Before the off-premises boom, before third-party delivery, and before meal kits, there was the home meal replacement movement. Restaurant concepts like Boston Market promoted the idea of feeding a whole family with freshly prepared, grab-and-go options, not just singular menu items. This was the environment in 1996 when Phil Romano launched Eatzi’s in Dallas, and while the market concept’s initial growth sputtered after just a few years, today it’s enjoying a renaissance and growing once again.
In a recent episode of QSR’s podcast “Fast Forward,” CEO Adam Romo discussed Eatzi’s explosive early years and what the leadership team has done to set it up for success in a more modern, tech-forward era.
The early days
When Romano first partnered with Brinker International to open Eatzi’s, he believed that it wasn’t a typical restaurant and therefore needed a more carefully designed corporate structure.
“We couldn’t just fold it in and manage it and grow it under the typical restaurant infrastructure, which is what Brinker had [previous done]. And they did that very well,” Romo says. “So [Romano] formed his own management team.” Romano hired a CEO from Brinker and Romo as his CFO, and he hired a COO from outside of the concept.
Romo says there was an incredible sense of pride and excitement that came with being associated with such a unique concept. Eatzi’s received significant media attention for its market model wherein guests could peruse various food stations and watch chefs prepare their food freshly in front of them. The management team decided to step on the gas pedal when it came to expansion.
“Our goal was, ‘Let’s open as many stores as we can.’ I was inundated with investment bankers coming in saying, ‘You know what? Let’s take this thing public.’ You’ll have these things all over the country,” he says.
Eatzi’s quickly expanded to Houston, Atlanta, Washington D.C, and two locations in New York, one of which was in the basement of the famed Macy’s on 34th Street. That location was where the team began to see serious challenges.
What Eatzi’s leaders didn’t account for, Romo says, was their service model not being very convenient to the Manhattan customer, especially considering Eatzi’s thrived on guests taking their meals home with them. In New York, the hassle of taking a bag full of dinner on the train home was just a nuisance.
When the two New York locations began to lose more money than the other four locations were generating, the expansion efforts came to a sudden halt and corporate team members began to question the company’s purpose and future. Romo eventually left to work in the tech industry in California. Another company bought Eatzi’s and changed the model to be more value oriented. Eventually, Eatzi’s filed for bankruptcy.
Romano later bought the first location and restored the concept back to its original vision. Romo was recruited back as CEO in 2011. He says expansion efforts are more tempered than those in the company’s early days.
“We’re growing at a pace that we’re very comfortable with,” he says, noting that Eatzi’s has six locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. “We know we won’t make mistakes, because we’ve learned from all that.”
Romo says the problems that doomed Eatzi’s in the ’90s were more logistical than anything.
“The issues weren’t with the brand or the concept,” he says. “It’s the way it was managed and those decisions that were made at that time.”
After Romano restored the recipes and ingredients to their original quality, Romo says, customers returned in droves. Today, some 70 percent of its customers dine at Eatzi’s at least twice a week, while about 50 percent swing in at least three times a week.
“They want quality food. They come because of the wide variety. They want it in a convenient format. They want to pay a fair price,” he says. “Then the theater is kind of icing on the cake. It’s what we provide that most other concepts don’t provide. But theater doesn’t matter if those other things, like quality, variety, convenience, and price value, don’t exist.”
Keeping growth in the Dallas area for now suits Eatzi’s well, particularly because its locations are as big as 10,000 square feet. But the company also has a prototype that’s roughly half the size of those larger stores, which Romo says opens it up to more real estate options and more markets into which they could someday grow. It’s also on the verge of opening locations in airports.
Another brand evolution is in accommodating the guest’s tech-first mentality, which has upended everything about the restaurant ordering process. Romo says leaders at Eatzi’s saw this trend and began discussing how to adapt the brand to modern conveniences without losing the integrity of the concept.
“It is the most important thing now for customers. They’re going to assume the quality and all of that is a given,” he says. “But if it’s not convenient, you’re not an option.”
Romo says Eatzi’s is working on establishing an e-commerce platform, which he says should be released by April and will have a full menu available for pick-up or third-party delivery.
Learning from the past
Romo says he is committed to the idea that he doesn’t have all the answers. Thinking you know which decisions are the best decisions can ultimately be an entrepreneur’s downfall, he says.
“My approach is when I meet with one of my leadership teams or anybody, I don’t tell them what I think,” he says. “First of all, I don’t have all the answers. I’m really a fact seeker, I don’t make decisions capriciously. I like to gather as much information as I can to make an educated decision.”
He says that working with employees and asking them for their opinions and thoughts will often lead to better, more productive discussions. He doesn’t want employees who will just agree with him but who will actually give him their honest thoughts.
This kind of collaborative effort, he hopes, is what will help bring Eatzi’s back from the dead. And it’s what was missing from the brand in its first crack at expansion.
“I’ve had the benefit of seeing the perspective of both sides, and I think that type of leadership style works best,” he says of the collaborative approach. “It’s worked for me.”
Romo doesn’t believe in micromanaging. The best thing to do is to give the team the tools they need to succeed so they’ll continue to thrive after he’s gone.
“You want what you’ve initiated and implemented to survive. You want the good, the positive aspects to live on,” he says. “I delegate to my people, my team, and I think we wind up with the best solutions because of that.”