Fast-casual chains are hotter than a hot grill these days and GrilliT, a fresh, new concept with a nutritional menu made up of ingredients from local growers across the country, has its sights set on becoming the next upstart in the restaurant industry’s most promising category.
According to a recent report from Technomic, a consulting and research firm serving the food industry, eight of the 10 fastest-growing restaurant chains with sales above $2 million are from the fast-casual sector. Furthermore, about 85 percent of consumers eat at a fast-casual restaurant at least once a month.
GrilliT, a Latin-Caribbean fusion concept that specializes in made-to-order salads, rice bowls, pasta, and wraps topped or stuffed with tender steak or plump chicken or shrimp, opened its first location in June 2011 in South Florida. The growing chain offers a menu of freshly made signature sauces such as Chipotle Garlic, Balsamic Garlic, Garlic Cilantro, Teriyaki, and Curry Mustard, as well as 20 customer-selected hot and cold toppings. GrilliT uses the highest-quality, raw ingredients from local growers across the country.
“GrilliT was founded on a very simple principle: to demonstrate that the fast-casual dining experience and fresh, nutritious, home-style cooking are not mutually exclusive,” says Ghazi Hajj, CEO of GrilliT and a successful industry veteran in the fast-casual dining sector with more than 24 years experience leading well-known chain restaurants. “We embarked on a mission to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for delicious and healthy food, while also providing the perfect ambiance for guests to relax and enjoy a great meal.”
GrilliT restaurants offer an inviting and comfortable atmosphere with a contemporary, industrial design featuring both traditional and non-traditional elements such as an open-display kitchen with a grill as the focal point and other Latin-Caribbean-inspired décor.
With more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry, the individuals behind GrilliT are using their expertise to deliver an innovative concept offering something new. Prior to launching GrilliT, Hajj spent nearly three decades working for various well-known brands. He is recognized as a leader in the fast-casual and quick-service restaurant industries as well as a strong player in the franchising sector.
Hajj’s career in the foodservice business took off in 1984 when he was the owner/operator of 36 Little Caesars locations in southeastern Ohio and South Florida. He served various roles with Little Caesars during his 14 year tenure with the company. From 2001 to 2008, Hajj was the regional operations director and later vice president of franchise support for Quiznos Sandwich Restaurants Corporation.
He served as a consultant and vice president for Chicken Kitchen USA for a year before returning to Quiznos as executive vice president of operations for Cerney Investment/Quiznos Corporation. Since December 2010, Hajj has consulted for Salad Creations Corporate and served as its head of operations in design and distributions.
Another influential investor behind GrilliT is the company’s medical consultant David M. Feldbaum MD, FACS. Dr. Feldbaum is certified in vascular surgery by the American Board of Surgery and his practice is conveniently located near GrilliT’s Pembroke Pines, Florida, location. Feldbaum is such a believer in the concept and its health benefits, he has already begun work on a special menu plan based on GrilliT’s offerings for his post-op patients to follow.
“This menu is exactly what all people should be eating in the way of a daily meal program, but this is particularly true of anyone with high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and other health issues,” Feldbaum says. “I am eager to begin monthly nutritional clinics at the Westfork Plaza location in Pembroke Pines. These will not only be for my patients, but for anyone looking to learn about proper nutrition and a healthier diet.”
With two locations in South Florida, and another scheduled to open at the University of Miami by the end of the year, GrilliT is focused on continuing expansion throughout Florida and the southeastern U.S., as well as in other strategic markets across the country.
Projections call for the opening of 21 company-owned locations over the next three to five years, as well as more than 50 franchised locations within five years.
Since launching its franchising program in February 2013, GrilliT has sold master franchise territories in Kentucky, Ohio, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and North Carolina with neither advertising nor marketing support.
“Taking our inspiration from the successful Chipotle model, we have developed a comprehensive plan to transition the GrilliT brand from the corporate restaurant model, with initial operations in South Florida, to a national rollout with a combination of company-owned and franchised locations,” Hajj says.
A hallmark of the GrilliT expansion plan is a restaurant model designed to take advantage of the fast-growing, fast-casual restaurant segment. GrilliT also plans to minimize costs by either taking over leases of existing restaurants and/or utilizing smaller footprints.
“The ultimate goal is to significantly lower initial startup costs, increase sales per square foot of restaurant space, and make a rapid build-out of new locations more feasible by using a modular interior setup for kitchens and dining rooms,” Hajj says. He adds that the concept is also suitable for non-traditional locations requiring a smaller footprint of only 400 square feet in spaces such as airports, turnpike plazas, hospitals, and mall food courts, in addition to kiosks and grab-and-go cooler programs.
A public company, GrilliT acquired 100 percent of Healthy & Tasty Ventures in April 2013. Other successful fast-casual brands such as Chipotle and Panera Bread are also publicly-traded companies.
“The main advantage of being a public company is cost of capital,” Hajj says. “If a company has a unique business plan, a bit of initial success, and the possibility of blooming into a much bigger operation, then it can make sense to pursue the public company path. GrilliT has all those features.”
“Food with integrity” is how GrilliT defines its philosophy. The company delivers healthy cuisine using only fresh proteins, such as never-frozen chicken and grain-fed Angus beef. All cooking techniques employ a distinctive approach by preparing recipes with low-sodium content, ensuring uniquely healthy and delectable offerings.
GrilliT’s signature bowls include the Spicy Chick (yellow rice, black beans, chipotle chicken, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes); Seaside Noodle (Creole shrimp, white or wheat pasta, black olives, shredded cheese); Tokyo Special (chicken marinated in GrilliT’s signature sauce, yellow, brown, or white cilantro lime rice, sesame seeds, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes); and the Southern Country (Angus steak, yellow rice, black beans, shredded lettuce, and diced tomatoes).
Another customer favorite is GrilliT’s salad selection. Guests can choose from traditional favorites such as the Mediterranean featuring romaine lettuce, feta cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, or a Caesar with fresh grilled chicken. Customer-created salads are also available choosing from several types of lettuces, 20 different hot and cold toppings, a variety of proteins, and seven signature dressings. All menu items – salads, rice bowls, pasta and wraps – are made-to-order and prepared in three minutes or less. Additionally, a catering program is in place for business meetings, parties or other functions with an option of pick-up or delivery.
“Every recipe is low-sodium with all-natural ingredients,” Hajj says. “For the more adventurous patrons, custom flavors from around the world can be mixed and matched to create a unique experience every time. Our customer profile is very simple: anyone that wants to eat healthier and is looking for an innovative, high-quality meal.”
With a unique brand, strong management skills and growth potential as an emerging leader in the fast-casual category, Hajj has plenty of reasons to be bullish about the continued franchising potential of GrilliT, especially with a rebounding economy.
“We believe people are getting out more and starting to spend more freely again,” Hajj says. “But we believe the consumer is motivated to spend their dollars on things that are beneficial to themselves and the environment. People want to link a cause to their investments.”