Asian fast-casual Teriyaki Madness entered 2020 with the most momentum it’s had in 17 years of existence.

The brand not only awarded 90 franchises, but it also expanded into seven new states and two countries, opened a new shop design, launched a loyalty program, struck national deals with Pepsi and Sysco, and opened a flagship corporate headquarters shop that serves as a research and development and training facility. The company’s systemwide footprint grew 48 percent to 65 units.

So how did a rising brand with so much promise fare when COVID hit the restaurant industry? CEO Michael Haith says TMAD faced the same fears as everyone else. The restaurant furloughed staff, cut salaries, and saw unit construction come to a screeching halt.

However, the tension proved to be brief. Pivoting strictly to off-premises played right into TMAD’s wheelhouse as 65 to 80 percent of sales came outside the four walls pre-COVID. The company received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, hired everyone back and gave backpay. Shops under construction continued their progress and opened only about a month to a month and a half late.

TMAD sales were up 16 percent year-over-year in June. The loyalty program has added roughly 30,000 guests per month. As it turns out, TMAD’s momentum never stopped during the pandemic. Instead, the rate of progress is now increasing.

The CEO says the team is eager and everything the brand put in place—technology, mastering third-party delivery and takeout, and store design—is starting to pay off. Customers are choosing TMAD as opposed to the typical burger, pizza, or sandwich segments.

“We never worried about it,” says Haith, on customer’s gravitating toward well-known food brands amid the pandemic. “We just kind of worry about ourselves. But how many pizzas can you eat? And how unhealthy can you eat? There’s not a whole lot of concepts that have fresh vegetables like we do. Burgers don’t travel well. How many people order a sandwich for dinner? So we fit in very well. For those who no longer go to casual dining, they now have an option to get something that’s different that they can’t make at home. And frankly, we’re in here now four months or so, people are starting to mix it up, so our sales are just increasing week by week. It’s pretty amazing to us.”

Currently, TMAD has 77 units, and it’s projected to have roughly 100 by the end of 2020 or early 2021. Eight new shops opened since May, including the first of a 10-unit development deal in Hawaii. Ten more are scheduled to open in the coming weeks. The company expanded its training team to assist new franchisees and brought on a new vice president of franchisee relations; vice president of finance; director of real estate, design, and construction; director of supply chain; and local shop marketing manager.

Haith describes it as “playing full offense.” The flow of deals and leads has dramatically increased as people within the industry hear TMAD’s story. The CEO notes that not many brands are up 16 percent—those type of numbers draw eyeballs.

“We were just kind of built for this,” Haith says. “We live a little bit in the future. We’re a technology company as much as we are a restaurant. Our food travels really well. It’s Asian food, and our packaging was designed all to-go. And with our delivery systems and ease of use and convenience, sales within the shops have soared. So interest from folks who understand the business model and the strength of the business model are knocking down our doors. There’s a giant window of opportunity to take second-generation space, and we’re now looking at building company shops and expanding that pretty dramatically as well as partnering with franchisees to be able to take advantage of all those opportunities.”

Given the brand’s strength in off-premises, reopening dining rooms wasn’t a huge concern for the chain.

Haith says TMAD reopened where available—depending on the market—but customers were still hesitant to eat inside restaurants. Whether it was 25 or 50 percent capacity, the limitation didn’t matter to TMAD. Haith says operators have seen people eating in the back of their cars in the parking lot like a makeshift picnic. As he explains, “Our food is safe and it goes anywhere, so why eat in a busy restaurant?”

And that’s exactly how TMAD thinks in terms of constructing shops going forward.

“It really is a smaller dining room,” Haith explains. “We want to provide seats both inside and outside wherever available for those folks who want to eat away from work or they want to eat in the restaurant. But for the most part, we are all digital. People pay in advance through the app and they just walk in, take their food off the shelf, and leave. Our kitchens have remained about the same size with lots more capacity. … No matter how busy the shops, there always seems to be an open table or two.”

“One of the beauties of TMAD is we are in strip malls for the most part,” he continues. “We don’t take pad sites, we don’t have drive-thrus, we’re not in shopping malls, so we have to flex to the space. So it depends on the shop, and it depends on the neighborhood. We really flex to the space that’s available to us. And we want to maximize the profit for the franchisees and make it as convenient as possible for the customers.”

Approaching 20 percent growth is good news for any restaurant brand, but Haith says it’s especially important for TMAD as it works to become a household name.

The CEO says that success lets key stakeholders like bankers, landlords, and real estate agents know that TMAD is a viable organization.

“They know, here we come,” Haith says, “We’re growing pretty fast. … There’s no end in sight. So there’s a whole lot of folks who now realize that we’re not one-offs or one and done. We are a force and here we come.”

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Franchising, Web Exclusives, Teriyaki Madness