Rising Roll Gourmet Café has taken a slow, steady and strategic approach to growth. CEO Mike Lassiter, a franchising veteran who bought into the company in 2003 and purchased it outright in 2007, has successfully established a scalable brand identity. He steered it through recessionary waters and rocky real estate markets by focusing primarily on nontraditional markets, where it has flourished and where he has refined the brand and primed the pump for growth.Founded in 1996 as Uptown Gourmet, a popular independent sandwich shop in a converted bank in Atlanta,
Nineteen units are now open, mostly in Class A office buildings, in hospitals and on college campuses in Georgia, Florida, Texas and Virginia. Lassiter is now geared up to introduce the brand in a more widespread and visible way through franchising in traditional segments as well.
"When we initially started franchising in 2003, we sold four or five right out of the shoot, but then we stopped," Lassiter says. "We realized that we had work to do to convert a mom-and-pop operation into a franchise organization. We needed systems and a good operations manual. Then, in 2007, the economy tanked and the original owners wanted to go in another direction. I bought them out and we spent the next couple of years refining the brand's look and feel, working on throughput and scaling back the menu. At one time, the original concept had 118 items on the menu, some of which lost money every time they were sold. We had to do a lot of food- and labor-cost analyses to be able to clean it up and scale it back."
Rising Roll's team has also worked to contemporize its menu of gourmet hot and cold sandwiches, salads and wraps and to differentiate the concept both from sub sandwich-style concepts and bakery-cafe competitors.
"Our chef did a great job of bringing new ideas and current flavor profiles to the table," Lassiter says. "That was especially important as we started to grow on college campuses and in urban office buildings with a large Millennial customer base."
The chain has also added a number of less-than-400-calorie options as well as vegan and reduced-gluten items and a selection of specialty coffee drinks.
Signature sandwiches include selections such as Chicken Milano, featuring house-made chicken salad, mozzarella, cheddar, roasted red peppers and fresh basil on Tandoori bread; Pimento Cheese & Apple with bacon; Turkey & Brie with apples and Dijon aioli; Portabella & Roasted Red Pepper Vegan Wrap with grilled asparagus and sauteed onion; Turkey & Pear with goat cheese, romaine lettuce and sweet chili sauce; and Firecracker Roast Beef Wrap with roasted red peppers, pepperjack cheese, Firecracker Sauce and lettuce.
Most Rising Roll locations serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast items include paninis, burritos and croissant sandwiches as well as gourmet oatmeal and smoothies.
Lassiter says one major benefit of initially targeting nontraditional locations was lower rents relative to comparable commercial retail spaces. Other benefits include the opportunity to operate a variety of formats, from small express units offering grab-and-go service to full cafes, and to offer franchisees a better work/life balance than many brands can: Many locations are daytime-only operations and close on weekends and holidays. Another benefit has been the opportunity to build a strong catering business. Catering sales now range from 35 percent of revenues in some locations to 65 percent in others.
Right-Sized and Refined
Like its menu, Rising Roll's prototype has been right-sized and refined as the chain has readied for development in new, more competitive markets. Recent updates to the brand's logo and store give it a warm, contemporary appearance. And through aggressive value engineering, the ideal store footprint was reduced from 2,400 to a more economical 2,100 square feet.
That size allows for a front of the house with 42 seats and a large front service counter. The signature element there is an 8- or 12-foot deli case that showcases a variety of house-made salads and sandwich fillings. The counter also includes a grab-and-go merchandiser, drink station and gourmet coffee bar with the register at the far end.
"We prefer that guests see the food, let us help them customize their orders and then pay at the end," Lassiter says. "It's traditional fast casual in terms of the guest ordering experience, but we're faster. Our average delivery time is about 43 seconds and once you've paid, you have everything you need and are ready to sit down and enjoy your meal. You don't have to go find the drink station or the condiment station or wait for your order."
Rising Roll kitchens are large. Including the counter, meal assembly areas and behind-the-scenes prep and storage, the kitchen comprises 65 percent to 70 percent of an average store's footprint. The design accommodates the large amount of catering business and also enables the level of fresh, from-scratch preparation for which the chain is known.
The kitchen's core equipment package includes a large range, grill and double-stack convection oven. Other key equipment items include slicers, prep tables/prep equipment, panini grills and refrigerated storage. Lassiter says his team is also testing a ventless combi oven at one campus location and new menu development has him researching equipment options for oven frying and extended hot holding of proteins.
Moving forward, Rising Roll's franchising efforts will focus initially on markets in the Southeastern U.S. and Texas, but sights are set on national expansion.
"We're really looking for area developers to purchase and sell franchises within their territories," Lassiter says. "We feel like we've been sitting on the shelf for a while but are finally ready to do a national rollout and grow the brand. We have to find the right locations and, more importantly, the right people to help us grow."
Rising Roll Gourmet Café Snapshot
- HQ: Atlanta
- Concept: Fast casual, gourmet sandwich
- Founded: 1996
- No. of Units: 19
- Ownership: CEO Mike Lassiter
- Expansion Markets: Southeastern states, Texas
- Franchising: Yes
- Services: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, takeout, delivery, catering; many nontraditional units Monday-Friday only
- Average Unit Size: 2,100 square feet/42 seats for traditional locations
- Average Kitchen Size: 65 percent of total, including service counter/front deli case
- Average Check: $9.60
- Average Unit Volume: $750,000-$800,000
- Average Kitchen Equipment Package: $110,000-$150,000
- Mission-Critical Equipment: Grill, double-stack convection oven, slicers, panini press