Brixx Wood Fired Pizza started with a simple approach: Diners like pizza and beer.
“What’s more fun than pizza and beer?” said Eric Horsley, co-founder of the Charlotte-based chain.
Of course, Horsley and his two business partners, Barbara Morgan and Jeff Van Dyke, had more than food in mind when they opened the first Brixx in 1998 in Dilworth at the corner of East Boulevard and Scott Avenue. They had major growth plans, too.
And now, Brixx is expanding big. The chain is moving into Georgia this fall, with plans underway to open two restaurants in Atlanta suburbs and one in Athens. A second location in Raleigh is planned for this fall. New restaurants in Arlington and Richmond, Va., Champaign, Ill., and Indianapolis are also in the works, co-founder Van Dyke said.
The moves bring the chain’s signature casual pizza-eating experience to new turf. Horsley, in his mid-50s, grew up in Belmont. He’s a veteran restaurateur in the Charlotte area, having operated the upscale Providence Cafe and two Providence Bistros with Morgan and Van Dyke.
But it was a trip to a microbrewery in Colorado, which served brick-oven pizza, that got Horsley thinking about a different dining experience.
The trio carved out a concept: artisanal pizza baked in a wood-burning oven, craft and microbrew beer on tap, and wine by the glass, all served in a laid-back setting that could equally accommodate lunch-hour crowds and date-night couples.
It worked. Brixx opened its second location uptown in 2000. In 2002, the owners added a location in Chapel Hill. In 2007, the company started franchising in earnest.
With the fall openings, Brixx will have 25 locations in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. Five of those restaurants are in Charlotte.
A 2011 report from Restaurant Management magazine, a national trade publication, named Brixx one of the 10 best franchise deals for potential investors. The company brought in between $35 million and $40 million last year, Van Dyke said.
The Observer caught up with Brixx co-founder Horsley to gather some business tips that helped the chain become a burgeoning casual-dining force in the Southeast. Here’s what he had to say.
Select locations wisely
Before Brixx, the founders’ other restaurants were all large in size, usually 6,000 to 7,000 square feet. The team slices that in half when scouting out locations for the pizza chain. Horsley said the average Brixx, at around 3,500 square feet, lowers real estate and overhead costs and helps increase sales per square foot.
Horsley advises business owners not to rush into signing a lease if it doesn’t fit with your concept. For Brixx, that means smaller locations.
“Success at Brixx has been shaped as much by leases we didn’t sign as it has been by those we did,” he said.
On average, each restaurant brought in a little more than $1.6 million in 2011, yielding a nearly 2:1 sales-to-investment ratio, according to Restaurant Management magazine.
Horsley said a simplified layout affords Brixx the luxury of going small. Brixx’s kitchen only contains the wood-burning brick oven and a six-burner stove.
“Our design is set up so the guy cooking pizza can greet our guests at the front door,” Horsley said. “It adds intimacy to our restaurants.”
Grow up with your customers
Chapel Hill, a college town, made perfect sense for Brixx’s third store, especially to capture patrons familiar with the brand, Horsley said.
“A lot of kids from the Charlotte area recognized Brixx,” he said.
Brixx has since added stores in college towns like Knoxville, Tenn., Charlottesville, Va., and the soon-to-open store in Athens.
Horsley said other ideal locations for Brixx include suburban areas full of families, downtowns with office lunch-goers and spots where people enjoy nightlife.
Ryan Chandler has been going to Brixx since his high school days, he said while eating lunch Wednesday at the Dilworth location. He and his friends from Charlotte Latin School were regulars at the Brixx on Fairview Road. His love for Brixx stuck. He said he often pops in the Scott Avenue location for a lunchtime mozzarella sandwich.
Horsley and Van Dyke saw hints of a coming beer boom while coming up with the Brixx concept in 1998. They couldn’t decide if they should attach a microbrewery to their planned pizza restaurant. Horsley said they figured a microbrewery violated the smaller footprint the owners sought, so instead they opted to include microbrews and craft beers on tap.
That choice allowed Brixx to capitalize on America’s growing taste for craft beer: Since 1998, the number of craft and microbreweries in America has risen by nearly 1,000, according to data from the Brewers Association.
Each Brixx offers traditional craft beers like Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada, along with local brews like Birdsong Jalapeno from Birdsong Brewery in Charlotte’s North Davidson neighborhood.
The co-founders also credit their executive chef, Richard Shinault, for picking up on dining trends. Shinault goes to trade shows, speaks with food distributors and reads dining publications to find the balance between what customers want and what’s profitable for the chain.
One of Shinault’s big menu hits: bringing Thai Chicken Pizza to Brixx’s tables – now a popular seller.
Brixx also caught on to emerging dietary trends. They’ve offered vegan options for eight years and added a gluten-free menu 3 1/2 years ago.
“We experiment and find what sells,” Horsley said. “What sells well stays in there.”
Surround yourself with experience
Horsley said experienced employees benefit Brixx throughout the organization.
Jack Judge, general manager of Brixx’s original location in Dilworth, has worked with the co-founders for 25 years. Horsley said promoting from within has allowed Brixx to get to know their managers, many of whom started as servers, bartenders and cooks. The average manager at Brixx has been with the company for 10 years, he said.
“Finding restaurant managers is easy,” he said. “Finding managers you can trust isn’t.”
Experience paid dividends for Brixx when they wanted to expand.
Not long after Brixx launched, Horsley said he heard from entrepreneurs wanting to open a franchise. The owners didn’t have franchise experience, so they brought on Neil Newcomb, whose family founded McAlister’s Deli in Oxford, Miss.
At the time, Newcomb owned three McAlister’s in Chapel Hill and understood the ins and outs of franchising from working in the family business: finding a good location, staying patient, sticking to your restaurant’s theme.
Newcomb put Brixx’s franchising plan in motion. Of the 21 locations, 11 are franchised. Total startup costs for Brixx is around $750,000, according to Restaurant Management magazine.
As Brixx continues to grow, Horsley emphasized that keeping it simple might be the best advice of all.
“We don’t make it too complicated,” he said. “We just take care of our guests. Everyone likes pizza.”
Burley: 704-358-5085 Twitter: @dburleyreports
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