Fast-casual chain Mendocino Farms opened a new restaurant in downtown Dallas in early March last year—one week before all in-restaurant dining would be shut down because of the pandemic.
This week, it opened a second new location in Texas, this one just north of Dallas, in Addison, Texas.
“I think we knew the train was coming down the tracks,” Mendocino Farms CEO Kevin Miles said of that 2020 opening. “I don’t think we knew it was barreling. As a society we thought, ‘Oh, this will last two weeks, and we’ll be back to normal.’”
Obviously, that did not happen. But Mendocino Farms continues to grow, albeit with a slightly differently look and feel than it did pre-pandemic.
The farm-to-table chain was founded with a focus on dense, urban downtown locations, which have obviously been among the hardest hit during the coronavirus crisis. Two Mendocino Farms locations, both in downtown Los Angeles, remain temporarily closed, with plans to reopen them “soon,” Miles said.
As it looks toward future expansion, the chain is thinking about suburban and less-dense areas.
“We will take a more pragmatic approach as it comes to more downtown central business districts,” he said. “We definitely want that residential component.”
Despite a large number of restaurant closures during the pandemic, finding prime real estate remains a challenge.
“It’s probably surprising for some to hear, but it’s still very tight across the country,” Miles said. “We’ve heard of a lot of restaurant closures but we’re not finding there’s a site on every corner. Great real estate is great real estate. We’re all looking for great real estate.”
The brand had planned to open 10 to 12 new stores in 2020; it opened six. This year, the target is seven to 10 new restaurants, most likely on the low end, he said.
“We’re just trying to get deals back going around the country,” Miles said.
In November, Mendocino Farms opened its first ghost kitchen location, something Miles said he expects to see more of in the future.
“It’s going extremely well,” he said. “On some days, we’re doing more dinner than we are lunch. We’re encouraged with its performance.”
But there are challenges, he said.
“We’re still learning. It’s a learning curve to go from a 1,200- to 1,500-square-foot kitchen to a 200-square-foot kitchen. It would not be a first-in-market kind of strategy. We wouldn’t start in a new market with a ghost kitchen.”
Mendocino Farms is also starting to see renewed interest in catering, and it, like many operators, has switched to individually boxed meals.
The chain also added app-based ordering and curbside pickup during the pandemic.
Despite the major off-premise push, Miles looks forward to the day when the restaurants are fully welcoming diners back. He’s hopeful that day is soon.
“I believe guests are starved for interaction,” he said. “I welcome the day where we have full dining rooms.”