The owners of Salsa Fresca Mexican Grill, a popular chain of fast-casual restaurants in New York and Connecticut, want customers to enjoy more than just a delicious meal at any of their eight eateries. They want to put on a show.
“It’s a theater,” said co-owner Marc Miles. “You come in and this is a whole theater process.”
The open kitchen concept gives diners a close-up view of onions being chopped, guacamole being assembled and pork being pulled from the oven.
“That, I think, has value,” he added.
Others have agreed, and Salsa Fresca, which operates eight locations in Fairfield, New Haven, Westchester and Putnam counties, now plans to franchise the business.
“It’s time for the next step,” said co-owner Seth Hirschel.
Hirschel and Miles, along with other co-owners John Tucker and Dave Norris, have also set an ambitious goal for their expansion: to open 100 new units in the next five years.
The eatery plans to extend its reach in both states, along with plans to venture into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Florida.
“We’re seeking experienced operators, so we can really grow this with people who have some experience and get some good traction in these markets,” Miles said.
It was Tucker who first came up with the idea for the fast-casual burrito restaurant, one that only used the freshest ingredients.
“I’d approached a couple other people and they were like, “Burritos? Really? That’s a bad idea,’” he recalled.
At that time, Tucker worked as a designer and manufacturer of signs for businesses. Miles and Hirschel, who co-owned a number of health and fitness clubs, were two of his customers.
“We hit it off right away,” Tucker recalled of his meeting his future business partners.
Soon after, he approached the pair with his proposed venture.
“I remember sitting in my office thinking, ‘Yeah, man. That’s a great idea,’” Miles recalled. “I was in from the get-go.”
The partners opened their first restaurant in their hometown of Millerton, New York in 2008.
“We said if it can work here, it can work anywhere,” Miles said.
The owners decided to open the doors of a restaurant in Bedford Hills soon after.
“That’s where we really saw that this has legs and it could work,” Miles said.
Since that time, investor and silent partner, Norris, joined the team behind Salsa Fresca.
“As a group, we’re very lucky,” Tucker said. “We complement each other very well.”
Today, the company operates restaurants in Mamaroneck, Bedford Hills, Yorktown, Cross River, Peekskill and Carmel in New York and Danbury and New Haven in Connecticut.
The company also plans to open a ninth corporate store in LaGrangeville near Arlington High School, the largest school in
“Students are one of our target customers,” Miles said, noting that the company’s New Haven restaurant, which is next to Yale University, is one of its most popular locations.
Tucker said that franchising the business “was always in the cards.”
“Our first restaurant looked like a nationwide chain,” he said. “We fooled everybody. We had to explain to people, ‘No, we’re starting this.’”
The past decade has seen the partners fine-tune their vision and “kind of vet out all the ebbs and flows of what’s going to work,” Tucker said.
Salsa Fresca restaurants on Main Street, for example, have had problems in the past, the partners said.
“It’s tough because of parking issues,” Miles said. “But places where we have a built-in anchor, that’s what we’re looking for.”
One key to their success, the owners said, is their commitment to their staff. Included in the company’s range of employee benefits is a profit-sharing program.
“They see a check every quarter,” Miles said. “They really connect with that. They get excited about it. It’s a great retention tool.”
That focus seems to be paying off for Salsa Fresca. The first employee the chain ever hired at its Millerton location, cashier Sarah Miles, has worked her way up to become a regional manager.
“She’s at the top of the food chain,” Miles said.
The company is also strongly committed to the environment. Eco-friendly building materials are used in restaurant construction, along with energy-efficient HVAC systems and lighting. There are no freezers, and all food served is made on-site. The company recycles all of its cooking oil and carryout utensils and packaging are made from compostable
“We’re even in the process of getting rid of our (plastic) straws and using paper straws,” Miles said.
The owners noted that future franchisees will also be involved as Salsa Fresca continues to evolve and work to reduce its carbon footprint.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to say, ‘Do you believe in what we’re doing?’” Miles said. “They have to live and breathe the culture of Salsa Fresca.”