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Salsarita’s restaurant chain retools for growth

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/19/16/01/qDHmE.Em.138.jpeg|233
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Overstreet Mall Salsarita's employee Kanyesha Campbell (right) serves customer Robyn Jamison (left) during lunchtime. For a story about how the company turned things around with new staff and a renovation after sales started plunging last year. Renovations included a new grill top, digital signs, painting and other changes in the look, feel and colors, updates in the employee work areas and in the drinks area.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/19/16/01/d7zxN.Em.138.jpeg|238
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Overstreet Mall Salsarita's
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/19/16/01/1kcLIn.Em.138.jpeg|192
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Overstreet Mall Salsarita's employees serve customers Tuesday during lunchtime.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/19/16/01/6vkoR.Em.138.jpeg|226
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Overstreet Mall Salsarita's assistant general manager Ryan Field pours shrimp cooked on the store's new grill top cooking area onto a container in the food line Tuesday during lunchtime.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/19/16/01/18hqtn.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Overstreet Mall Salsarita's assistant general manager Ryan Field cooks onions and peppers in the store's new grill top cooking area Tuesday during lunchtime. For a story about how the company turned things around with new staff and a renovation after sales started plunging last year. Renovations included a new grill top, digital signs, painting and other changes in the look, feel and colors, updates in the employee work areas and in the drinks area. Sales crashed 55% at its uptown location in Overstreet mall last year, execs said, and that's now the center of the company's revival and expansion focus.

Salsarita’s, the Charlotte-based Mexican-style food chain, has taken steps to right the ship after a steep drop in sales last year at its Overstreet Mall location, the company said, and is planning for the next phase of expansion built around a new prototype store in Indian Land.

There are many restaurants serving fast-casual Mexican food, from Chipotle to Moe’s Southwest Grill to Tijuana Flats. But Salsarita’s owner Phil Friedman said he still thinks there’s room to increase within the sector.

“Mexican is a huge category and still growing,” Friedman said. He bought the company in 2011, after expanding and then selling the McAlister’s Deli chain. Salsarita’s has about 80 locations in 19 states from Florida to New York, roughly the same number as when Friedman bought the company.

The Overstreet Mall location, off Tryon Street, was one of five franchised locations that Salsarita’s bought back in April. With that came changes in personnel and how the restaurants were preparing and serving food.

Yanira Castro, Salsarita’s director of marketing, said the store “saw a pretty significant decline” after the transition. Sales were down 55 percent in July compared with the same month in 2012, Castro said.

So Salsarita’s started to modify and renovate the location to save it.

The changes seem subtle, but Friedman said they all add up to increased sales. A new divider separates people entering and leaving, improving the flow of foot traffic. A barely used make-your-own taco bar has been removed, leaving room for 20 more seats. The color palette has been overhauled, as has the lighting and the floor.

“It had kind of gotten a little dingy,” said Friedman.

The company also bought new cash register systems that cut the average checkout time in half, to 9 seconds, Friedman said. And Salsarita’s started offering breakfast to lure office workers, as well as holding a free entree giveaway.

Sales have since rebounded, Castro said. In October, the location was down only 3 percent compared with the same month in 2012.

Now, Friedman said the focus at Salsarita’s will be on expansion, as he tries to grow the company. There are still many areas without a franchisee, as the company’s footprint remains limited. Friedman said that makes it an attractive business to franchisees, because of the open territory.

The new prototype store in Indian Land will be across from the Publix supermarket, in the shopping center on U.S. 521. The 2,500-square-foot location will feature an S-shaped service line, instead of the traditional straight line, which Friedman said will add more space and speed up service.

The store is slated to open later this year.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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