Hawaiian-style Mexican hits the mainland with Maui Tacos

Hawaiian-style Mexican hits the mainland with Maui Tacos

Mark Hamstra

DUNWOODY, Ga. — Blimpie International Inc., the formerly high-flying sandwich-shop franchisor, debuted the mainland version of its Maui Tacos brand here last month, hoping that the Hawaiian-born Mexican concept might stir a tropical breeze to put the wind back in its sales.

Blimpie, which has its headquarters in New York and a support center near here in Atlanta, is seeking to replicate the three-tiered sub-franchisor sys tern that had propelled its flagship brand to its current status as a 2,000unit national chain.

Although Blimpie has differentiated Maui Tacos with a surfer-style decor package and simplified it from its Hawaiian roots to make it easier to replicate on a wide scale, Maui Tacos’ president, Robert Sitkoff, said the company is seeking to preserve the concept’s status as a purveyor of high-end, quick-service fare.

“We want the concept to stand on the quality of the food,” he said.

Blimpie acquired the Maui Tacos concept from its founders, chef Mark Ellman and his partner, Shep Gordon, after they had opened six outlets in Hawaii. The concept is similar to the taquerias or salsa bars found throughout California and in other Western states, but the ingredients are a reflection of Ellman’s expertise with Hawaiian flavorings.

Unlike the original Maui Tacos, each of which has its own chef, the mainland restaurants will use ingredients that have been prepared off-premises by suppliers using Ellman’ s recipes in an effort to minimize in-store equipment and labor costs. Fish, beef and chicken are delivered to the stores marinated, fully cooked and frozen and then are heated using cook-and-hold oven technology before being placed in steam tables. The concept uses no grills or fryers.

The 1-pound burritos, named after such Hawaiian surfing locales as Napilli and Hookipa, include chicken, fish or steak marinated in a pineapple-and-lime mixture and topped with such other ingredients as cheese, rice, guacamole, black beans, lettuce, salsa and sour cream. They are priced from $2.99 to $5.29. Five varieties of vegetarian burritos, including three made with potato, also are available.

Tacos, priced from $1.99 to $2.59, can be ordered hard or soft and can include chicken, steak, fish, potato or ground beef. The menu also includes quesadillas — steak, chicken or cheese — and a taco salad. Salsas and beverages are self-serve, and the outlet also offers Blimpie’s “Smoothie Island” frozen-drink brand. No alcoholic beverages are offered.

The best sellers, according to vice president of operations Greg Bennett, have been the “burrito of the day” specials, which change each month. The fish tacos, which include a 2-ounce portion of cod, also have been popular, he said. Bennett estimated the check average has been between $6 and $8.50 during the first four weeks of operation, adding that the per-person amount spent during the dinner daypart has been significantly higher than during lunch.

Open since Oct. 12, the 56-seat, 2,100-square-foot Dunwoody location has been generating about $12,000 to $13,000 per week in sales, according to Sitkoff, which is higher than the $8,000 to $9,000 per week Blimpie had predicted for the outlet. About 70 percent of sales are tallied during lunch, and about 75 percent of the business has been dine-in. The restaurant, located in a strip mall, does not have a drive-thru window, but Sitkoff said future sites are expected to be freestanding or end-cap locations with drive-thru service.

He estimated that unit start-up costs would total about $175,000 to $225,000, or slightly more than those of Blimpie. The concept is expected to generate significantly higher revenues than the $246,000 in annual sales Blimpie units averaged last year, however.

Although the menu offers a unique array of Mexican-style quick-service fare, the decor perhaps is the most striking feature of the concept.

“It kind of gives you the feeling that you are in a surfer’s garage,” Sitkoff said. “It’s made to look like people just threw it together, but it all works.”

Designed by The Retail Group, a Seattle-based design firm that also is working on Blimpie’s core concept and its Pasta Central co-brand vehicle, the prototype features such accouterments as surfboards hanging from the ceiling and walls, mismatched beach chairs and the front half of a Volkswagen van, which is used as a retail merchandiser for chips, salsa, caps and T-shirts. The menu is posted on a garage door overhanging the front counter.

“It’s real quirky and eclectic,” said Kathy Schanno, marketing director for The Retail Group. “There’ s lots of ‘found’ objects. There’s vintage photographs and souvenirs all over the place to create an island esthetic.”

In addition, fresh fruits and vegetables are on display in baskets scattered throughout the interior to reinforce the “freshness theme.

“It’s a different take from the typical rice-and beans joint,” Schanno said.

Ed Tyler, president of Atlanta-based Restaurant Concepts International, which acquired the sub-franchise rights for the Atlanta market, said Maui Tacos’ broad demographic appeal — particularly to women — and its ability to charge a premium price for its products are two of the reasons he is banking on the concept’s success.

“The niche is right,” he said. “We’re right in between the Taco Bells and the casual Mexican dinner houses that are proliferating all over the country.

“The good thing about it is that without exception, people come in, and they like the feel, and they like the food,” he added.

Tyler, a 20-year veteran of quick-service restaurant operations whose experience includes stints at the Wendy’s hamburger chain and at the Mrs. Winner’s fried-chicken concept, said he has been in talks with about five different groups who are interested in becoming Maui Tacos franchisees.

The Dunwoody outlet, which is Blimpie’s only corporately owned restaurant, will be used as a training facility for future franchisees of the brand, Sitkoff said.

Blimpie is seeking to grow the concept by selling sub-franchise territories to companies like Tyler’s, which in turn will sell individual franchise agreements within their territories. The system, as it functioned for the Blimpie brand, produced a fairly steady stream of lump-sum payments for Blimpie International as area-development territories were sold, followed by royalties from the individual units.

The opening comes at a critical point in Blimpie’s history, as the company struggles to reclaim the rapid growth that had propelled its sales and earnings for several years.

In the first quarter ended Sept. 30, Blimpie reported profits of $466,000 on revenues of $8.77 million, down from profits of $803,000 on revenues of $10.03 million in the first quarter of a year ago.

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