Founder of Charlotte-based Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina plans fast-casual Italian concept

Bruce Willette, founder of the Charlotte-based Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, launched his quick-casual chain right when “fresh-Mex” restaurants boomed into a national trend.

Now he hopes to find success with the relaxed-dining theme again with a new restaurant concept he plans to introduce in the Queen City by late summer.

He’s teaming with Johnson & Wales Chef on Assignment Peter Reinhart for Capishe! Bold Italian Kitchen, described as “fast-casual Italian” food. Willette says they’re in negotiations for two sites, in uptown and southeast Charlotte, and will likely open in both locations about four months apart.

Capishe! is a take on the Italian word for capisce, which means “do you understand?” and captures the attitude of Italian street food, which the team says will be reflected in the menu.

“Fast-casual Italian is definitely a growing segment,” Willette said. “There are a lot of people doing just pizza and salads. ... When I was in Salsarita’s I had this idea about six years ago, and I wanted to do it.”

Willette opened the first Salsarita’s in Charlotte in 2000. By the time he sold the Mexican restaurant chain in 2011, it had grown to 80-plus locations in 19 states and Puerto Rico.

Reinhart and Willette are now crafting menu items with an Italian theme, such as signature sandwiches called the Boldini and the Foldini, both made with very thin flatbread and sauces. Other items include pizzas with choices of red or white sauce, and pasta dishes topped with seasoned breadcrumbs. Dishes are sent through a conveyor oven to melt cheeses and seal in taste.

They talked to ShopTalk about the timing of their venture, growth plans and how Willette will apply lessons he learned from Salsarita’s to help Capishe! The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. Is Capishe! starting out the same way as Salsarita’s?

A. Bruce Willette: I would say we’re starting out exactly like Salsarita’s. I have Salsarita’s in my background now. Getting all that experience – whether it be creative experience or operational experience or growth experience – we now have that in our pocket.

Part of that experience I gained at Salsarita’s was learning that I needed to take on Chef Reinhart early on. I learned you can’t do it by yourself. You take on folks that you think can create the brand. He is a chef, and he has a lot of knowledge. I don’t pretend to be a chef. I do know food and the creative process and the growth process.

Q. (To Reinhart): What made you want to be a part of this business venture?

A. I moved here 10 years ago. One of the first restaurants I ate at was Salsarita’s. A friend put us together.

It’s great to work with people who are really good at what they do. What I don’t enjoy as much is the operational, nuts and bolts side of creating a business. My passion is really creating food. The opportunity to work with someone who is a seasoned restaurant operator, and allow me to do what I do well, is the kind of matches I’ve always looked for.

My primary goal is always looking for opportunities for my students at Johnson & Wales. This is a great training opportunity for our students. It creates management opportunities as well. Johnson & Wales is not only chef training.

Willette: This is fast-casual Italian. They can learn a different type of restaurant, maybe broaden their horizons.

Q. What makes you optimistic about debuting a new restaurant in this economy?

A. Willette: The experience I had at Salsarita’s, starting it, selling it, gives me hope. Competing against the Chipolte’s of the world was a challenge. There are different challenges that we didn’t face: It’s a tight real estate market. There hasn’t been much built in the last five years. But the overall economy is improving. Will this work in a challenged real estate market? I think yes. I’m very, very confident about the brand and the concept.

We’ll offer different sandwiches, pasta and salads, made with high-quality ingredients. We’ll bring it to the table for you. Capishe allows for speedy service. Price point will be right around 10 dollars. The product works for catering, home meal replacement. We’ll have panned pasta dishes for four.

Q. Who are your challengers?

A. Willette: Piada (The Italian Street Food chain is mainly in the Ohio area; none in North Carolina). This is a growing segment. There are a lot of people doing just pizza and salads.

Q. How fast are you looking to grow?

A. Growth is a result, not a reason. I’ve had numerous people want to invest money, but money doesn’t provide operational support. I’ve talked to four or five large operating companies. We may do it on our own, we may take on an operating company. Because of my faith in the brand, Capishe! can be a little brother brand that can be folded into an operating company or any larger restaurant company.

I’ve done it on my own, funding wise, but a partnership would help with the financial aspect. Costs before construction, just to roll out a brand, is $200,000-$300,000.

A regional rollout has to have credibility. Working with Little (an international architecture and design firm headquartered in Charlotte, which led the strategy, branding and concept design for Capishe!) gives us that brand credibility. They are scientific, but creative. They get it long term.

I’m not saying this will or won’t be a franchise. We do have Southeast expansion plans in mind.

Q. What will make Capishe! different?

A. Reinhart: Even the name, it’s about an attitude. The key attitude for us from a culinary side is bold flavors. Something that, when you bite into something, you go ‘wow’. My particular skill set is being a flavorist. We’re looking for ways to do that through the various menu items. Locally sourced produce to the dressings. In the right combination – particular sauces, flavor splashes, vinegars, lemons – you can tie the flavors together so that each bite delivers that “wow” moment.