The healthy-dining trend comes as no surprise to Berge Simonian — he’s known for a while that tasty better-for-you choices can score big with consumers. The Beirut-born restaurateur left engineering school at the University of Texas at Arlington after his third year to help his parents, who wanted to open a deli in Houston.
“They wanted to be their own boss. They were my mom and dad and they didn’t know what they were doing. I went down to help them in 1979. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was in it up to my neck. We had to work very hard to make it there, but we did.”
Simonian never went back to college. Instead, he built on the skills he had picked up in the foodservice jobs he had worked to put himself through school. He ran the place for his folks and eventually struck out on his own, learning lessons along the way about sticking with what works and jettisoning the stuff that doesn’t.
Like when he tried launch a panini concept called Hot Press in 1988 and fairly quickly realized that his target customers hadn’t yet heard of his product.
“I didn’t have the marketing skills to make it happen. Now everybody knows paninis, but not back then.”
His next attempt worked out better. He opened a cafeteria concept in the food court-like tunnels of Houston’s downtown office towers. The concept took off with office workers, as did a small salad station serving Caesar salad and Greek salad with housemade dressings. Soon the salad line grew as long as the hot food line. Then it grew longer.
And Simonian started thinking that it might be easy to get rid of more labor-intensive cooked fare and build on the success of the salad station. Salata was born in 2005. The first franchise store opened in 2007 and today the chain boasts eight corporate units and 11 franchises in Texas and California, and it’s getting ready to launch in the Chicago market.
Salata is a fast-casual salad bar concept that boasts a bounty of veggies, toppings and housemade dressings that customers pick and choose from, and order either a traditional bowl or a tortilla wrap. Guests go down the line as workers assemble the salads, and pay a single price no matter the weight or number of ingredients — it’s $8, $10 with chicken or another protein, tax included.
All the chain’s dressings and sauces are gluten free. The company has worked with a franchisee who suffers from celiac disease and the local chapter of a gluten-free organization to train all servers in the art of avoiding cross-contamination with croutons, pastas and other gluten-containing items.
I spoke with Simonian last week to learn more about the chain and its plans for franchise growth.
On franchising and expansion
I think the ratio will be 1:2 or 1:3 corporate to franchise stores. In the beginning, we had to open a lot of corporate stores to prove it’s working, because nobody would take a chance on us. This year, we’re opening two more corporate stores. Between now and September, we have 10 stores coming online, two are corporate and eight are franchise. These are already stores with signed leases. Then the next year we have another 20 more coming, and 20 more the year after.
We went to a financing conference in Vegas early on for our franchisees, nobody was even looking at us. The only people getting financing at that time were the big players, the Jack In The Boxes and the Burger Kings. Now, it’s the time. After all these years, with 20 stores and more coming, we’re getting a little bit of favorable attention. Banks are looking at us now. Restaurants are a tough business to be in. You have to prove yourself year in and year out, and the number of stores and sales have to be going up year to year.
On the concept’s appeal
Our business model is working everywhere we open. We have two different models, a downtown model and a newer suburban [model] that’s open for more day parts. We tell franchisees considering the downtown model that it’s a great model because you’re in the restaurant business but you have office hours. You’re closed nights and weekends. Oh, and with six to seven workers you can serve hundreds of salads in a single lunch shift.