To this day, Fabio Viviani still doesn’t get the frozen yogurt hype. 

The craze first swept the nation a decade ago, and never at any point did he understand the appeal—at least not from an operator’s perspective.

“Why would you want to go into a business that has 100 perishable ingredients? Why would you want to go in a business that is completely seasonal or completely limiting your category of reach?” Viviani says. “I was baffled by all those yogurt places popping up. I was like, ‘How many people eat yogurt? It’s that big of a deal?’ And now they were popping up like mushrooms.”

For a veteran restaurateur like Viviani who always has an eye trained on business opportunities, the goal is to “limit the amount of things that could possibly go wrong,” especially with concepts that are potential growth vehicles.

As of now, he’s betting on two brands in particular: full-service sports bar/grill Chuck Lager America’s Tavern and dessert quick serve JARS Sweets and Things. And Viviani’s track record shows he’s got a penchant for picking winners.

“The segments are there; the opportunities are there. You’ve just got to bet on the right horse to be able to finish the track. And we have the expertise, the ability, and the understanding of the trends and what’s going on,” he says.

Coming to America

Viviani’s journey into the restaurant world began well before he immigrated to the U.S. Born and bred in one of the world’s culinary meccas, Florence, Italy, he grew up with an affinity for gastronomy that evolved into a professional calling; he trained in culinary school but still considers himself mostly self-taught. 

Similarly, his business acumen proved to be innate. By the age of 27, he owned five restaurants and two nightclubs, and in 2005 he sold those businesses, which helped his family retire. After a decade of hustle with little respite, Viviani was ready for a break—or so he thought.

“I just wanted to take a long vacation,” he says. “So I saved a little bit of money and moved to the United States. Two months in, I realized that I wasn’t built for vacation so I started to look for a job.”

Viviani applied for a work permit, and a few years later, his first restaurant on American soil, Café Firenze, opened in Moorpark, California. Three more Italian restaurants followed, but by then, the chef’s reach was expanding beyond the Los Angeles area, thanks to Bravo’s “Top Chef,” which, while only in its fifth season, had already started to amass a fervent following. 

Viviani wasn’t crowned the victor (that honor went to Hosea Rosenberg), but he did make an indelible impression, with his Italian lilt and vivacious personality; viewers even voted him the Fan Favorite. Viviani returned to Bravo for season eight, which marked the first “Top Chef: All-Stars.” Since then, he’s made numerous TV appearances and even launched a YouTube series, “Fabio’s Kitchen,” which just wrapped its fifth season.

Whereas some competing chefs leave the kitchen for the limelight, Viviani kept his feet firmly planted in foodservice. Still, his ambition stretched further than culinary creativity alone. He was ready to build an empire.

“I absolutely love cooking and I love spending time in the kitchen, but I didn’t come to the United States to get a job. I came to build a legacy for my family [and] provide myself and a ton of other people great careers,” he says. “I don’t look at folks that work with me as employees or as the chefs or as servers. I look at everybody as possible business partners.”

To that end, many cooks, servers, and other employees who started with Viviani years ago have risen in the ranks and now help run a group of 60-plus restaurants and other hospitality venues. Partnerships have also been a cornerstone of Viviani’s growth trajectory. After establishing himself in Southern California, he teamed up with DineAmic Hospitality to open a slew of new restaurants in Chicago, including a couple that expanded the chef’s repertoire beyond Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.

Viviani has made Chicago his homebase, but his footprint encompasses most corners of the country, from Florida up to Boston, Ohio to Indiana, Illinois to Michigan, and California. Along the way, a handful of these restaurants have expanded to a few units; he’s also built a small ecosystem of buffet-style fast casuals within the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, California.

A Wayback Burgers Kids Meal

Deconstructing dessert

It’s only recently that Viviani has focused on chain growth in earnest. While others at Fabio Viviani Hospitality continue running and expanding the portfolio of restaurants, he’s concentrating on Chuck Lager and JARS. He doesn’t have a targeted unit count in mind for Chuck Lager but believes it could work in the top 75 U.S. markets. For JARS, the scale would be even larger, given the operational ease, diminutive space requirement, and low entry cost.

“JARS is the first [quick-service restaurant] in the food business dessert category that does not require a kitchen to function. You don’t need a grease trap; you don’t need fryers, ovens, mixers, stand mixers. You don’t need recipes, you don’t need cooking, [and] you have virtually no waste,” Viviani says.

JARS forges relationships with pastry producers and bakeries to lessen the operational burden; at the store level, the only prep is assembling the jars—no cooking or baking required. Franchisees who grow to more than one location in a designated market can rent a commissary kitchen to streamline the back end and boost their unit economics.

Viviani advises franchisees to open their first JARS in a space that’s larger than the bare minimum. He says the concept could operate well in 750 square feet or so, but a range closer to 1,000–1,500 square feet allows for a little more breathing room. But after that initial store, future locations could squeeze into smaller spots like former laundromats or retail shops.

“I always tell people that you only have one chance to open your first door,” Viviani says. “You want that much [space] in the first one because you never know how busy you’re going to get. And if you get really busy, then you’re going to need a little bit of storage for some dry goods, for boxes. So it’s always good to have a few extra 100 square feet.”

He likens JARS to a marketing company that happens to make delicious sweets. Within a year of JARS’ announcement in fall 2021, the brand had amassed more than half a billion impressions though it had yet to open a single storefront. The first location debuted in Chicago’s West Loop in January, and more locations in Dallas, San Francisco, and New Jersey are expected to follow. At press time, JARS had sold 50-plus franchise territories.

[float_image image=”×800-1.jpg” width=”30″ link=”” caption=”JARS operates like a marking company, which also happens to make a craveable dessert product. ” alt=”Restaurants Can More Effectively Control Cross Contamination While Saving On Labor” align=”left” /]

Going back to Viviani’s bafflement around frozen yogurt, the restaurateur sees JARS as the perfect antidote. For one, it’s not a seasonal product like fro-yo, ice cream, and other similar products. Furthermore, it’s well-positioned to eliminate the veto vote. 

Can you please find me one person that doesn’t like dessert? Now, if you have a medical condition or you’re on a specific diet or you don’t need sugar—I get it, fine. But in this case … the niche is the people that don’t eat dessert. I can name 100 people, and 98 will gladly have dessert,” he says.

The concept’s product niche might be its jar format, but the menu options pull from across the dessert category and include cakes (strawberry shortcake, birthday cake, chocolate cake), pie (key lime, banana cream, lemon meringue, apple), s’mores, orange creamsicle, banana split, tiramisu, and more.

In terms of revenue projections, JARS won’t be a quick serve that smashes any AUV records, but Viviani expects operators to see robust returns given the low cost of getting in the game. That was always part of the plan: to stimulate restaurant growth by making the business less intimidating to would-be operators.

We had to for different levels of pain tolerance in the business. We want to have a fast casual with very little headache in running them and little expertise needed,” he says. “A JARS location might never make $10 million because of the square footage and the offerings, but if you can make 15–20 percent to a healthy bottom line at $1.5 million in sales, that’s a lot of money considering you probably aren’t going to spend that much to build one.”

Starbucks Exterior Location

The tavern for tomorrow

At face value, Chuck Lager and JARS couldn’t be more different. One is a sports bar with New American fare, draft beer, cocktails, and bourbon; the other specializes in colorful confections that seem made for Instagram. But when Viviani talks about what differentiates each concept from category competitors, the reasons echo one another. In addition to having the support of a proven hospitality group, both have a low barrier of entry.

“The labor market has changed a lot in the last couple of years; that’s why the two restaurants we are really focusing on for national growth are the two that are the easiest ones to run,” Viviani says.

Chuck Lager requires less than $1 million upfront to open—something Viviani says is all but unheard of in full service. Although it can’t fit in extra small spaces like JARS, the restaurant’s streamlined operations makes the process easier and opens Chuck Lager up to second-generation real estate.

“I have other restaurants, but they are the one-offs and the bigger projects that cost a lot of money to open. So the ability to be very nimble with Chuck Lager and open in a second-gen space—which there are plenty of them—and to show very strong financials, easy execution, a not-complicated menu—which still offers a great quality and variety—is fundamental for the growth of the brand,” Viviani says.

He describes Chuck Lager as an elevated “hybrid between a sports bar and an American tavern.” Part of that identity is rooted in the restaurant’s namesake. The real Chuck Lager, Viviani says, has lived an extraordinary life, and his accomplishments were embellished to the point of brand lore. (According to the restaurant’s website, he was born on Mount Kilimanjaro and has made numerous archeological discoveries.)

While these claims are more legend than fact, Lager’s adventurous spirit and world travels are reflected in the menu. 

In addition to gastropub staples like burgers and wings, the selection includes Italian favorites, such as Fabio’s Meatballs, the Tuscan Chicken Sandwich, as well as globally inspired fare, like the Aztec Burger, Coconut Curry Chili, and Wonton Tuna Tacos. The menu is chef-inspired but still approachable, Viviani says, which presents the brand as an especially desirable tenant for landlords, even those in high-end shopping centers.

Chuck Lager’s marriage of familiar and less-known, American and international, approachable and elevated, is also a natural byproduct of the partnership at its base.

Viviani teamed up with Colby Restaurant Group to bring the brand to life. Where Viviani brings a culinary perspective and experience taking restaurants from idea to reality, Craig and Michael Colby bring franchise expertise; the pair are Red Robin and Walk-On’s operators.

Chuck Lager has seven units on tap for 2023, which would push the 4-year-old brand into the double digits by year-end. 

And after the pandemic forced many restaurants to shutter their doors, the real estate market is looking favorable for restaurants like it that can adapt to fit a variety of spaces.

“There’s a lot of land [up] for grabs, especially post-pandemic when unfortunately a lot of restaurants went out of business,” Viviani says. “For Chuck Lager, it’s very easy to convert a second-generation space because there is minimal kitchen requirement to develop menus and we have engineered the way of doing it that doesn’t require a lot of construction.”

And though Chuck Lager and JARS are just getting started with their expansion plans, Viviani sees their long-term viability as a given. In addition to their franchising allure, the pair were also built with future consumers in mind.

“I appeal to the next 30 years of diners. And that’s exactly what Chuck Lager does, and that’s exactly what JARS does. [They] are catering to the next 30 years worth of educated food crowd,” he says. “If you think about it, the American chain restaurant hasn’t really changed much in the last 15 years. The big players are the same, usual suspects, and they’re getting obsolete.”

Indeed, many of these legacy chains are aging right alongside their most frequent customers and failing to bring in the next generation. 

Viviani says millennials and even younger diners are more knowledgeable about food than his parents will ever be. 

“If I take my mom and dad to Macaroni Grill, they’re going to be thrilled. The alfredo sauce, infinite bread, plain salad, and good, but overcooked, pasta—my dad is all about it,” he says. “But if I take my cousins to it, they’re going to be like, ‘Fabio, what are we doing here? Why don’t we go to the local, new, up-and-coming, Instagrammable, chef-driven shop?’”

Viviani’s solution? Create concepts, like Chuck Lager and JARS, that will attract the young, digitally dialed-in foodies but also appeal to older generations through a fresh take on classic dishes.

Creating the ropes

When Viviani talks about Chuck Lager and JARS, it’s easy to forget that, as of the end of 2022, the former only had four units and the latter zero. He speaks with such enthusiasm and authority that a listener can’t help but visualize the reality he’s painting. 

“Take a note, and then you can check your note in five years: JARS will be the biggest dessert [quick serve] in the United States within the next five to seven years. Mark my words on it,” he says.

While such a statement could be dismissed as little more than a sales pitch from an especially charismatic businessman, Viviani’s track record speaks for itself. 

He’s not one to brag, but he also won’t downplay his or his team’s many successes. 

Over the past 15 years, he’s built an expansive portfolio—one he expects to double in girth over the next few years. His restaurants also weathered the pandemic without a single one permanently shuttering.

He hopes this resume will serve as yet another incentive for prospective operators. 

The restaurant industry is never without risks, but as Viviani said earlier, it’s all a matter of betting on the right horse. And while his opinion may be biased, Chuck Lager and JARS are the two he’d bet on.

“With all due respect to a lot of franchise groups out there, I’m not a career changer. I’m not a former lawyer who got into baking and now has a dessert company,” he adds. 

“We are a hospitality development company. So every possible downfall of the industry, we are ahead of the game. We don’t have to learn the systems; we don’t have to learn the ropes—we’re creating the ropes.”

Emerging Concepts, Growth, Story