Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, based in Denver, is poised for growth next year with the launch of a new franchising program and plans to open its first corporate locations outside Colorado.
Founded in 2008, the fast-casual Mediterranean concept has grown to 14 company-owned locations in its home state. Alon Mor, the concept’s president and chief executive, did not disclose where the first franchise locations will open, but said next year the brand is scheduled to be in five or six new markets.
Garbanzo is known for its healthful and customizable menu. Guests build their meals, starting with a pita, a tortilla-like laffa or salad. They add proteins, such as chicken or steak shawarma, falafel or chicken or steak “falarma,” essentially a falafel with meat. Other toppings include hummus, babaganoush, tabbouleh, rice and sauces like tahini or tzatziki.
Mor, who is originally from Israel, says the time is right for a Mediterranean chain concept. He spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about Garbanzo’s growth ahead.
Tell me about Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill. What makes it a good candidate for franchising?
It’s Mediterranean food. We try to fall into three categories: fresh, healthy and authentic. We’re not going to do a Mediterranean quesadilla or something like that.
We’re known for our falafels, our hummus and our shawarma — those are all top sellers. They are unique and authentic. Our falafels are very green, for example, due to the nature of veggies in there. We bring everything from overseas. Our tahini, for example, is made in the Mediterranean region. We could have cut corners and brought in a product from Texas, but that wouldn’t have been authentic.
When we first started, we looked at how Mexican, Asian and other ethnic foods have grown. We’ve all seen Mediterranean becoming more popular because of the health benefits. And if those other cuisines succeeded, there’s no reason why Mediterranean can’t succeed in the same way, especially in fast casual. People look more for quickness, freshness and healthiness of the product.
What do you envision for the brand?
The intent is to go national. But we’re only working with franchisees who are all multi-unit operators. They’ve been operating restaurants for many years. We’re not looking for people who want to open onesies and twosies. We’re looking for people that get it.
We’re looking more at specific regions, as opposed to going out in concentric circles.
How big are Garbanzo’s units?
They average is around 2,300 to 2,400 square feet with 75 to 80 seats. The average check is about $8.50.
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Are you building the company’s infrastructure as you gear up for franchising?
We’ve built our systems and processes to be able to support the franchise community. We have all training online and our opening marketing plans have been developed. Our franchise disclosure documents have been in place for a while. We hired Bob Bafundo as director of operations and franchise development about two and a half years ago in order to gear us up for franchising. As we grow, we’ll keep hiring and have the right support system for our franchisees.
What’s keeping me up at night is making sure we can expand and really do it the right way. I’m in this for the long run. This is not about collecting royalty checks, it’s about having a brand we’re proud of. Next year we can be in five or six additional markets, and that’s going to be a huge year for us.
What types of locations are you looking for?
We try to get end-caps with a patio, but on Main and Main, you could be in an in-line [location] and that will do the job as well. We’re in both urban and suburban locations.
How are commodity prices affecting the chain?
We’re experiencing what I’m sure everyone else is experiencing: the shortage of proteins, which creates challenges. It seems like manufacturers are scared. In the past we used to go to a 6- to 12-month contract, but now they seem to want to go month to month. We try to protect our customers in terms of price increases, but 2012 will be an interesting year for all of us.
Tell me about Garbanzo’s new loyalty program.
We’ve had a loyalty program for over a year, but the big change is doing a real-time program. Consumers can now apply their discounts or freebies at the time of the actual purchase on their VIB — Very Important Bean — card.
In the past we printed the receipt, and, if they were lucky, they didn’t lose it. They got the discount the next time they came in and presented the receipt. Now they can swipe and decide whether to use their discount today or on the next visit. We have over 30,000 loyal members.
One of your partners is Ken Rosenthal, who founded St. Louis Bread Co./Panera Bread. How did that relationship come about?
Ken and I have been together for about 10 years. I used to work for him at Panera. He was excited by the concept and we decided the country could handle this cuisine, so we partnered together.