Phil Friedman bought Charlotte-based Salsarita’s almost a year ago. Now, he said, the Mexican food chain is ready for a major expansion.
There are more than 80 Salsarita’s. He and his staff have spent the last year tweaking the menu (higher-quality guacamole) and refining behind-the-scenes procedures (cooking smaller batches more frequently). Friedman thinks Salsarita’s is ready to grow to 400 stores, and hopes to start signing new franchisees soon.
Friedman is a veteran of restaurant franchising, having worked at chains such as Panda Express and Chi-Chi’s, and running McAlister’s Deli during its expansion from 27 to 300 stores.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What have you changed since buying Salsarita’s?
There are no dramatic changes, but a lot of detail changes. We now cook the food more often, so if you come in to Salsarita’s, you’ll see the chicken is being cooked throughout the day, as are the other products. We looked at the vegetables we serve, and we have a fajita mix which is great.
Q: What else have you changed with the food?
We took something that was already in place that was called the wet burrito and branded it the Casarita.
Then we also changed some of the specifications for the chicken to get a little more flavor. We wanted something that’s a little bigger in size. Those are all meant to provide tastier, fresher food.
Q: Besides food, what else is new?
We’re working on ways to present innovative tacos. We’ve brought in a chef so we can work on things like our salsas, seeing what we can do to improve the flavor quality and authenticity. We brought in a new director of training so our people will have better confidence in themselves and better interactions with the guests.
Q: How similar is this to what you did with McAlister’s Deli?
Its very similar. When I went to McAlister’s, that was about 25 restaurants. We really had to work on the ordering system. It was very complicated. We worked a lot in the kitchen. Here, we’re working on training.
Q: What are your growth plans for Salsarita’s?
We’re ready to go to market. We’re hiring a director of franchise sales. We’ve intentionally not tried to bring in new franchisees up to now. We’re looking in the markets we already operate in. We’re going to stay in the Southeast, mid-Atlantic, and really try to find people who can do multi-unit development, people who can sign up for five restaurants at a time. We’ll see big expansion take off in ’13 and ’14.
I want our managers out in the dining room as much as behind the counter. In quick casual, that little bit of service is a huge difference.
Q: What kind of locations are you looking for?
We do really well at Charlotte’s airport. We’re looking for more airports. We are on a great many campuses, and we want to improve that. We can look at some locations that have a little smaller footprint.
Q: What demographic are you aiming Salsarita’s at?
We’re very similar to McAlister’s. We’re 50 percent-plus women. We’re not just a “big guy” burrito place. We’re higher educated, higher income.
Q: What territories are you looking to expand into, and why?
We have a lot of “onesies” (single restaurants in a market). We have one in Kansas City, two in New Jersey. We’re kind of spread out. The real growth I want to have is contiguous to the Carolinas, Tennessee, going into Georgia. We can support that the best, and the brand is known.
Q: How is the economy impacting business?
I think the industry itself, even during a recession, has maintained growth. Now there’s a lot of segments that are starting to break out. Sales are better, chains are growing, but not dramatically.
Q: Will you keep Salsarita’s headquarters in Charlotte, and will you be adding restaurants here?
Its going to stay here. I’m very happy with Charlotte. We’re trying to add more restaurants, we think it’s a great market, and we’re in a place where we feel very good about the future.