Prior to purchasing Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina from its founder in 2011, CEO Phil Friedman spent 11 years expanding McAlister’s Deli from 27 to 300 units.

These days, he and Salsarita’s president and COO Larry Reinstein are looking to grow the fresh-Mex concept. And grow it has, with a double-digit percentage growth in average unit volume that Friedman attributes to menu refinements he’s pushed forward since taking over the chain.

Guests can choose from signature menu items or build their own tacos, nachos, burritos, and bowls. Whatever a customer orders, chances are a culinary expert put significant thought into its ingredients in the past two years, Friedman says.

“We took every single item on the Salsarita’s menu and looked for ways to improve it,” Reinstein says. To that end, Friedman says, the pair’s first order of business was to hire a chef.

“The first place to grow our brand was with culinary,” he says. “We took a menu that already had a lot of variety and freshness and made it even better.”

Working under the assumption that fresher is better, the concept switched to cooking chicken, the most popular protein at Salsarita’s, in smaller batches more frequently throughout the day. New recipes for creating sauces and salad dressings in-house were adopted, and existing entrées were improved and rebranded. The wet burrito, for example, was rebranded as the CasaRito and is available in a choice of three flavors: Tomarito, topped with green tomatillo sauce; Quesarito, topped with cheese sauce; and Rancharito, topped with a red ranchero sauce.

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina 

CEO: Phil Friedman

HQ: Charlotte, North Carolina

Year Started: 1999

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 82

Franchise units: 80

Another popular branded menu item is the Cantizza, a tortilla pizza available with chicken fajita, barbecue pork, beef taco, or steak nacho toppings.

An average ticket at Salsarita’s is $9.50, only slightly higher than when Reinstein and Friedman took over.

“We had one modest price increase,” Reinstein says. “We have to provide guests with significant value, so we improved procurement purchasing, which allowed us to improve food without raising prices.”

But these menu tweaks and procurement changes didn’t happen overnight. Reinstein says it was almost a year before he and Friedman felt Salsarita’s was in a position to begin growing again.

“We took about a year to wrap our arms around the concept,” he says. “We spent time with franchisees and guests, really trying to understand them.”

From 2000 to 2011, Salsarita’s grew to about 80 units through single-unit franchising, and the new management team spent the following year assessing and improving the brand, preparing to grow again.

In 2013, Friedman says, the brand plans to add eight to 10 units, with 20 additional units planned for 2014. This growth will take place through multiunit franchisee agreements, each with around five units. “We’re in 19 states right now in the eastern half of the country,” Reinstein says. “The Southeast is our strongest region, and we plan to grow in these areas where we are already strong.” Salsarita’s also hopes to open stores in Texas, Kansas, New York, and Michigan.

The concept’s prototype is getting a facelift, the first time Salsarita’s has refreshed its décor since 1999. A typical location is an end cap that’s 2,500 square feet with 70 seats and an outdoor patio, Friedman says.

“We are opening two corporate stores this year with a new prototype, which is also 2,500 square feet, but designed to show off the culinary aspect of the operation,” he adds.

Reinstein says the updated model has a more open kitchen. “We want people to know the salsa is being made in the restaurant and that the chicken is being made often. We want guests to give us credit for that,” he says.

Salsarita’s is also showing off in terms of its catering program, which brings in 10–30 percent of each store’s sales.

“We’re seeing tremendous growth in the catering part of our business,” Reinstein says. “Our product is really portable. We can set up a taco bar or nacho bar for a group of 20, 40, or 50. It’s fun and works extremely well.”

But Reinstein says the brand doesn’t want to stop at catering. He believes there are many ways to grow the business if it can continue operating at the level it is. One avenue of growth is through social media.

“Social media was almost nonexistent when we took over,” Reinstein says. “We’ve made a huge effort to get people to talk about our brand on Facebook and Twitter, and to make it feel like our brand and look really professional.”

Salsarita’s has gone from about 150 followers on Twitter to 5,500, and is growing rapidly. “Franchisees expect to see things like social media and a strong Web page,” Friedman says.

But Reinstein says Salsarita’s also believes in “four-walls marketing.”

“It’s about taking care of the guest. It’s about quality and detail and providing a great experience,” he says. “That means we have management present on the floor to help bus tables, refill beverages, and, most importantly, talk to guests to find out what they like and what they don’t.”

“When you do things the right way and for the long term,” Friedman adds, “generally you’re successful.”

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Emerging Concepts, Growth, Story, Salsarita's