GUILT-FREE PLEASURES: Air-baked chicken strips and a selection of burgers to please every taste are top sellers; interiors reflect a simple, sustainable philosophy.
COMMITTED: Jeffers, Lambridis and Crassas (t.-b.) staked their credit cards on the business. Today, they own 75 percent of Evos; the balance belongs to private equity investors.
It took a bit of tweaking, but three guys from Florida may have hit on a successful formula to mass market healthy dining. Evos, until recently an idea simmering in three Tampa restaurants, is reaching a gentle boiling point. A recently inked agreement is expected to put 100–plus Evos locations in 12 western states over the next five years; and another franchisee agreed to open 25 in North Carolina and Georgia during the same time frame.
No one is expecting another McDonald's, but if these deals turn into reality, they will put Evos, a contemporary fast-casual operation with a heavy focus on lightened fare, on the map, both literally and figuratively.
Evos came to fruition when three friends, looking for quick, decent eats while vacationing in Key West, FL, came up empty. "We wanted to grab a bite to eat and thought, ‘these are our options?'" recalls Dino Lambridis, who was on the road trip with Alkis Crassas and Michael Jeffers. The trio decided to tackle the lack of healthier fast options and combine it with a shared passion: "We wanted to build a company that would make a difference," Jeffers says. After some brainstorming, they settled on Tampa and started the first store in 1994 with $45,000 on their pooled maxed-out credit cards. For several years, they tested recipes and streamlined the menu to hone in on what people seemed to crave most: a burger/fries/shake combination that didn't make them feel guilty. They also figured out how to scale up the operation. "We realized at some point we had to jump from being a ma and pa restaurant to putting the systems in place to be a national chain," Lambridis recalls. The test unit, for example, only brought in about 50-60 customers a day, and the partners figured they would need to triple that volume for the concept to make sense to investors. Once they reached that goal, they managed to attract some private equity money and open a prototype store in 1999, also in Tampa. Meanwhile, the company started a relationship with iFranchise to get a franchise expansion program off the ground.
Today, Evos is in the middle of a 40-month run of positive same-store comparables, bringing in an average unit volume of $940,000 at 2,200- to 2,500-square foot stores with 65-100 seats.
Finding Their Way
The early years were not an easy time. During the day the three partners ran the restaurant and tested menu items, and at night they all worked at quick-service places to get a better understanding of the industry. And the credit card debt was an albatross. "We found ourselves close to bankruptcy many times, but we said we were not going to bail out or give up, because it wasn't just about us," Lambridis says. "It was about all those e-mails we were getting from people saying, ‘we want you to open one here.'" Also, in a sense the partners were reinventing the wheel, running a fast-casual burger-focused restaurant that didn't rely on the typical equipment (e.g., no fryers) or ingredients that other restaurants serving a more conventional menu do.
For one thing, the partners were committed to raising the bar on food quality. "Most restaurants look at something and ask, ‘how much does it cost, who makes it, can I get it?'" Lambridis says. At Evos, the supplier's reputation, the ingredient list (artificial coloring and preservatives are taboo), a nutritional profile (reduced fat is a plus), whether it's organic ornatural: All are considered. The beef used in Evos' burgers comes from humanely raised cows. Salads are tossed with organic field greens. The bread and buns are not stuffed with preservatives. Milkshakes use a simple formula: 2% milk from free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free cows, natural flavoring and sugar.
One downside of that insistence on quality is a slightly higher-than-average food cost of 33 percent, but Lambridis expects that to settle around 30 percent once more units are open and Evos can enjoy more economies of scale. "That will be a huge thing," he predicts.
Lambridis believes the potential target audience for Evos is pretty broad. "We get people from all walks of life, from people in cowboy boots to young punk rock kids," he says. "It's really a matter of values. They want to eat something healthier."
Through customer research, Evos found that diners may want healthier fare, but they don't want to be preached to. Essentially, the most hard-core guests were looking for a lower-fat, natural alternative to McDonald's. "When we do say the word ‘health,' we say that we're ‘healthier,'" Lambridis explains. Accordingly, Evos, a derivative of "evolve," adapted the tagline "Feel Great Fast Food." The description was chosen carefully, he explains, because "some demographics think healthy doesn't taste good." But times have changed, he admits. "When we started out, people thought we were freaks. Today, Joe Schmo from Kentucky is buying organic at Wal–Mart."
Research also has helped shape the interior at the prototype. Customers said they liked a simple yet comfortable design—earthy, but not too earthy. The result is a bright, clean, minimalist interior with a hint of fun. In keeping with the partners' goal of doing something good for society, the design also incorporates a number of green elements. Surfaces are coated with volatile organic compound-free paint, flooring and seating were constructed from recyclable materials like jute and resin linoleum, packages are made with recycled paper and printed matter uses soy ink instead of petroleum-based ink. And the company is working on technology that will result in a paperless environment, along with "endless data and ways to use that data," Lambridis promises.
Satisfying Guilt-Free Cravings
Evos has created a name for itself by popularizing craveable and guilt-free offerings—guilt-free in the sense that they rely heavily on organic, natural, hormone-free ingredients that have 50 to 70 percent less fat than their conventional counterparts. Categories include burgers—soy, beef, seafood, chicken and turkey—along with wraps, salads, shakes, snacks and a special kids' section. Many items are vegetarian or can be made so. Big draws for many customers have been the air fries, served with a variety of house-made ketchups, followed by the airbaked chicken strips, a popular order for families with kids. A free-range steakburger is one of the top sellers, and so many regulars are addicted to the Crispy Thai Trout Wrap that it has been dubbed the "crack wrap."
Lambridis, whose family owns a seafood/steak place in Winterhaven, FL, is the man behind menu development. "There is a balance in everything," he says. "While there are vegetarian and vegan menu items, Evos is not a health food restaurant. We are a restaurant that offers food for everyone done in a way that's sustainable."
"The menu was all about engineering," agrees Alkis Crassas. "We've managed to marry health and taste."
Building a Chain
It's one thing to operate a handful of stores in a small geographic square, quite another to launch an aggressive expansion plan. How do the founders expect to maintain the concept's philosophy in a consistent way? Franchisees will be expected to follow certain specifications, of course, and they'll need to complete a training regimen, but Lambridis says "we'll do whatever it takes to make sure each store represents what Evos stands for."
He insists no one is looking at growth for the sake of growth. "It really isn't about how many more, it is about making sure the base is solid and we're respected, profitable and doing good," Lambridis observes. "Right now we're just focusing on making sure that the people who have bought into Evos are taken care of."
Licensees will be responsible for the vast majority of growth, but the founders expect to open a few more stores. "Right now, we're self-funding, but at some point we're looking to go to the next level," Lambridis says. The partners have been talking to a local company that helped Outback Steakhouse go public.
How will they know they've made it? Lambridis doesn't have a pat answer for that. "We're perfectionists and hard workers. We always feel like we can do something better. You can't close your eyes for a minute—there will be somebody right behind you."
On the Menu
Crispy Thai Trout Wrap
Mediterranean Summer Salad
Airbaked Chicken Strips
Multi Berry Fruitshake
Organic Cappuccino Milkshake
Will It Fly?
"I think they are on the very front end of what will be a growing trend," says Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for Columbus-based WD Partners. "How fast will that trend grow—in terms of the number of consumers willing to pay a little more for a better-for-me meal? The trick is to make sure they pick their sites correctly." He suggests areas with higher income and education levels. He'd like to see development costs under $450,000 (costs actually range from $350,000-$450,000).
Evos' product targets concerns not just about health but also about sources. In 5 or 10 years, more and more consumers are going to say "What's in it?" Lombardi predicts.
"It's a unique and emerging subset of the industry, and what they have to do is make sure people like the food enough to come back. My guess is it's a good firm to keep an eye on," Lombardi says.