For every limited-service chain pushing for growth and expansion across the U.S., there’s a crop of independent single-unit brands forgoing the traditional growth strategy to focus on excellence at the community level. Operators at these restaurants wear many hats, often performing the tasks of an entire C-suite on their own. But while the job is a challenging one, it’s also a rewarding one, allowing these indies to be a driving force in their respective communities.
QSR goes behind the scenes of some of the nation’s standout single-unit concepts to find out why in restaurant development, quantity is not always quality.
3800 North Pulaski Road, Chicago
Chicago may not be a iconic destination for barbecue, but one local joint situated in the city’s Irving Park neighborhood gives locals a taste of the best ’cue from around the country. Opened in 2011, Smoque filled a void in the city’s vibrant food scene, says co-owner Barry Sorkin.
“We thought Chicago needed, at the time, better barbecue than it had,” he says. “When we opened, you would have been hard-pressed to find a place doing brisket in Chicago. It was kind of a rib town, and you were starting to see pulled pork more often.”
Now, the concept is best known for its tender brisket, which is coated with a heavy dry rub and then smoked with apple and oak wood for 14 hours. The menu also features ribs, chicken, pulled pork, and sausage, prepared in a variety of ways with influences from Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and the Carolinas.
“The best thing about being in Chicago is that we’re not bound by any particular barbecue tradition, and I think that’s what makes it interesting,” Sorkin says.
With all menu items, the meat, not the sauce, is the star of the plate, and Smoque’s founders have even composed their own manifesto on how barbecue should be done: low and slow. “I think when you’re a chain [operation], you look at ways to find shortcuts and optimize operations, and I think that has a way of degrading the end result,” Sorkin says.
While running a single-unit fast casual can be taxing—Sorkin says he and his cofounders multitask as owners, human resource specialists, marketers, and other critical jobs—there is a larger opportunity to be engrained in the community and make connections with patrons on a daily basis. It’s not unusual for a guest to chat with one of the owners about the craft of barbecue, Sorkin adds.
“There’s always an owner on the premises, and people like that,” he says. “People enjoy being able to talk to us about why we do things the way we do. If you go to a Chili’s and talk to a manager, they’re not going to have any idea why they do what they do—they follow a set of procedures.”
As a bring-your-own-beer restaurant, Smoque maintains a neighborhood-friendly vibe, and its cofounders are also keen on partnering with local community organizations in whatever way they can.
Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge
2906 University Avenue, San Diego
When Claire Magnick opened Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge in 1997 in San Diego’s North Park, the neighborhood was a rundown part of town lacking a cultural hub and thriving business establishments. But by 2012, North Park found its way onto Forbes magazine’s list of hippest hipster neighborhoods.
“We really started the renaissance of North Park,” Magnick says. “I brought in music; I brought in poetry; I did everything just to build the neighborhood.” The business of running a community hub keeps her occupied and committed to the single-unit operation, she adds.
What began as a little coffee shop serving homemade soups and light lunch items grew to be a well-known community center with live music, local artists, and a 6,500-square-foot events center available for rent. Magnick says she focused on creating a business that honored the spirit of North Park and its locals. “That little piece of culture we brought into North Park gave us the ability to buy the space on the whole corner,” she adds.
The building is a landmark of sorts, with a modified Spanish Revival–style exterior and restored arch windows that mimic glazed Roman arcades, and Magnick works to keep the architecture preserved—an effort that’s won her an award from San Diego’s Save our Heritage Organization.
Inside the vibrant yellow restaurant, Magnick keeps the kitchen operation small. Coffee and tea beverages can be customized with a variety of syrups and paired with an assortment of cookies and pastries. The breakfast menu includes bagels, sandwiches, waffles, and made-to-order omelets that guests can customize. The lunch menu offers salads, sandwiches, and homemade quiche in flavors like loaded baked potato and chile relleno, and everything on the menu is less than $8.50.
“We’re more than just a coffee house now … and I put all my heart into building Claire de Lune that I didn’t see use in going somewhere else,” Magnick says of her decision to maintain one location. “In its heyday, we were serving about 700 people a day.” Business continues to thrive, especially with the expanded special events space that comes with catering from the restaurant, she adds.
Bull City Burger and Brewery
107 East Parrish Street, Durham, North Carolina
North Carolina’s flourishing Triangle area, composed of Durham, Chapel Hill, and state capital Raleigh, is an up-and-coming hotbed for dining and craft beer, and Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham stands out as one of the best destinations for both. The three-year-old concept was founded by Culinary Institute of America–trained restaurateur Seth Gross, who ensured the one-unit brand captured the essence of Durham, colloquially known as the Bull City.
“I strongly believe that you have to support the community that’s supporting you, so because I am a guy who’s local, I see these people in the grocery store, in the restaurant, and they know me,” Gross says. “I want our restaurant to be part of the fabric of Durham ... because it’s a great community.”
He says the restaurant was born from his passion and experience in craft brewing and the idea of a great $10 meal. “I wanted someone to come in and get french fries, a burger with all the free toppings, and an all-you-can-drink natural soda for $10,” he says. “I worked backward from there, and part of that was being limited service.”
As a single unit, Bull City is able to offer home-style beef and veggie burgers, hot dogs, fries, and desserts, mostly made with ingredients sourced from local providers. Guests can create their own burgers or hot dogs with toppings such as pickled veggies, triple fermented sauerkraut, pimento cheese, and a variety of house-made sauces.
“I wanted to treat the folks in the restaurant like they were coming to my own home, and if you came to my house for Sunday dinner, I would cook for you. So it seemed natural to me to make the food the way I would at home,” Gross says. “That’s what we do at Bull City—we make everything, including the mustard, the mayonnaise, pickles, relish, sauerkraut, bacon, buns, [and] dogs.”
With a thriving craft-brewing scene in the surrounding area, Gross says, the concept can offer creative brew selections. On a given day, there are about seven Bull City beers on tap; guests can see the metal brewing equipment through windows in the restaurant. Though its beer garners Bull City much attention, operating a brewery on top of a restaurant was a big challenge, Gross says, one that he and his employees have managed to streamline.
Now, he says, the next challenge is transitioning Bull City from an up-and-coming concept to a classic. “I think about restaurants as either new and exciting or you make the jump across to classic, where you are a staple,” Gross says. “If you’re in between, you’re kind of dead. We’re now three years in, and things are going great … but I want to make sure we make that leap.”
422 Detroit Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig opened Zingerman’s Delicatessen in March 1982 to make up for Ann Arbor’s lack of a traditional Jewish deli, the kind they had grown up with in Detroit and Chicago, respectively. It was a time in the Ann Arbor food scene when independent restaurants were thriving, says Pete Sickman-Garner, the concept’s marketing manager.
Saginaw and Weinzweig eventually came to a fork in the road after steadily building the business, and they were faced with the decision of whether or not to franchise.
“They thought long and hard about the franchise model, and what they decided was that they really enjoyed making food and really enjoyed being with the people in the community and having friends that came in,” Sickman-Garner says.
The answer was clear to the founding duo, and they stuck to their deli operation, serving up classics like the Zingerman’s Reuben, featuring corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread, and other sandwiches with pastrami, smoked beef, pulled pork, and more. But the opportunity for growth was still on both of their minds, so Saginaw and Weinzweig took a different approach to expansion.
“Zingerman’s Bake House (founded in 1992) was the first business that wasn’t the deli, and that grew out of the fact that [Saginaw and Weinzweig] were driving to Detroit every morning to get bread and got tired of that,” Sickman-Garner says.
The duo called up a friend, Frank Carollo, to open a bakery and pastry shop. While they retained a stake in the venture, Carollo served as the owner and operator. “To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to have your own ownership stake,” Sickman-Garner says. “But they wanted to create places where the owners were in the business every day, working with the staff and meeting the customers.”
That growth model allowed the Zingerman’s brand to grow to six storefronts in Ann Arbor, each its own business entity with a different specialty, including a creamery, a coffee shop, and a full-service dining concept. Plans for a farm are in the works. The business model inspired a consulting and training firm known as ZingTrain, which is run by former Zingerman’s employee and current partner, Maggie Bayless.
Though the Zingerman’s name—which has risen to iconic status across the country through its retail business—lends itself to a variety of shops, each remains an individual but synergistic component, Sickman-Garner says.
“I think we have a lot of advantages growing here, growing locally,” he says. “But we also have to work hard to make it clear to people that when you come into a specific Zingerman’s business, you really are in a small business.”
44 Province Street, Boston
Sam LaGrassa and his three sons, Robbie, Ronnie, and Richie, are the operators behind the sandwich shop that’s made Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood a destination for foodie locals and tourists alike. The 46-year-old restaurant is only open for lunch on weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and focuses on serving hot meat sandwiches alongside salads, soups, and chowders, all made in-house.
“As a family business, we have decided to keep the restaurant to one unit, giving us complete control over quality and operations,” says Ronnie LaGrassa in an email to QSR. “This has allowed us to focus our efforts toward the growth of our catering business.”
LaGrassa adds that running one unit also means management is able to quickly adapt to changing trends. “We are constantly changing our menu items based on trends and how well they sell,” he says. “Items over the years that don’t sell well, we take off the menu and replace with something else.”
This ability to strike while the iron’s hot on some consumer trends led to the creation of the restaurant’s most popular item, the Chipotle Pastrami, a grilled sandwich made with Romanian pastrami, chipotle honey mustard, Swiss cheese, and coleslaw on an Italian sesame roll. Other big sellers include the Famous Rumanian Pastrami, which highlights LaGrassa’s signature dry-cured and smoked beef, and the new Pastrami Diablo, which includes Monterey Jack cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, chipotle mayo, barbecue sauce, and hot cherry peppers. For about 35 years, Sam LaGrassa’s offered breakfast, too, but the family decided to concentrate all their efforts on lunch and a robust corporate catering operation.
LaGrassa says the biggest challenge his operation faces as a single-unit brand “is that we cannot use another unit to help promote our catering and drive sales.” While more units would mean more traffic, Sam LaGrassa’s position in the Boston community is enough to make that not matter.
“We are a meeting place for business people in Boston, and we were voted No. 1 on Trip Advisor last year,” LaGrassa says. “This balance of local business and tourism has made us a staple in Boston and our community.”
Pat’s King of Steaks
1237 East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia
The City of Brotherly Love gave the U.S., among other things, a cheesy, meaty concoction known as a Philly cheesesteak, and Pat’s King of Steaks is the iconic sandwich’s oft-credited birthplace. In 1930, hot dog stand operator Pat Olivieri tested out a new recipe for lunch and shared his creation with a cabbie who frequented the spot. That grilled steak sandwich became the basis for a business venture that still thrives in its original location, says Frank Olivieri Jr., current owner and Pat’s grand-nephew.
“Some years later, one of our employees put cheese on the sandwich because he got tired of eating plain steak sandwiches, and that was the invention of the Philly cheese-steak,” he says.
In the early years of the business, Pat and other family members expanded the operation to various locations across Philadelphia. At one point, they headed west to Los Angeles and sought franchisees to take the concept elsewhere, but the growth failed, and none of the new locations did as well as the original, Olivieri says.
“Where we are is a very unique location. … It’s an original place, so that has a lot of power behind it,” he says. “To duplicate the recipe somewhere else—that can be done. But it won’t be the same; it’ll be a different ambience.”
Pat’s King of Steaks sits in a historically Italian and Irish neighborhood known as South Philadelphia, along the 9th Street Italian Market, the country’s oldest open-air market. The restaurant’s rich history and commitment to its core menu offerings are what keep customers coming, Olivieri says. Between Pat’s and a nearby rival that opened in the 1960s, Geno’s Steaks, the neighborhood sees 5,000–6,000 people on a given weekend night, he says. Sometimes, guests will wait up to two hours to make it to the counter.
The cash-only, 24-hour restaurant has stuck to Pat’s original recipe, offering grilled steak sandwiches with mushrooms or peppers “wit or witout” cheese, as the locals say. Guests can still get a hot dog at Pat’s, and other options include a roast pork sandwich, fish cakes, and fries.
Olivieri says the only real challenge he’s faced since taking over the family business in 1996 is limited space, but he adds that that’s nothing compared to the advantages of being an iconic indie.
“We’ve been approached by hundreds of different people who say, ‘I can make your business grow; I could do this; I could do that,’” he says. “I think it would be an injustice to our loyal customers and to people who haven’t tried us before.”