Industry News | December 18, 2015 | QSR Exclusive Brief

'Top Chef' Alum's Fast Casual Preps for Franchise Growth

Spike Mendelsohn, left, and executive chef Max Albano lend Good Stuff Eatery a culinary advantage over other better-burger concepts. image used with permission.

News of a better-burger brand bolstering its executive team and preparing for major franchise growth isn’t an immediately grabbing headline these days; the category has long since expanded across the country and established itself as a tour de force in the fast-casual world.

But Good Stuff Eatery isn’t your average better-burger brand. The Washington, D.C.–based concept was founded by Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn in 2008, became a favorite of the Obama family, and is led by a family of restaurateurs who have dozens of combined years of restaurant experience—not to mention several restaurant concepts—under their belts.

That’s why Good Stuff’s intentions to grow its chef-driven brand globally through franchising—intentions that got a lift recently with two new executive additions—are anything but ordinary.

“We really believe in our food and the flavors. People say, ‘Hey, it’s just another burger,’ but for us, it’s really not,” Mendelsohn says. “They’re really chef-inspired, American classic takes on the burger business. We have a creamery in-house; we make fresh custard every single day, and that’s what we make our milkshakes out of. Our potatoes are aged for six months so the starches turn a little more sweet. I think that special every-day touch on the food is the difference.”

In the last few months, Good Stuff—cornerstone of Mendelsohn’s Sunnyside Restaurant Group—added two foodservice industry veterans to its corporate team to help with expansion. John Renninger, who most recently served eight years in the White House Presidential Food Service and has 20 years of culinary experience, was tabbed as director of operations. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiltshire, who has worked in operations and development for limited-service brands like Dunkin' Donuts, Pinkberry, Togo's, and TCBY, was brought in as COO of franchise operations.

Mendelsohn says his status as a celebrity chef and the original location’s real estate on Capitol Hill have helped Good Stuff build a positive reputation. But the corporate team—which counts his father, Harvey, as CEO, and mother, Catherine, as COO—has spent the last seven years perfecting the back end of the operation to create an efficient franchise model.

“It’s great to have a brand and the bells and whistles in the business, but at the end of the day, if you don’t develop a procedure to have the best bottom line you can have in a fast-casual concept, then all the money we spend and all the time we spend on the brand doesn’t mean anything, because the back end of it isn’t making sense,” he says.

Micheline Mendelsohn Luhn, Spike’s sister and deputy chief executive officer at Sunnyside Restaurant Group, says the company has intentionally focused on slow and steady growth to ensure quality and consistency. To date, Good Stuff has five locations: three in the D.C. metro area, one in Chicago, and one in Saudi Arabia. A London location is slated to open soon.

“We haven’t done the shock-and-awe campaign where we go to one major city and open up and then another major city and we open up,” Luhn says. “What we really wanted to do was build a really solid franchising model, so we took our time with our restaurant, especially on Capitol Hill. … People come in from all over the country, so you get a real feel for what people’s taste profiles are, what they like and what they don’t like.”

Luhn adds that Good Stuff is going all in on franchising, and has no immediate plans to open additional corporate units. The company is looking for multi-unit and multi-brand franchisees who have a deep understanding of their local markets, and while Chicago, Saudi Arabia, and London are far flung, the company ultimately plans to grow out from its D.C. base (the opportunities in those areas, Luhn says, were too good to pass up).

Good Stuff has several characteristics that operate in its favor as it looks to grow. For one, Mendelsohn is a nationally recognized chef; not only did he compete on the fourth season of Top Chef and later on Top Chef All Stars, but he also operates the renowned French bistro Bearnaise in D.C. and is the city’s Food Policy Council chairman.

In addition, the Good Stuff concept is a chef-driven fast casual, a model that is increasingly popular with consumers today. It also strives to source premium, local ingredients from nearby farmers.

“That’s really what these fast-casual concepts exemplify, whether it’s a burger joint or a new vegetable fast-casual concept or a pizza place; it’s all about supporting small businesses, it’s all about putting better food on the plate and supporting our local farmers as much as we can,” Mendelsohn says.

Sunnyside Restaurant Group doesn’t have a target number of Good Stuff Eateries it hopes to open in the coming years; for now the team is looking to grow one store at a time with the right franchise partners. But the ultimate goal, both Mendelsohn and Luhn say, is to put Good Stuff in as many communities across the U.S. and around the world as possible that lack an authentic, chef-driven burger experience.

“We’ll go as far as we can with this,” Mendelsohn says. “But we don’t want to make mistakes that fast-food restaurants have made. We don’t want to damage the food system. We want to try to be cautious on how big we grow and how fast we grow; we want to maintain what we’re all about at the restaurant.”

By Sam Oches

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