars burritos (“wet” or “bare”), tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, salads, soups and Mexican pizza. A full range of proteins is featured, including grilled beef, chicken, steak, shrimp, ground and shredded beef and shredded pork. Fillings—included in the base price—include grilled vegetables, jalapenos, guacamole, fresh cilantro, red onions, black olives and flavored sour cream. Menu items come a la carte, as full meals with choice of sides or in hearty combo platters. Catering and take-home “Taco-Rita” meals of various sizes help boost average unit volumes, pegged by Technomic at $800,000 last year.
Willette and his partners were franchisees of other chains before striking out on their own. That hands-on experience gives Salsarita’s a leg up as a franchisor, as the team can put their operator shoes back on before making decisions, whether related to menu, marketing, real estate or operations.
When we opened our first couple of units and began to look at this as a potential franchising opportunity, we did so through operators’ eyes. We didn’t want to put anything on franchisees that we couldn’t make work ourselves. For instance, we expect franchisees to do at least 12 percent of sales from catering. We know it can be done because we’ve done it.
As you grow, you lose the ability to move quickly.
You have to think and work differently. Rolling out a new menu item can take six months. You need time to train franchisees in the field and to develop and deploy related marketing materials. I’m not a patient person, but I’m learning to respect the processes involved.
I can’t control how a franchisee operates, but I can control the tools with which they’re supposed to operate. If our team creates something workable, then it can be worked. It’s that simple. I learned as a franchisee that you have to drink the Kool-Aid and follow the system. Our job is to make sure that it’s a good system.
We invested a lot in store design and value engineering. It was money well spent. Our best advertising is the experience people get here and that starts the minute they walk in the door. But you can’t just throw everything in the designer’s lap. Our first priority is setting franchisees up to be able to put out high-quality food from a 700-square-foot kitchen.
We’re on target to hit 105 to 110 stores this year.
But opening stores [can’t be] a reason unto itself. When you just start trying to hit a number, you become more focused on [that] than on the decision-making process.
Founder, CEO, HuHot Mongolian Grill (#2)
Andy Vap, who grew up in a family of Godfather’s Pizza franchisees, conceived of HuHot Mongolian Grill as a way to do something different and “make a buck.” By focusing on distinctive ambiance, fresh and healthful food, good service and sound franchising strategies, Vap parlayed those modest intentions into the second-fastest-growing chain in the Future 50. Sales jumped by 83.3 percent last year to $27.5 million and 19 units were sizzling throughout the midwest, three company-owned, 16 franchised.
Mongolian grills most people are familiar with are mom-and-pop places that offer decent food but are short on atmosphere. The grill might be stuck in the back of a China buffet. We thought it could be much bigger—a fun, trendy, interactive dining experience offering fresh, healthful foods and terrific Asian flavors.
We came up with 12 great signature Pan-Asian sauces that really set our menu apart. The atmosphere does, as well. We’re fortunate to have great, affordable local talent here—the artist who paints the colorful dragon murals in all of the restaurants, for instance, and the architects who helped create the original look and feel.
Our first restaurant opened in 1998 and we sold our first franchise in 2001. We didn’t plan to franchise, but through connections with the Godfather’s community we started to get inquiries. As more stores opened, word spread and more inquiries came in. Our growth is driven by existing franchisees opening multiple units, as well as by new franchisees. We’ll be at 27 or 28 stores by the end of this year.
We lucked out in the early stages of franchising, when you’re too hungry and can make mistakes. We had strong, experienced franchisees from the start, and one of our best strategies has been to stay sharply focused on operations. That helps profitability, but also draws franchisee interest. They see not only a viable concept, but successful, well-run stores.
Building the infrastructure we need to keep growing is a top priority. We’re an Asian restaurant so we’re big on family involvement, but we’re tapped out on family. We’re trying to find the right people and strengthen our ability to service franchisees as we grow.
President, Seasons 52 (#3)
Darden Restaurants is generating healthy buzz with Seasons 52. An as-yet infinitesimal drop in the casual dining giant’s bucket, the concept was spawned by nearly a decade of consumer research to identify new market opportunities. It’s an upscale-casual fresh grill and wine bar where flavor, seasonality, healthful dining and stylish ambiance go hand-in-hand. Launched in 2003, seven test units are now up and running, five in Florida and two in Atlanta.
To make this successful, the message will be on discipline and strategic thinking. We’re creating a different space in the casual dining segment and we’re moving carefully to see what the potential is and what it might mean for Darden. We did get recent approval from the board of directors to expand, so we’re initially looking at the southeast—probably two to three units per year. But we feel this concept has strong potential on a much broader scale.
Our menu philosophy is “stealth health.” We offer great tasting, fresh, seasonal food that just happens to be good for you. Nothing on the menu is over 475 calories. It took a number of years of dedicated R&D and creative tweaking to be able to provide delicious, healthful food with all of the craveable elements customers want. One of our signatures, for instance, is mini indulgences. We found it difficult to create great, healthful desserts, so rather than take away what’s good we downsized desserts to two-ounce portions. They’re best sellers.
Our menu is constantly changing. There are 52 weeks in the year—the 52 referenced in our name—and we strive to incorporate the best, freshest ingredients available in each of those 52 mini-seasons. Produce at peak ripeness and limited-time specials such as Copper River salmon in spring.
Our best strategic moves have been to maintain an undying commitment to quality and to select talented team members. They live the lifestyle, as do our employees. They’re evangelists and ambassadors for both great dining experiences and healthy living. That’s what it’s all about.
Vice president, RA Sushi Bar Restaurant (#6)
RA Sushi Bar Restaurant fills what its founders saw as a void in the marketplace: a contemporary hot-spot offering great sushi in a high-style, energetic atmosphere. Launched in 1996 in Scottsdale, Arizona, by partners Scott Kilpatrick, Rich Howland and Tai Obata, RA grew to four units before catching the eye of Japanese steakhouse chain Benihana, Inc., which acquired the concept in 2001. With Benihana’s wind under its wings, RA last year hit an estimated $33.7 million in sales. The company now targets eight to 10 new stores per year.
Our initial idea is to choose our expansion markets carefully and establish a strong presence there. Following that path lets us take advantage of economies of scale for things like marketing, distribution and staffing.
Before coming under Benihana’s umbrella, our biggest expansion challenge was construction, which we knew little about. It was a nightmare—everything from plans and permits to inspections and delays. Now, we have an in-house construction and design department and a lot of corporate resources to help us grow. That frees us up to focus on operations.
Our best move was bringing in Tai as partner and executive chef. Rich [who’s since left the company] and I had limited industry experience. We loved sushi and knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t have a clue about the culinary side, or equipment, or tableware. We needed a strong player there, and that was Tai. He’s still executive chef and he’s a huge part of the concept’s success.
Vice president, business development, Juice It Up! (#9)
They’re ubiquitous now, but when Larry Sidoti ditched an advertising career in 1995 to create Juice It Up!, smoothie shops were just emerging as “the next big thing.” Despite now-rampant competition within the segment—as well as from ice cream, yogurt, QSR and fast-casual restaurants who’ve added smoothies—the chain has stood the test of time. Sidoti says a new business model has positioned it for growth well beyond what in 2006 comprised 124 units and $28 million in sales.
We made the decision to franchise in 1999, but didn’t get aggressive about it until 2001. By that time, we had 34 company-owned stores. The transition was tough. We had to maintain our own operations and at the same time make sure the franchise side wasn’t neglected. Franchisees come in with very high expectations of support and you have to be prepared to meet those expectations. It takes a lot of human resources.
Franchising was a great move because it gave us the means to grow quickly.
You have to be careful to get the right people, however. If you make bad franchisee decisions, you can fall fast.
Our concept has grown up a lot. The look and feel of the stores and marketing materials are much more sophisticated than the original versions. But our best decision from day one was to make a really good product.
We’ve added new items, but the core menu is consistent and our smoothies are as good as it gets. They drive the business.
This year, we’re adding 50 stores and expect to maintain or exceed that rate for the next few years. We might look at acquisitions down the road, as we expect fallout in the segment. I’m not going to say we’re going to add 500 stores in five years, however. Most who say something silly like that end up eating crow five years later—if they’re even still around.
Co-founder, president, CEO, RedBrick Pizza (#10)
Just when it seems there couldn’t be room for another pizza concept, along comes a newcomer with traction. It’s RedBrick Pizza, founded in 2000 by Jim and Lynn Minidis, former Little Caesar’s franchisees. The draw? Gourmet thin-crust, fire-roasted pizza, fresh chopped salads, signature Fhazani™ sandwiches and Italian gelato served in upscale neighborhood cafes. Sales last year hit $33.5 million and the 50-unit threshold was crossed.
Simplicity is key. The cafe settings are upscale and designed to go into virtually any neighborhood. Everything has been carefully thought out up front to be easy to duplicate and cost-effective for franchisees to get into.
Our menu is simple. Gourmet fire-roasted pizza is our signature and we use high-quality, fresh ingredients that people feel good about eating. Unlike in the fast-casual Mexican segment, where concepts like Chipotle and Baja Fresh have changed the dynamic, that’s a niche that hadn’t been filled in the pizza segment. Our dough is made on-premise from a proprietary recipe that incorporates olive oil. It’s a lower-carb formula, as well. Even though it’s baked at more than 1,000 degrees, the crust comes out golden brown and with great texture.
We’re 100 percent franchised and we’re growing through a system of master developers throughout the country. We should end this year with 60-plus stores and another 100 franchises sold. And we have development agreements in place that represent many more units, including some international. We’re finding that as you get more exposure in the marketplace, you’re presented with many new opportunities to grow your brand. We’re now evaluating those every day and it’s very exciting, both for us and for our franchisees.