When John Kunkel came up with the concept for Lime Fresh Mexican Grill in 2005, his goal was to create a fast-casual eatery that reflected the vibrancy and food-conscious culture of Miami's South Beach.
After being purchased by Ruby Tuesday's last March and now with a total of 21 locations, his vision appears to be right on the mark. The chain is currently in expansion mode. "We have opened up three locations in Atlanta, two in Alabama and have four sites in Washington, D.C.," says Dave Syarto, vice president of operations. "We have another restaurant ready to open in Raleigh, N.C."
FE&S spoke to Syarto about Lime Fresh's concept and operations, and discussed the challenges of competing in the burgeoning Mexican foodservice segment.
FE&S: Please describe Lime Fresh's concept.
DS: We are a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, with the culture and energy of South Beach. Our vibe is a little bit edgy and loud, with big patios, music and adult beverages. At our Atlanta location over the summer, we featured live music. Our restaurants range from 2,200 to 3,200 square feet. Most are within outdoor malls or a strip center, although we have a freestanding site outside of Atlanta in Buckhead.
FE&S: Describe Lime Fresh's décor.
DS: It's a South Beach feel that incorporates limes, plants and bright colors, like yellow. There also is a lot of wood trim. We have a mix of high tables, which creates a bar-like atmosphere, in addition to booths for families.
FE&S: What is unique about your operation?
DS: One thing that's unique is our food, which is made fresh every day. We offer a salsa bar with seven made-from-scratch salsas daily. Lime Fresh provides more than 50 hot sauces that range from mild to out-of-control hot. This allows guests to flavor food the way they like it. We also have a wide selection of tequila drinks, including margaritas, as well as frozen sangria and an extensive offering of Mexican beer.
FE&S: What are Lime Fresh's best sellers and signature dishes?
DS: Our menu selection ranges from tacos, burritos and fajitas to salads and appetizers. One of our signature dishes is the queso burrito, which includes sour cream, rice, black beans, chicken, queso dip and jalapenos. Another strong seller is our fish taco with fried or grilled mahi, cabbage, shredded lettuce, pico and cream cilantro dressing. Our menus are the same in all locations.
FE&S: What are the most important attributes you look for when purchasing equipment?
DS: We look for reliable equipment that lasts when it's maintained. The most important thing is developing a relationship with the manufacturer.
FE&S: Describe the back of house.
DS: We have exhibition kitchens that are between 800 and 900 square feet total. The cooking area is only about 200 square feet and includes a grill, flattop, fryers and refrigeration. We also have walk-ins and reach-ins in the kitchen. Coolers are up front by where the dishes are assembled. Customers order at the counter, then staff deliver meals to their table.
FE&S: What are the most prevalent trends in the Mexican foodservice segment?
DS: Overall, fast-casual Mexican foodservice is the fastest-growing segment out there. We're seeing continuous sales increases year over year. Many new operations are popping up, which means more competition. After working in this segment for a year, it's evident that people love Mexican food. It has a flavor that sticks in your mind and becomes something you crave. Even though I'm involved with it, I eat it every day, including on my days off. Also, much of it is healthy, since there are not a lot of additives.
FE&S: What are the biggest challenges in this segment?
DS: Looking at the Mexican segment from the fast-casual side, it's evident that there is a lot of competition, with more on the way. We have to be at the top of our game. It's all about serving great food fast. Speed is important, but there needs to be value behind it as well.
FE&S: What changes are you planning for Lime Fresh in the next year?
DS: Even though Lime Fresh is under Ruby Tuesday's corporate umbrella, we separate it. We are looking at adding new menu items with different flavors and taking off dishes that have not been as well received. The goal is to grow our brand in Florida, where it is known, expand in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, then take it out further. We're looking to expand to between 25 and 35 sites per year. We have four locations opening in North Carolina over the next several months and will be entering the Ohio market with three to four sites.