CARY — The Calloway brothers aren’t working the cash register at a Crossroads Plaza restaurant because they need the money.
At ages 31 and 26, Chris and Charles Calloway have owned and sold 14 Five Guys Burgers and Fries joints, cashing in on the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the country.
Now the Calloways are taking taco orders and busing tables as they try to get their next big plan off the ground. Along with their father, they are co-owners of Cary’s Taqueria del Sol, the state’s first outpost of a Tennessee-based chain.
Taqueria is not the only young restaurant chain testing the waters in Cary, an ideal market thanks to its surplus of shopping and upscale consumers. The town is home also to one of two Tijuana Flats locations in the state, one of two BurgerFi outposts, and a soon-to-open branch of Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe, which will be the first in North Carolina.
All fit the same bill: nascent “fast casual” chains from out of state that combine the franchise model with a palate of new cuisines.
Taqueria del Sol is little-known here, but the Calloways hope the Memphis-Mexican chain will mimic explosive growth of Five Guys, which was born miles from their family home in northern Virginia.
The family bought into the Five Guys franchise in 2005, when it was about 20 stores strong, Charles Calloway said. Five Guys today has a roster of more than 1,000 eateries, with more than 1,500 planned.
“When we first started, nobody knew what Five Guys was,” Chris Calloway said. “It was one of the new kids on the block.”
So is Taqueria del Sol, which has fewer than 10 restaurants nationwide, but Calloway and company are moving quickly with the concept in North Carolina. They’ll open a Durham version in the coming months, then nine more throughout the state, all serving saucy tacos and enchiladas with southern-style fillings cooked from scratch on location.
Conventional wisdom says it’s incredibly difficult to open a single restaurant, but entrepreneurs like the Calloways plan dozens at a time. They hope to take the profitable practices of franchising – proven concepts and efficient systems – without the fast-food stigma of McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
Taqueria del Sol, for example, offers a short menu of fusion dishes that would seem at home in a food truck, from brisket enchiladas to fried-chicken tacos, complemented by silverware, partial table service and alcohol.
And the “fast casual” wave tends to tout its fresh factor, from never-frozen Five Guys beef to locally sourced produce at Taziki’s and Taqueria del Sol. On the surface, the new chains share many hallmarks of hip local restaurants, but they’re usually owned by finance pros instead of cuisine-obsessed cooks.
“I’m not a chef, and I don’t claim to be,” Chris Calloway said. A former economic development manager, his specialty is managing the complex systems of a business. But he stressed that Taqueria’s food will be critical to its success.
Similarly, Charlie Godwin’s last restaurant experience was childhood chores at his father’s place, yet the retiree is ready to open a Mediterranean cafe. The business growth expert’s interest in Taziki’s was born of his sense of a “theme or a trend, of people that want to be health conscious, and want something beyond what the choices are right now,” he said.
That connection between local entrepreneurs and small chains is driving rapid evolution for the niche “fast casual” market. Restaurants of the type have expanded their business by almost a third in the United States since 2006, according to QSR Magazine, a fast-food trade publication.
“The fast-casual segment is definitely one of the bright spots in the restaurant industry,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.
And the hybrid eateries also have been quick to adapt to the shifting wants of a public that’s putting more money than ever into out-of-the-house eating.
“From where I sit, I see a lot of new concepts stepping up to the forefront,” said Meg Schmitz, a franchising consultant with FranChoice. “The way that they do that is by creating an operating model that is easily operated anywhere, but it’s a tightly controlled model.”
The question then might be whether these chains can keep their small-restaurant appeal as they chase growth, and just how many restaurants the market can feed.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary