Merrick McKinnie got hooked on the restaurant industry while doing the most basic of tasks. He was bussing tables while attending the University of Mississippi. More than two decades later, the 47-year-old McKinnie is still in love with the restaurant industry and couldn’t see himself doing anything else.
“At first, I was drawn to the opportunity to make a little extra money, but once I got there, it was a great experience,” he recalled. “I loved working with a team and that’s why I changed my major to business administration to pursue a career in the industry.”
McKinnie never looked back. Over the next 20 years Merrick helped build an extremely large multi-unit franchise operation to 64 McAlister’s Deli locations, 14 MOD Pizza locations and 73 Sonic locations among other acquisitions.
Today, he is Chief Operating Officer of Salsarita’s Fresh Mexican Grill, the fast-casual chain with more than 84 locations in 18 states that is an attractive brand for multi-concept, multi-unit operators seeking a Tex-Mex brand that consistently outperforms the fast-casual industry year-over-year.
But successful chains can’t attract new franchisees without first attracting a legion of loyal customers and Salsarita’s just received validation that it continues to succeed in the latter. In December, Salsarita’s was named to Newsweek’s list of America’s Favorite Restaurants for 2023, which highlights the nation’s top restaurant chains based on an independent survey of customers and employees. Out of 16 categories, only 220 chains were recognized. Salsarita’s received 5 stars in the Tex-Mex category.
“Of course, it’s wonderful to get a 5-star ranking by a publication like Newsweek, an American institution,” said McKinnie, who was tasked and has achieved such feats as:
- Updating, developing, and enhancement of all training tools towards being a world class training organization.
- Implementing innovative programs and software to support operations and improve cost control measures.
- Build relationships with vendor partners to help leverage efficiencies in processes that will stave off rising commodity prices and labor challenges.
“He has done that and so much more,” said Phil Friedman, Salsarita’s CEO, who says McKinnie’s leadership has helped him focus completely on his own CEO role.
“Merrick came on board at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak and immediately stabilized relationships with franchisees, store management and employees. “Because he has been in every aspect of the industry it’s easy for him to put himself in almost everyone else’s position to help them solve problems.”
Not content to rest on his laurels in the new year, McKinnie is making sure Salsarita’s maintains its standing as a customer favorite. The chain recently reached an agreement with MorningStar Farms® to offer its Veggie Chorizo Crumbles, a unique and flavorful plant-based protein, as a filling option for its many menu items. The price will range from $10-$12.00 for the customer to add to a dish.
“Consumers of all ages are looking for opportunities to eat more plant-based meals for a variety of reasons and we believe our customers will be pleased to see that we are offering MorningStar Farms® Chorizo Crumbles as an exciting addition to our existing menu,” McKinnie said.
Friedman added, “Merrick worked daily and tirelessly with Gordon Foodservice, our distributors, to keep all Salsarita’s stocked with food, packaging, and operating supplies during a crucial time when the whole industry was suffering from supply chain issues. He fits in perfectly with our Executive Team, our CMO and CFO and as COO is leading us into, I am confident, a highly successful future.”
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 84 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.