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BBQ upstart Mighty Quinn’s learns expansion on the go

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The mega-forces shaping the U.S. restaurant industry didn’t give Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue much time to pause and strategize at its leisure. 

The fast-casual upstart had yet to push beyond its New York City base when a few fans of the original store made a compelling business case for exporting the brand. In a flash, they had stores open in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Manila, Phillippines; and Taipei, China, choice markets for chains feeling the pull of overseas potential. Meanwhile, the brand hadn’t gone farther than New Jersey in its domestic expansion.

Similarly, the boom in delivery and takeout is already putting a stamp on the six-year-old concept. “Our new buildouts have slightly smaller dining rooms overall,” says Micha Magid, one of three partners in the 15-unit chain, only 10 of which are in the U.S. “We don’t need the same size of unit because of the convenience business,” which can account for 30% to 35% of a Mighty Quinn’s sales in some locations.

Newer stores also feature a takeout station, so carryout sales can be accommodated without disrupting dine-in service.

Magid, a former hedge fund executive, is the business and finance specialist in the triumvirate operating and franchising Mighty Quinn’s. His half-brother, chef and James Beard Award winner Hugh Mangum, is the pit master. Magid’s brother-in-law, Christos Gourmos, brings the restaurant smarts, having worked in the business, with a special focus on catering.

Together, they decided to give the business a try in 2012, opening a 3,000-square-foot barbecue joint in New York City’s East Village. The place landed a coveted two-star review from The New York Times and made a number of 2013 best-newcomers lists. The international expansion followed, but now the three are ready to roll south and westward on the home front. 

The jump overseas provided a crash course on packaging a concept to grow, Magid says. A key takeaway was the importance of having an effective training curriculum. “Franchisees have to learn the Mighty Quinn’s way,” he says. “That’s easy for someone with restaurant experience to do if you have a good training program.”

That’s also when the heavy thinking about growth came into play. He recalled pondering with his partners, “How come the one-off great restaurant never broke out, or maybe just never lasted?”

One of the factors, they decided, was ease of duplication and operation. That led to what many barbecue die-hards would regard as heresy: The trio decided not to include a smoker in every restaurant. 

The planned omission will likely make more sites feasible, because special venting and filters will not be needed. Nor will the brand run headlong into opposition from neighbors who don’t appreciate a constant aroma of brisket roasting over hardwood. 

It also pushed a major demand on a unit operator’s time back on the franchisor, with the added benefit of more centralized control on product quality. “The manager doesn’t have to be there, manning the pit,” says Magid.

Relying on central prep also helps on the labor side. Magid says a store typically needs only about seven employees per shift. 

Part of the rumination, Magid recalls, was how to address two key issues with barbecue restaurants: A low frequency, because some consumers regard the fare as too heavy or indulgent to consume several times a week or month, and regional biases; the type of barbecue that’s loved by fans in the Carolinas may be loathed in Texas or California. 

Might Quinn’s dodges the regional preferences issue by stressing quality over regional authenticity, according to Magid. “It’s just great barbecue,” he contends. “If it’s good, it’s good.”

Concessions were made to the frequency issue, he continues. “People love barbecue, but they want it in a more accessible form,” he says. Part of that effort was varying the sides, going beyond the usual accompaniments to include choices like a kale salad.

The concept also relies heavily on its bar as a draw, though the reliance varies from location to location.

Every store will reflect the preferences of its location, Magid stresses. Some units will be as small as 680 square feet. Others may be several times that size, depending on what clientele will be served. For that reason, he says, checks average $15 in some locations, such as a place with a thriving lunch business, to $30 at spots with a strong eat-in and bar trade.

The formula, he says, is working. Unit sales vary from a low of about $2.4 million annually, up to $3.2 million. 

The chain is confident of opening 10 locations next year, Magid said. 

 

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