Since Steve Alie first got into the restaurant business with no experience in 2006, he’s faced a litany of obstacles trying to stymie his success ranging from the Great Recession and the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history to a worldwide pandemic. But the 49-year-old Dearborn Heights resident persevered and now is prospering as the owner of four Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grills, including his most recent that opened in the Detroit suburb of Southfield in January 2022, joining his other locations in Detroit, Macomb, and Troy.
It’s been an interesting journey to say the least for Alie, who can best describe the last 16 years in his own words: “The economy was great when I opened my first Salsarita’s, but the ‘Great Recession’ was looming around the corner. In 2008 I opened my second location in downtown Detroit in the food court of General Motors’ world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center. In 2009, GM declared bankruptcy and laid off thousands of employees in that building. That same year, I bought a Salsarita’s from another franchisee who couldn’t survive the recession. I still successfully own both locations.
“In 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy and somehow, I navigated through that. Then COVID hit and I came across a location in Southfield that I had been admiring for years. Twelve months later I open it as a Salsarita’s and its sales have exceeded my most aggressive projections. There’s a phrase that always rings in my ears when I tell this story that I was told by a friend and mentor early in my professional career… ‘Great companies grow during bad times!’”
The restaurant industry isn’t for the faint of heart and it’s quite a success story for someone who formerly worked in the corporate world for a real estate developer who built and bought manufactured home communities, apartment buildings and single-family subdivisions. Starting as a salesperson, Alie eventually became a divisional director of operations but after eight years he realized it was time for a change. “I reported to the owner of the company and eventually lacked any growth opportunity within the company,” Alie said. “I either had to change companies to grow or follow my dream of self-employment and control my own destiny. I saw restaurant franchising as the vehicle to reach that goal.”
There are obviously thousands of options in the franchised restaurant segment, but Alie said that Salsarita’s, with its fast-casual concept and more than 80 locations in 18 states, stood out as an attractive brand for multi-unit operators seeking a concept that consistently outperforms the fast-casual industry year-over-year. “Mexican fast-casual was lacking in metro Detroit at the time and Salsarita’s had an amazing product, great catering program, easy-to-learn system, well-designed stores and good unit economics,” Alie said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a serious blow to the restaurant industry, Salsarita’s adapted quickly to the pandemic-caused issue of not being able to have dine-in guests by quickly bolstering programs to increase customer awareness of curbside pickup, takeout, and third-party delivery options. Systemwide, the efforts proved fruitful. Salsarita’s marketing promotions with third-party delivery partners led to a 40 percent increase in sales and orders via the Salsarita’s App and online orders increased 300 percent compared to pre-pandemic figures.
Alie said nothing has been more challenging than dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic during the last two-plus years, but Salsarita’s quick response proved critically important, even though Alie said, “it happened so fast it was like drinking from a firehose.”
He continued: “Of course, COVID changed my operations in a way that will never be the same. We were mostly a catering and dine-in concept, but as the entire industry changed, we did, as well, and we are now heavy third-party delivery, online orders, and carryout. Catering has returned to pre-pandemic levels and our technology has continued to grow. Eventually, I embraced the changes, as did our customers and employees, which resulted in a record 2021.”
Alie is particularly excited about the 1,500-square-foot Southfield location which sits near a busy intersection with high visibility at the corner of Southfield Rd. and W 10 Mile and is the first of Alie’s locations to feature a drive-thru. “I always admired that corner and when the prior business went dark during COVID, I aggressively pursued it. The drive-thru has been a huge reason for the quick growth in sales, as well as third-party delivery. The city of Southfield offers a great mix of office, retail and dense residential, it’s central to main roads and highways, and has a solid demographic mix for our concept,” Alie said.
Looking ahead, Alie envisions owning seven to eight Salsarita’s locations with healthy 10 to 12 percent annual sales growth, backed by a solid infrastructure that ranges from his front-line employees to a strong middle- and upper-management team. Of course, it wouldn’t seem like a normal day to Alie if he still didn’t have some challenges to tackle. And the latest come from two fronts: labor costs and shortages that are seemingly affecting industries across the board as well as supply-chain issues. But once again, Alie remains undeterred.
“It’s very frustrating when customer demand is very high for your product, but you don’t have enough staff to fully capitalize and benefit from it. Supply chain issues are another challenge that never seems to end, disrupting operations, as well as increasing the cost of goods. And if you add inflation, it feels like the perfect storm against our industry,” Alie said.
“But I’ve overcome the challenges by never giving up and staying focused and confident, knowing that as long as I do the best I can with the things I can control, then the rest will eventually work itself out. [CEO] Phil Friedman and the Salsarita’s corporate team did an amazing job in navigating the company through the turbulent times and constant changes in the last 24 months. They were always there to support the franchisees.”
Founded in Charlotte, N.C. in 2000, Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina (now known as Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill) offers Mexican favorites such as six flavorful house-made salsas, custom burritos, tacos, nachos, and salads made fresh to order with an extensive selection of proteins, toppings and fillings. Salsarita’s was acquired by franchise industry veteran Phil Friedman in 2011 and operates more than 80 locations in 18 states, including 10 that are company-owned. For more information, visit www.salsaritas.com, like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/salsaritas and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @salsaritas.