Already a veteran of the hospitality industry, Ken Desai switched gears to the restaurant industry as smoothly as a Formula 1 driver navigating a tricky chicane. He’s found great success as a multi-unit franchise owner with Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill and his blueprint illustrates why this fast-casual chain with more than 80 locations in 18 states is an attractive brand for multi-concept, multi-unit operators seeking a concept that consistently outperforms the fast-casual industry year-over-year.
Since 2007, Desai has operated the Salsarita’s located in the Festival Plaza in Montgomery, Alabama and this past February opened a second location in Auburn serving the university community and everyone else who loves fresh Mexican food in Auburn!
Prior to joining Salsarita’s, the 50-year-old Desai and his wife, Nita, owned and operated hotels. At the time, the couple lived in New Orleans, but they had a family member who had become a Salsarita’s franchisee in Knoxville in 2004, a group that has since become the chain’s largest franchisee with more than 10 locations in the Knoxville area. After spending some time checking out the Knoxville operations and with the brand having piqued their interest, the couple began scouting potential locations in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. As a result, Ken and Nita relocated to Montgomery and opened their first Salsarita’s in January 2007.
“After having had the chance to observe the Knoxville operations, the model was so simple and effective that we realized we didn’t necessarily need restaurant experience to be successful. The hospitality and restaurant industries might seem different, but in many ways they are similar. In both we strive to give great guest satisfaction and provide a clean environment that makes the guest feel comfortable, especially in today’s landscape,” said Desai, who added that he and Nita are still involved in the hospitality industry, but their primary focus is now Salsarita’s.
Ken and Nita have proven to be the perfect fit for Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill. While Ken’s focus is on everything else! He gives much credit to Nita, who oversees all catering operations and whose background in retail sales has proven invaluable. “Nita has been great in developing strong leaders on our team, always coaching them and showing confidence in them,” Desai said. “But her major contribution was educating our loyal customer base on how to transition to a different ordering process when the effects of COVID-19 changed the way we operated our business.”
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 increased 300 percent compared to pre-pandemic figures.
“When we had to promote online ordering, we struggled in the beginning because our loyal customer base still wanted the experience of coming in and ordering their meal, but Nita spent time with our guests showing them how to download the app and navigate it,” Desai said. “She continues to promote the app and always has them checking to see if they have any rewards or discounts. It’s another way of helping guests and showing them the wonderful things, we have to offer.”
Desai chuckles when he says Nita’s sales prowess is on display even when she pitches in on register duty. “She’s always looking for different angles to increase sales,” Desai said. “She’s known for her, ‘Do you want to make that a combo?’ pitch every time she works the register. No matter how many times a team member has asked, she’ll try one more time. She has a 75 percent conversion rate, and the winning line is ‘for 60 cents more you can add chips and salsa!’”
Coping with COVID has resulted in Salsarita’s creating an unusual and highly efficient operations model that smoothly manages customer traffic whether in-store, online or third-party. One line is devoted to in-store guests, while online orders are managed separately, and third-party vendors have their own designated areas for picking up orders.
“One of our many positives has been having a separate entrance for guests who place online orders for in-store pickup. They simply pull into a separate parking area, enter from the back of the restaurant, and go to the pick-up station to look for their order,” Desai said. “That allows us to still provide personal customer service to guests who like to place their order in the restaurant. We also have less than a 30-second walk to deliver curbside orders. But this design wouldn’t have been possible without input from the Knoxville group as well as suggestions from Salsarita’s corporate office.”
Salsarita’s CEO Phil Friedman could not be happier. Thanks to all these new systems and relationships, Friedman and his CMO, Kelly Cooke, who was instrumental in much of the newer successes of the company, agree that more franchisees like Ken and Nita Desai are just what they are looking for.
“What a pleasure it is to work with franchisees who bring not only a big arduous work ethic and business acumen to the table,” said Cooke, “but also fabulous innovations of their own.”+
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.