Salsarita’s Goes Fresh Mex All Around

This fast-casual operation has changed its name, design and culture in a quest to upgrade its food choices.

salsaritas-5Most operations don't take the idea of a name change lightly, nor should they. A restaurant's name helps drive brand recognition. More than that, an operation's name serves as an expression of the restaurant's identity — the type of place it strives to be and the experience it wants to provide to guests.

Phil Friedman, CEO of Salsarita's and longtime foodservice industry veteran, knows this well. Earlier this year, when he changed the name of Salsarita's Fresh Cantina to Salsarita's Fresh Mexican Grill, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Looking for Growth Potential

Though Salsarita's was founded in 2000, Friedman's time with the chain started when he purchased the business with some investors in July of 2011. Prior to that, he led McAlister's Deli as it grew from 30 to nearly 300 stores. After leaving McAlister's in 2010, Friedman began looking for a new opportunity and quickly came upon Salsarita's. The concept checked all his boxes.

"I wanted a relatively small franchise chain in quick casual," Friedman says. "I wanted something that was still founder-owned or early management, so I could hopefully add some value by being part of it. It wasn't so much that I was looking for Mexican, but Mexican made a lot of sense. [The sector] continues to grow, it has a ton of flexibility in terms of menu development. While we were a very small player, and still are a very small player in the category, I looked at Salsarita's as having a lot of growth potential."

After acquiring the chain, Friedman made some changes to the concept, but stopped short of a major overhaul. He even tried to make the Cantina name work. Ultimately, though, he found it just wasn't true to the brand and that some major changes were in order.

"We came to the realization two years ago that we really needed to step out with a much stronger logo, much stronger image and much stronger name that talked about who we really are," Friedman says. "We don't sell much alcohol at all. We really are truly a quick-casual concept with a steam-table environment. We really are a Mexican grill."

Developing a Food Culture

salsaritas-4The chain’s new dining area features natural wood tones along with splashes of red, yellow and green, creating a brighter, more pleasant space for guests.Changing the name to Salsarita's Fresh Mexican Grill, Friedman says, matches a shift in the chain's approach to food. The operation continues to build a food culture, giving more thought to food quality and how to make ingredients as good as they can be in a fast-casual environment.

This has required a significant amount of work and money, but the effort is necessary for the chain to succeed, Friedman says.

"If you're in quick-casual, you've got to figure out a reason why people should pay you $2 to $3 more per meal period. Differentiation in restaurants is better food, and better food is fresher food that's being prepared and served by people who really care about the guests."

To support its evolving culture, the chain now seeks general managers who talk passionately about food and have a culinary background or experience with other chains that are known to care about food. Salsarita's then asks these general managers to build a food culture among their own team members.

On top of hiring, Salsarita's has reworked its approach to food and ingredients. It reevaluated the cuts of meat it uses to ensure the chain uses the best ingredients for each menu item. In addition, the chain is testing a precut produce program, which will ensure product consistency and further enhance food safety, says Ken Green, Salsarita's president and chief operating officer.

And of course, this shift to a food culture includes an overhaul of Salsarita's' prep and production methods.

Previously, the chain approached this work with a utilitarian mindset, preparing most of its food in large batches. For example, it was common to cook a full day's worth of fajita meat at once, sometimes the day before it was needed. Though that was efficient, it didn't make the food as good as it could be.

Though it represents a more difficult balancing act, Salsarita's is now moving to cooking and prepping in smaller batches, making enough food only for the upcoming daypart. Ultimately, Friedman says, he'd like to get the chain to a point where it is "finishing to order. We might have the steak cooked and not cut. We could cut to order, then warm it up and put it on the line."

salsaritas-1Though Salsarita’s maintains the pick-your-toppings model for food production, it’s moved to using shallow wells during off-peak hours to make the line look full and bountiful.While this has been a significant operational change for Salsarita's, franchisees have been quick to get on board, says Green.

Despite what one might think, the move to small batch cooking hasn't increased labor costs, Green says. The morning prep work now requires less manpower, while in the afternoon off-hours, it's been easy to integrate grilling into staff members' routines.

Even better, the change reduces food costs. Since portions are based on volume and not weight, the shorter holding times mean higher food yield.

"As that chicken cooks down or that steak or veggies cook down, when you put your volume scoop in [the well], you're going to end up using more product," Green says. "So, [with smaller batches and shorter holding times] you get a better yield, which nets a better food cost. Once the franchisees started seeing how that worked out, it wasn't hard to get everyone excited about it."

Small Batch Kitchen

To facilitate this change, Salsarita's is moving away from hot holding boxes for storing cooked proteins. In their place, the chain is testing different brands of cook-and-hold ovens. These units, says Green, can hold backup meats for periods of peak demand, as well as rethermalize proteins left over from the previous night.

Other kitchen changes have been fully tested and approved. The first store using the new kitchen lineup — as well as a new front of the house — opened in August in Rock Hill, S.C., a suburb of Charlotte, N.C.

While a few recent Salsarita's restaurants had the chargrill in the back of the house, the new design restores the chargrill to the front. Putting the grill in full view of customers serves as a freshness cue, according to Green. More than that, it makes transferring cooked meats to the assembly line (which happens frequently in smaller batch cooking) easier.

A walk-in cooler in the back of the house holds raw proteins and staff bring the items to the front as necessary, notes Green. Instead of dedicating one section of the grill to beef and another to chicken, the chain typically cooks one meat at a time, then cleans and sanitizes the equipment before cooking the next meat.

The grill itself measures five feet and sits against the back wall. Moving to the right, next comes a four-burner range, which the team uses to saute fajita vegetables and cook shrimp.

Two fryers follow in the equipment lineup, instead of just one fryer from the prior design. Currently, the chain uses the extra fryer to improve capacity for fresh tortilla chips and taco shells. Green says they are also working on menu expansion ideas that would make use of the extra fryer, such as adding chimichangas. Next in the lineup is a refrigerated table, home to two Panini presses used for making quesadillas, with extra cold toppings like cheese and sour cream stored below.

Turning 180 degrees from the hot line, the food assembly line displays ingredients for burritos, tacos and other items, allowing guests to customize their orders.

Backing up to the beginning, the assembly line actually starts with a chip warmer, followed by a third Panini press, this one for warming tortillas.

Next comes a four-foot steam table with wells on top for holding meats and veggies at food-safe temperatures. This is followed by a refrigerated table, with wells and refrigerated doors below for storing backup cheese, sour cream and other garnishes and ingredients. This unit replaces a nonrefrigerated cold table that relied on ice for holding product at temperature.

Notably, during off-peak hours in the afternoon, the chain moves from six-inch to two-inch pans on the assembly line, says Green. "The shallower plan gives the appearance [that they are] bountiful. When guests walk down the line, the line looks full but the pans are shallower."

Front of the House

The prototype's dining area was designed by Kathy Diamond Design Associates, which has offices in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Bath, Ohio. The new design, says Friedman, reflects the quality of Salsarita's food. "[Kathy] said the food is so tasty and fresh, we needed to make the restaurant a fresh environment," Friedman says.

This fresh environment starts with a new color palette. While the old Salsarita's was heavy in the reds, greens and yellows — all mainstays of Mexican restaurant design — the new store has more natural beiges, along with some splashes of those three core colors.

The flooring, for instance, is a beige tile, similar in color to the painted open ceiling. Tables and booths feature a light hardwood construction. In addition to these seating options, guests can also choose to dine at banquettes, bar-style seats and large community tables, with chairs in wood, green upholstery and red metal. Yellow pendant lights, which resemble lemons cut down the middle, hang above the community tables.

In addition, the new design features a theme wall. Made with a vinyl wall covering, it features large food photographs, statements about the chain's "cravable Mexican recipes" and large posters that explain the chain's fresh ingredients. This restaurant also features a television monitor that shows food preparation images on a loop.

"The monitor really establishes the fact that made-on-premise, fresh food is what you're going to experience," says Friedman.

Fresh Mex Drive-Thru

While Friedman says results for this new store have been very positive, Salsarita's is still experimenting with new features. In September, the first Salsarita's with a drive-thru opened in Evansville, Ind.

While this addition is simply a matter of giving customers what they want, the way they want it, Friedman says it did require some significant operational changes. Drive-thru business is, by its nature, time sensitive, which conflicts with the customized food Salsarita's offers to dine-in guests. The drive-thru menu board, then, de-emphasizes customized orders in favor of simplified offerings, he says.

"It's our food, but we're presenting it in more of a drive-thru motif. We have combos and we're trying to do burrito classics, [which are recipe-based] burritos to speed up the line. Guests can customize, but I think we'll sell a large percentage of the classics."

Even more significant are the kitchen changes made to accommodate the drive-thru.

Instead of trying to assemble meals for dine-in and drive-thru customers on the same line, a completely separate assembly line supports the drive-thru. This line mirrors the dine-in assembly line and sits along a side wall, forming an "L" with the dine-in line. While this required an additional investment — about $45,000, not counting real estate — it was necessary for both throughput and to keep customers happy.

"When you've got a line out the door and you've only got two hours when you really make your money, you can't really have someone jump the line," says Green. "If you've got a customer standing right there, you can have someone cut in to make something for the drive-thru. That's probably the biggest reason why none of the fresh-Mex concepts have done drive-thru. We're treading some new ground trying to figure this out."

Concentric Growth, Company Culture

Though drive-thru remains a work in progress, sales and customer reaction have already convinced Friedman that the new prototype in Rock Hill is the future of Salsarita's. Looking ahead, he expects to open five new Salsarita's this year, followed by 10-plus a year for the next two years. These openings, he notes, will include a combination of both franchised and company-owned stores.

This growth won't occur just anywhere. The company's footprint centers around its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., and Friedman plans to grow outward from there, with a target on professional suburbs — areas with significant office space — in large metro areas. Salsarita's aims for 20-25 percent of business to come through catering sales. Having enough residents to support a strong dinner business is another factor in location selection.

Such contiguous geographic growth, Friedman says, makes it easier to ensure the store's success through proper training, and by developing the food culture on which Salsarita's is now building its future. Given how much time and effort the company has put into developing a food culture — and a store that reflects that culture — it is simply good business for the chain to nurture that approach through its growth.

"As you expand concentrically, you're able to go into the next market and train your management," Friedman says. "You can open your new restaurant the best it can be."

Salsaritas at a Glance

  • Key Players: Phil Friedman, CEO; Ken Green; president and chief operating officer; Tim Carter, chief administrative officer; Walter Voight, area director; Rick DaCosta, area director
  • Interior Designer: Kathy Diamond Design Associates
  • Kitchen Design Consultant: Cini-Little International
  • Equipment Dealer: Restaurant Services Inc.

Facts of Note

  • Chain Headquarters: Charlotte, N.C.
  • Year Founded: 1999; acquired by Friedman in 2011
  • Signature Menu Items: Quesorito, burrito bowls, tacos, salads
  • Number of Units: 82 units in 17 states
  • Standard Unit Size (Prototype): 2,400 sq. ft. Rock Hill, S.C., prototype features an extra 450 square feet to accommodate an enlarged kitchen that serves as a catering hub for the region. Salsarita’s catering represents 20 percent of system sales.
  • Seats per Unit: 90 interior; 24 on patio
  • Location Type: Endcap or shared outparcels; drive-thru opening soon.
  • Total System Sales: $65 million
  • Average Sales: Top 1/3 of system franchisees average more than $1.2 million
  • Unit Growth Projections: 10 units/year
  • Check Average: $12
  • Equipment Package Cost: $85,000-$100,000
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