Johan Engman feels breakfast is underserved in San Diego. So he is building a small morning-food-focused empire that is moving beyond that corner of the country.
Engman is founder and owner of the Rise & Shine Restaurant Group, based in San Diego, which is parent to the Breakfast Republic concept, as well as a growing number of other restaurant brands.
Breakfast Republic, however, is the concept so far that Engman feels has legs.
First launched in June 2015, the company has two units open in San Diego. Three more are scheduled to open over the next nine months: Encinitas is scheduled to open Nov. 1; downtown San Diego in February; and Carmel Valley in March or April.
Open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and serving breakfast only during those hours, the full-service Breakfast Republic is known for its innovative menu, whimsical design and full bar, offering more than the typical mimosa and bloody Mary options. A popular drink, for example, is the Sunny Side Up, made with whiskey, lemon, cane sugar and red wine, with whipped egg white on top and a rounded orange peel, resembling a fried egg.
One of the restaurants also has 20 beers on draft, said Engman. “People were like, ‘Are you crazy? Trying to sell beer that early?’ But it flies out of the bar from 7 a.m. on.”
But it’s not the bar that makes Breakfast Republic stand out, said Engman. It’s the food and design.
“To me, the breakfast scene has gotten redundant. Ninety nine percent of what’s out there is diners offering the same things,” he said.
Breakfast Republic, meanwhile, offers dishes like a Vietnamese Chicken Wing Breakfast Bowl, with five spicy wings over rice, with Asian veggies and three eggs any style; or S’mores French toast with graham-cracker-crusted brioche topped with toasted marshmallows and chocolate sauce. A limited-time offer this month features bone marrow and chorizo with quail eggs, black beans and guacamole with tortillas.
Engman has also worked humor into aspects of the décor, from the “walk-ins only” sign that includes actor Christopher Walkens’ face, to the recording in bathroom stalls recommending that users remain seated for the duration.
Units have gotten bigger as the chain grows. The first was about 1,500-square feet, but subsequent units range between about 2,700-square feet to closer to 4,000-square feet for new locations in the works.
“A smaller restaurant is easier to manage from a staffing perspective,” he said. “But I’d like to think this is a concept good enough where we could still have a wait with adding more seats. Overall, our profitability is very healthy.”
Branding is a key aspect, and Breakfast Republic sells t-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, and the branded coffee, which is roasted locally. “They’re like walking billboards,” said Engman. “Each restaurant sells $3,000 to $4,000 a month in apparel.”
Engman, who is originally from Sweden but moved to the U.S. when he was 16, opened his first restaurant at age 27 called the Fig Tree Café, now with three locations. Fig Tree is also a breakfast and lunch concept, though some units also have dinner.
With Breakfast Republic, he said the company was able to focus more specifically on breakfast.
And, soon, the company plans to add yet another breakfast concept to the portfolio: North Park Breakfast Co., a larger 2,100-square foot restaurant in the same “hipster” North Park neighborhood as the original Breakfast Republic but with a more contemporary and rustic design and different menu. It’s scheduled to open in March 2017.
“I didn’t want to compete against myself,” he said.
In addition, next door to Breakfast Republic in North Park, Engman is also building another concept called Pizza Republic, featuring Neapolitan-style pies and private label wines. That restaurant is scheduled to open late summer or fall next year.
But that’s not all. In October 2016, Engman also plans to open Como Ceviche in downtown San Diego, a fast-casual concept where guests can choose from ceviches from around the world and build a meal over coconut rice, quinoa or as a wrap.
And finally, Engman is also developing an 8,600-square-foot Mexican restaurant, including massive patio, called El Jardin, which will feature dishes from the Guadalajara and Baja regions of Mexico, as well as an emphasis on tequila and mezcal. It’s scheduled to open at the end of 2017 or early 2018, he said.
Engman is not at all interested in franchising. Instead, he plans to build his infrastructure to support the planned additions to the portfolio. He said he’s talking to investors about setting Breakfast Republic on a path for growth beyond Southern California.
“It’s the most scalable of all the concepts I do,” he said. “I do plan to take that to a large number of locations.”