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Serving Up Success

[ 0 ] May. 1, 2007 | SBO Editor

The restaurant industry can be notoriously tough on newcomers, but don’t tell that to Michael Curcio. He could care less, just as his father did when he made a name for himself in the tire industry.

Michael Curcio is the CEO and founder of South Florida-based Pyrogrill, a fast-casual restaurant concept specializing in “Mix” entrees featuring a mix of fresh-grilled chicken, steak or fish with crisp greens and signature sauces.

Based on the outstanding success of its restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., Pyrogrill recently launched a franchising program for what is expected to become one of the hottest, fastest-growing and most profitable fast-casual concepts in the country.

Developing successful businesses is nothing new to the Curcio family. Chuck Curcio – Michael’s father, who sits on Pyrogrill’s board of directors along with Blimpie Subs founder Tony Conza – is the founder of Tire Kingdom. The elder Curcio started the company at a farmer’s market in 1972 and grew it into one of the nation’s largest independent tire dealers before retiring in 1996.

“My dad started from absolutely nothing, so it never did matter to me,” Michael Curcio said of the challenges he faced when Pyrogrill was founded in 2001. “To me, everything starting out was going to be tough. I just decidedtodo something that I enjoy.”

Curcio is not only doing something he enjoys, he’s doing it well. Estimated sales at Pyrogrill’s Jupiter, Fla., location are expected to reach $1.1 million. Same-store sales have increased an average of 43 percent over the last three years.

Backed by its reputation for offering outstanding food and customer service at reasonable prices, Pyrogrill is looking to open 15 to 25 franchised locations throughout the country in 2007, primarily in the Southeast.

Two additional company-owned restaurants are scheduled to open in Wellington and Lake Worth along Florida’s East Coast in January and May 2007, respectively. Curcio expects to open about 100 locations by the end of 2009, with 25 to 30 percent of those being company-operated units.

Curcio’s inspiration for Pyrogrill originated while he was playing basketball for the University of Miami in the late 1990s. When on the team bus en route to the airport to travel to away games, the players were served a delicious meal of yellow rice and grilled chicken with a curry mustard sauce from a local, family-owned restaurant.

Curcio started eating at the restaurant – Starr’s Chicken Grill – on an almost daily basis. “I realized it was a good product,butI thought the business could be run a little better,” he said.

So after graduating from Miami in 1999, Curcio was able to buy the recipes from the restaurant’s founder. After developing several more recipes of his own, Curcio opened his first location – originally known as Grillworks – in Gainesville, Fla., in 2001. The concept was an immediate hit with its healthy, fresh ingredients and signature sauces.

“I just got in the kitchen and worked things out,” said Curcio, who used only three of the original recipes as the foundation for his menu. “I had actually never cooked before starting the restaurant, but I had two years to experiment between graduating and opening. I read books and watched the Food Network. It gave me time to figure things out.”

Curcio also took a page out of his father’s guide to marketing. The elder Curcio had a reputation for zany commercials that began in his company’s infancy, when he could afford little more than $10 or $15 spots “during Cannon and Baretta reruns at 4 a.m.” Chuck Curcio said in an interview in Florida Trend magazine. Curcio would dress up as everyone from King Tut and medieval kings to 1950s crooners to pitch his tires.

Michael Curcio did the same in his creative television commercials, using a little person posing as an “Iron Chef” in one and in another using a chimpanzee pretending to be a bartender to promote the addition of beer to the restaurant’s beverage menu. But while both Chuck and Michael Curcio’s advertising methods were zany and entertaining, they served a distinct purpose.

“My father’s success was developed initially through marketing, but also through the customer service people received when they walked in the door,” Curcio said. “While our commercials might have been crazy, customer service was and is one of the most important elements in Pyrogrill’s success. That’s because we are a service industry.”

While the younger Curcio has never felt the need to match his father’s accomplishments from a competitive standpoint, what he experienced growing up instilled a natural drive in him to succeed on his own terms.

“I had to earn things on my own,” Curcio said. “My dad taught me the value of hard work. He was successful, but continued to work at it every day. He taught me the importance of being on the front line and doing the work yourself alongside your other employees. It’s the biggest thing I learned from him.”

Curcio speaks with his father about twice each week regarding Pyrogrill. He said his father’s advice has been invaluable in such areas as growing Curcio’s vision into a successful business, as well in such areas as managing labor and leading by example.

Being able to call upon the experience and expertise of Blimpie founder Conza is also a considerable resource in Pyrogrill’s arsenal. Conza first became aware of Pyrogrill at a franchising tradeshow before it had even launched its franchising program. Conza not only took an interest in the concept’s potential, but also encouraged Curcio to franchise it.

“Tony is a very valuable asset to have on our board with his extensive knowledge and experience in the franchise industry,” Curcio said of Conza and the Blimpie chain he founded that has grown to more than 1,600 franchised locations in the United States.

With a projected outlook of more than $11 billion in sales from leading fast-casual dining chains in 2006, it appears that Pyrogrill couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to launch its franchising program.

A recent Mintel report estimates that total U.S. systemwide sales of leading fast-casual chains doubled in the last five years, and the future continues to look bright for the category. The category has been able to successfully blend the quality of family casual with the convenience of fast food, appealing primarily to adults.  More than half of Mintel survey respondents stated that they think fast-casual dining is healthier than fast-food restaurants.

“There is nothing else like Pyrogrill and we will always be looking to differentiate ourselves through innovation and new ways to improve upon things,” Curcio said. “We’re a young brand and a fun brand.”

The South Florida-based Pyrogrill is now franchising the opportunity. Sales have increased an average of 43% over the last three years, so the time is ripe. The company principals are, from left to right: Jason Curcio, Director of Franchising, Michael Curcio, CEO and Founder andJerry Schlie, Director of Operations.

Category: Magazine, Small Business Opportunities, Small Business Opportunities May 2007