A decade ago, childhood friends Robert Maynard and Brian Burchill balked at the idea of the greasy-spoon breakfast restaurant.
They found that most of the food was frozen or processed, the customer service was subpar, and employees worked too much for too little.
So the New York duo devised a solution: A gourmet breakfast/brunch brand that would serve fresh food made daily, make every server responsible for every guest and offer lobster – lots of it.
Since 2005, Toast Café, which started in a Huntersville house-turned-eatery, has served patrons portobello mushroom Benedict, avocado omelets and lobster bisque, and salad and mac and cheese, all in an environment the owners describe as specializing in the family feel. One location turned to three in Charlotte’s Dilworth area, Davidson and Ballantyne. In 2013, Maynard and Burchill created a franchise system – opening the first last year in Tega Cay and another in Cary.
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They won’t stop there.
Toast Cafe – which charges $35,000 in franchise fees and plans to change its name to the “Famous Toastery” this year – is reaching its limit in the Charlotte-area. A former Panera Bread franchisor has signed a deal with Toast’s owners, closing off the Charlotte market to any future franchisees if he opens five more cafes in three years.
“There’s only so many stores you can put in the Charlotte market,” Maynard said. “There’s no more room left. People want a ‘Toast’ in their backyard, but we can’t open up in everybody’s backyard.”
Running out of room is not unusual for a relatively new franchise, especially restaurants, said Daniel Fischer, owner of FranNet Carolina, a Matthews-based franchise consulting firm.
“They run out of space in good markets,” he said. “There may be only so many good shopping centers where there’s space.”
Toast Café prides itself on being a different type of early-day dining experience.
Freshly caught lobster imported from Maine is delivered to the restaurants each day. Servers work a table together.
There’s no food frozen or held over for the next day – “we don’t believe in that,” said Burchill, who as Toast Cafe’s director of operations buses tables, takes orders and serves food alongside his employees. “We only get the best bacon and best coffees.”
It’s that same devotion to quality that Burchill and Maynard, both 43, expect to find in prospective franchisees.
“The first question we ask is ‘Why do you want to open a Toast?’ ” Burchill said. “That one answer is going to dictate” what happens next.
“We’ve said more noes than we have said ‘yes,’ ” Maynard added. Sometimes, they send back the franchise fees.
Franchisees undergo an intensive 10-week training program in which they bus tables, wash dishes and pull out their hair.
“You need to stress out the same way everybody else stresses out in that restaurant,” Burchill said.
Stress aside, there’s low employee turnover, all the tips are pooled and the owners often promote from within.
“Everybody’s in it for the same game; everybody craves to do better,” Burchill said. “It kills the drama in the restaurant, which can really kill a restaurant’s morale.”
He should know. Burchill got his start in the restaurant industry busing tables at age 12. He worked in restaurants and nightclubs while studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Eventually, he went from working in restaurants to opening them.
Maynard took a different route. He started in music, recording pop rock songs that are still on the radio. His day job was a finance gig on Wall Street, and then real estate.
In 2005, when Burchill moved to Charlotte, the two self-proclaimed “breakfast aficionados” decided on a new kind of venture. Without investors or loans, they pooled together their money and opened the first cafe with no thoughts about franchising.
Today, they’re looking to franchise in South Carolina, Florida, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Another franchise will open in Mooresville this year, as well as a University-area location in the next four to six months.
“You can be the best in business if you put out a good product,” said Maynard, who moved to Charlotte last year after co-owning the restaurant from New York. “We just happened to do it better than average.”
Last in Charlotte?
In three years, David Lutton, 54, can become the last Toast Café franchisee in the Charlotte market. In a competitive marketplace, that’s quite an advantage.
Restaurants take up the largest sector of franchised businesses nationwide with more than 36,000 sit-down and 155,000 fast-food restaurants believed to operate in the U.S. last year, according to the International Franchise Association. Those restaurants were expected to add at least $281 billion worth of goods and services to the overall economy.
Lutton, the restaurant industry veteran who made the deal with Toast’s owners, has experience building food brands. He said he spent 15 years opening Ruby Tuesday and Panera Bread restaurants in Charlotte. Over the summer, he found Toast, and a delicious plate of corn-beef hash.
While eating breakfast, he saw a card on the table that advertised franchise opportunities. Soon, he and his partner, Bill Bingham, were meeting with Burchill, striking a deal and scoping out real estate in Huntersville, Concord and Matthews.
“Our focus is just taking care of the Charlotte market, not overbuilding it,” Lutton said. “ … We’ve got our hands full for the next three years.”