El Meson Sandwiches has conquered its native Puerto Rico over the past 44 years. Now it’s taking on Florida.
The 38-unit chain recently opened two restaurants near Orlando. It’s nearing a third opening, and has plans for another two locations, all with the idea of seeing how a chain that spent much of its history catering to mainlanders actually works on the mainland.
“We’ve been in business for a long time,” El Meson CEO Felipe Pérez Grajales said. “We want to do a test market to see how our concept will work on the mainland. So far we’re doing very, very well.”
Pérez Grajales’ father, Felipe Pérez, first opened El Meson in 1972, in Aguadilla, a beach town on Puerto Rico’s west coast that draws U.S. tourists and surfers.
The deli served sandwiches made with criollo bread from Pérez’s own recipe, and meats grilled in-house. Pérez didn’t limit himself to a specific menu. If a customer had an idea for a sandwich, Pérez made it. And if that sandwich was good enough, it would make it onto the permanent menu.
Four decades later, the chain is 37 units strong throughout the island, and the menu includes the “White House” sandwich, or the Minnesota Feast, which came from customer recommendations.
“We have a vegetarian sandwich on the menu called the Surfer Sandwich,” Pérez Grajales said. “That was because in those years, 1972 to 1974, the area was a famous destination for surfers. Americans would come down to surf, but many wouldn’t eat any meat. They wanted a sandwich with all the vegetables [we had,] but no meat.”
El Meson also serves breakfast any time of day. (Sandwiches are also available at any time of day.) The chain also has a strong coffee program, with an espresso bar in all of its locations and beans grown in the Puerto Rico mountains that the company roasts itself.
“We have a very big breakfast,” Pérez Grajales said. “You need to have the best coffee when you’re in breakfast.”
Pérez operated the one location for years. But 15 years later, he made an offer to his son, Pérez Grajales, who went to Florida for college in the 1980s, to open the second location.
Afterward, the chain decided to expand in shopping malls and food courts. El Meson now has 37 locations on the tiny island, and Pérez Grajales believes there is room for more.
“We have positive numbers in Puerto Rico,” he said. “We’re still expanding. We’re opening two to three stores a year.”
That’s particularly impressive given the state of the Puerto Rico economy, which has been mired in an economic crisis in recent years.
“The economy has been difficult,” Pérez Grajales said. “But for us, we’ve been doing positive sales against last year. And the prior year.”
El Meson’s menu is a typical fast-casual deli menu, but with a Caribbean twist, such as Sorullos, or Corn Sticks, and Avena, a breakfast drink made with oatmeal.
Years ago, the company decided that it would look to the mainland if it ever got close to 40 locations. Three years ago, with that number on the horizon, it began studying the U.S. market and trying to figure out where to go. Florida seemed to be a natural stop.
“We did a three-year study of where to go in Florida — the South, the Center, the North,” Pérez Grajales said. “We decided to go to the center of Florida.”
The reason, he said, is Central Florida’s service culture. With the tourist economy in the area, the labor pool is already service oriented.
“We were right,” Pérez Grajales said. “We’re hiring great service people in the Orlando market.”
The company had to make some changes, particularly to its culture, as it adapted to the U.S. market. But for the most part the menu is the same.
“Even some of the products that are very Caribbean are selling very well in the American market,” Pérez said. He noted that half of the chain’s customers in Florida are tourists.
From here, El Meson will look at the numbers in Orlando once the units are built to see how it does. After that, it could look to build more.
So far, however, the numbers are good. The new Florida locations are projected to generate more than $2 million in average unit sales, higher than the system’s $1.8 million average.
“We’ve had such a good response in the U.S. market at this point,” Pérez Grajales said. “What’s more American than a sandwich?”