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According to the 2020 U.S. Census, more Hawaiians now live on the continent than in Hawaii proper for the first time ever — 53% compared to 47%.

Familiarity and discipline drove Mo’Bettahs’ growth

The Hawaiian plate restaurant grew its sales by over 40% in 2023, while its unit count grew by over 31%.

There were several high-growth concepts in the Top 500 that focused on Hawaiian cuisine. Driving much of that growth is a demographic shift of native Hawaiians moving to the U.S. mainland. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, more Hawaiians now live on the continent than in Hawaii proper for the first time ever — 53% compared to 47%.

One of the concepts benefiting from this shift, and consequential increase in familiarity to the cuisine, is Mo’Bettahs, which finished 2023 with about $80 million in sales and about 50 locations, or just over 40% year-over-year sales growth and just over 31% year-over-year unit-count growth. Mo’Bettahs was founded in 2008 by brothers Kimo and Kalani Mack, who moved from Hawaii to Bountiful, Utah, and wanted to introduce their native food in their new home. Backed by an investment from Savory Fund in 2017, the concept has since been on a steep growth spurt, with plans for much more.

For starters, CEO Rob Ertmann, who joined in 2021 after a long career in the industry, expects to have over 60 locations open by the end of this year.

“We’re being smart about our growth and not growing just for growth’s sake,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s not a snail’s pace, but we’re being disciplined with our real estate and staying focused on the fundamentals.”

Those fundamentals include a focus on the food, service, and, importantly, the margins. Mo’Bettahs’ unit economics are creating more development interest, he said, with average unit volumes close to $2 million and store-level margins in the mid-20% range.

“Keeping disciplined around those margins is what’s enabling us to grow,” Ertmann said.

How the company does that is by homing in on its processes to ensure efficiency. There are lines in the sand the company won’t compromise on — product quality and portion sizes — but there are plenty of opportunities, as well. Mo’Bettahs has brought some prep in house, for instance, saving on distribution costs. The company used to order pre-battered chicken and now does that work in-house, which has saved several points on margin, Ertmann notes as an example.

“We constantly look at where we can be efficient with labor and improvement of food costs,” Ertmann said.

It’s a playbook the company will continue to follow as it grows. The plan is to build along its existing corridors, such as the I-15 corridor in Idaho, Utah, and Las Vegas, or the I-35 corridor from Dallas to Oklahoma City and Kansas City.

“We’re looking at white spaces to grow in our established markets where we have distribution, operations, leadership resources,” Ertmann said. “We’re also looking at where we need to branch out. We have locations in Boise and just opened in Rexberg, [Idaho], which is a college town on the far eastern side [of I-15].”

Anything much further out right now won’t allow the company to maintain its margins at this time, he added. Again, it’s not a snail’s pace, but a disciplined one. That said, Ertmann expects “well over 100 units” three to five years from now and believes the Mo’Bettahs brand, and the appeal of its signature Hawaiian barbecue and plates, could easily translate nationwide.

“We love communities that not all restaurants are in, where people want good comfort food and value and quality,” he said. “There are plenty of pockets for us to fill out those communities. The sky’s the limit for this brand, as long as we stay focused on the fundamentals and keep being disciplined.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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