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Salsarita's Fresh Cantina purchased

McAlister's vet Phil Friedman buys chain, eyes growth opportunities

Phil Friedman, who left his McAlister’s Deli chief executive position last September, has returned to the fast-casual scene with the purchase of Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, a Mexican restaurant chain based in Charlotte, N.C.

Salsarita’s will be owned by Salsarita’s Holdings LLC, a company formed and controlled by Friedman, who will serve as chief executive. Larry Reinstein will join Salsarita’s Holdings as president and chief operating officer. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“I’m back in it and I love it,” Friedman said Monday in an exclusive interview with Nation’s Restaurant News. “I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Friedman said he closed the deal last week. The seller was Salsarita’s Inc. and the brand’s founder, Bruce Willette.

The 11-year-old burrito and taco chain has established a regional presence in the Southeast, operating 82 locations in 19 states and Puerto Rico. The category’s big players include Chipotle and Qdoba. Salsarita’s average annual unit volume totals $800,000, and its average check averages between $7 and $8.

“What attracted me is that it’s quick casual,” Friedman said. “I set out to find another company to grow. I wanted an established brand with market presence with its growth curve in front of it.”

At the helm of McAlister’s, Friedman saw the fast-casual sandwich chain grow to 300 restaurants, from an earlier 27 locations, during his 11-year tenure.

Seven new Salsarita’s locations are set to open by the end of 2011 in Fredericksburg, Va., Columbia, S.C., Jersey City, N.J., Bloomington, Ill., Buffalo State College in Buffalo, N.Y. and two more non-traditional locations with development partner, Compass Group North.

Most Salsarita’s units are franchised, with Friedman seeking multi-unit franchisees to grow the brand. There are 80 franchised units and two owned by the company, Friedman said.

The brand’s strategy is not to open stores in new markets, but to intensify penetration in current markets, he said

“We’re not trying to get outside of our footprints. We want depth in our markets,” Friedman said. “The focus will be where we operate today.”

He noted the chain may explore looking to open restaurants on more college campuses.

Friedman is currently vice chairman of BrandStand Marketing Group and a founding member of IL ‘Pioppo, LLC, importers of organic Italian wines. He also serves on the board of Diversified Restaurant Holdings, Inc., a franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings and the owner, operator and franchisor of Bagger Dave’s Legendary Burger Tavern.

Prior to McAlister’s, Friedman served as president of Panda Management Co., chief financial officer for Service America Corp. and vice president of restaurant planning for The Marriott Corp.

Friedman also serves on the board for the National Restaurant Association and the Mississippi Restaurant Association, and he is a trustee for NRA’s Education Foundation.

Reinstein most recently served as president and CEO of Fresh Concepts, a multi-unit multi-concept restaurant operating company. In 1998, he led the creation of Fresh City.

Contact Alan Snel at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Alansnelnrn

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