When a new Freebirds World Burrito unit is about to open, fervent fans frequently pitch a tent city on the grounds in order to be among its first patrons. And this year, as the chain doubles in size, fandom has been especially intense.
Since Jan. 1, the Austin, Texas-based division of Tavistock Restaurants LLC of Emeryville, Calif., has grown from 26 to 34 stores, with the most recent opening May 18 in Corpus Christi, Texas.
And Tavistock plans to have 52 restaurants open by year’s end, expanding beyond its current Texas-Oklahoma market into Southern California. Annual systemwide sales are projected at $75.4 million for 2010.
Headquarters: Austin, Texas
Parent company: Tavistock Restaurants LCC, Emeryville, Calif.
Market segment: fast-casual Mexican
No. of units: 34
Systemwide sales: $75.4 million
Leadership: Bryan Lockwood, president; Peter Gaudreau, vice president of operations; Mike Lingor, vice president of development.
Year founded: 1987 in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Method of growth/funding: private equity
Targeted markets: Southern California and North Carolina
Notable competitors: Chipotle, Moe’s Southwest Grill and sandwich chains
Freebirds offers a simple menu of build-your-own burritos, which makes up about 90 percent of sales, and a starting price of $5. The burritos come in four sizes — the Hybird, the Freebird, the Monster and the Super Monster — and four tortilla flavors: cayenne pepper, flour, wheat and spinach. Proteins include chicken, steak, carnitas and vegetarian, and free toppings include pico de gallo, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, cilantro, lettuce, roasted peppers and roasted garlic.
“We love the simplicity and the specificity” of the concept, said Bryan Lockwood, president of Tavistock Restaurants. “It’s very focused in terms of the style and point of delivery.”
Freebirds is positioned in a stable segment of the restaurant industry. Despite the recession, the fast-casual segment and Mexican-influenced menus have held up well, according to The NPD Group. Mexican food has held steady in restaurant orders at 20 percent to 21 percent, NPD said, and for the 12 months ended in March, fast-casual restaurant traffic was up 4 percent, while overall restaurant traffic was down 3 percent.
“People generally want to tie us to Tex-Mex,” said Lockwood, “because we are serving a core product that’s a burrito. But we say we are in the sandwich segment. We think of a burrito today as just a vessel. It’s a hand-held sandwich with a broader sort of base.” Nachos and salads make up the other 10 percent of sales, he said.
Lockwood said the simplicity of the concept is what drew Tavistock, founded in 2003, to buy Freebirds in 2007. Tavistock announced earlier this year that it was acquiring Fuddruckers, the gourmet burger chain, in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy purchase.
“We intend to expand our playing ground in fast-casual,” he said. “We think it’s the right niche for the right time.”
Freebirds, founded in 1987 in Santa Barbara, Calif., was originally geared to a college-campus clientele, generally 18- to 30-year-old men. It expanded to Texas, growing avid fans near the Texas A&M campus in College Station.
“We’ve done a lot of branding work in the nearly three years we’ve owned Freebirds,” Lockwood said.
The demographic has been broadened, he said, “so it’s more approachable and appealing to people in the suburbs.”
The company is financing all of its own growth, generally seeking shopping-center end-cap sites of about 2,800 square feet.
“End caps are important for us, especially because we do business — especially in better-weather areas of the country — with outdoor dining and seating,” Lockwood said. “Being able to capture 30 to 60 additional outside seats is real important.” Indoor seating at most stores is about 70.
Later this year, Freebirds will return to California. “Our first restaurant will be on the campus of USC,” Lockwood said. It will open before school starts in the fall in a new 1,600-unit dormitory.
The Freebirds’ division taps the culinary talents of upper-end restaurants, Lockwood said. “That seriously ratcheted up our product quality,” he said.
Freebirds has added 1,200 employees over the past 12 months, Lockwood said, so the training program for the fast-casual model has been streamlined.
“We call ourselves a ‘Why Organization’ instead of a ‘How Organization,’” Lockwood said. “So instead of telling people how to do stuff, we’re actually telling them why we need to do it a certain way. That’s how we meet and exceed guests’ expectations.”
The model also gives guests freedom of choice, which is molded into Freebirds’ rock ‘n’ roll roadhouse feel, punctuated with a Statue of Liberty, or “Libby” as she is known, on a motorcycle that is “busting” through the store’s Freedom Wall.
Besides Freebirds, Tavistock owns and operates such restaurants as ZED451, Napa Valley Grille, California Café, Café del Rey, Blackhawk Grille and Sapporo Scottsdale.
Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]