By JACK WEATHERLYPhil Friedman has come a long way since he grew up in the Bronx, one of the five buroughs of New York City.
Now he’s in Greater Burrito as owner of Salsarita’s, a Charlotte, N.C.-based Mexican fare chain.
He got there by way of Mississippi, where he made a stop in his 40-year career as an entrepreneur in the chain-restaurant field.
He and other investors bought the McAlister’s Deli chain in 1999. It had 25 stores when the investors bought it from Don and Chris Newcomb, who built the first store in Oxford in 1989.
The new owners grew the chain to 300 sandwich shops before Friedman left in 2010.
Before he came South, he had already proved himself as someone who could guide an established business through serious growth.
He was president of California-based Panda Express and grew it to more than 1,600 Chinese cuisine stores from a start of 100 to 150, according to QSR magazine.
He purchased Salsarita’s in 2011, which has now 80 stores – primarily in the Carolinas and Tennessee.
He told QSR magazine in February 2014 that “we are at the beginning of Salsarita’s growth and Salsarita’s story.”
He said in an interview with Mississippi Business Journal that he and his investors are planning on building 10 around the country this year, and eventually 10 in Mississippi.
Three have been built in Mississippi. And most of the investors in the parent company (which is called the Mississippi Restaurant Group) and/or the Mississippi-based franchise company are Mississippians, including Jim Barksdale, former top officer of Netscape Communications and chief operating officer of FedEx Corp., former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott and son Chet.
Friedman got to know Lott when he was majority leader in the Senate.
“I was on the board of the Mississippi Restaurant Association and when we went to Washington he always made himself available to talk to us.”
Salsarita’s opened its first Mississippi restaurant in Southaven in 2014. Another followed in Starkville two months ago. An Oxford restaurant opened a month ago. A contract has been signed with the Grandview East shopping center, which is to be built in Madison. Sites in Tupelo and Olive Branch could be added, he said.
Salsarita’s is in what is called the fast-casual market, which is dominated in the Mexican category by Chipotle’s Mexican Grill, which has nearly 2,000 restaurants.
Fast-casual is the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry, which is “mature,” meaning that it is expanding only as fast as the gross domestic product, which is a few percent per year.
The fast-food and fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry is projected to post sales of $201 billion this year, up 4.3 percent over 2014 sales, according to the National Restaurant Association 2015 forecast. Sixty-two percent of fast-casual operators expect their sales to be higher this year over last and 43 percent expect their profitability to improve this year, according to the forecast.
Fast-casual, of which McAlister’s was a pioneer, fills a niche that is not as labor intensive, meaning less costly, than full-service restaurants, but offers more atmosphere than fast-food.
While hardly a challenge at this point to Chipotle’s in terms of numbers, Salsarita’s has the advantage on the big chain in the Magnolia State, which does not yet have a foot in the Mississippi door.
Friedman said Salarita’s is the Mexican version of McAlister’s, with a little Subway thrown in. Like Subway, the customer tells the server what he wants in the burrito or taco.
“We really emphasize fresh, a lot of different tastes,” he said. Its salads are presented in taco shells, another distinguishing mark, he said.
“We have six salsas and six proteins,” he said. Grilled chicken, “done in any of the ways we serve food,” is the biggest seller among the meats.
Take the following as a sign, perhaps.
After Friedman moved to Charlotte, he asked someone: if you didn’t go to Salsarita’s where would you go?
The answer was McAlister’s.