Hoping to ride the trend of customers demanding healthy, fresh food at an affordable price, Ghazi Hajj recently opened GrilliT, a Latin-Caribbean concept that uses ingredients from local growers across the country. The 2-year-old, South Florida brand is focused on breaking barriers in the industry, said Hajj, who hopes to demonstrate that the fast casual dining experience and fresh, nutritious, home-style cooking are not mutually exclusive.
GrilliT specializes in made-to-order salads, rice bowls, pasta and wraps topped or stuffed with steak, chicken or shrimp and served with freshly made signature sauces, including Chipotle Garlic, Balsamic Garlic, Garlic Cilantro, Teriyaki and Curry Mustard, as well as 20 customer-selected hot and cold toppings. These ingredients allow customers to design their own meals without losing taste, said Hajj, who, during his 24-restaurant career, has owned and operated 36 Little Caesars units and held various leadership roles at Quiznos.
"The stigma of healthy not tasting good is due to people being bombarded with diet food containing preservatives, bi-products like MSG, coloring, artificial flavorings, etc. GRILLiT on the other hand prepares and cooks fresh food daily with natural ingredients and citrus based marinades," he said. "Our Latin-Caribbean Fusion flavor and home-style cooking techniques with natural spices and herbs enhance the flavors of our products."
Hajj opened the first unit (company owned) in 2011, in South Florida, and a franchised location last month in Nashville, Tenn. A third location will open by the end of the year at the University of Miami, and the company expects to have at least 21 company-owned and more than 50 franchised locations across eight states throughout the next five years.
GrilliT is not just another fast casual concept offering a few healthy options; it's all about health benefits, Hajj said. Every recipe is low-sodium and uses all-natural ingredients.
"Our customer profile is very simple: anyone that wants to eat healthier and is looking for an innovative, high-quality meal," Hajj said.
GrilliT even has a medical consultant — David M. Feldbaum, who is certified in vascular surgery by the American Board of Surgery. The doctor is working on a special menu plan based on GrilliT's offerings for his post-op patients to follow.
"This menu is exactly what all people should be eating in the way of a daily meal program, but this is particularly true of anyone with high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and other health issues," said Feldbaum. "I am eager to begin monthly nutritional clinics at the Westfork Plaza location in Pembroke Pines (Fla). These will not only be for my patients, but for anyone looking to learn about proper nutrition and a healthier diet."
Since launching its franchising program in February 2013, GrilliT has sold master franchise territories in Kentucky, Ohio, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and North Carolina with neither advertising nor marketing support.
"Taking our inspiration from the successful Chipotle model, we have developed a comprehensive plan to transition the GrilliT brand from the corporate restaurant model, with initial operations in South Florida, to a national rollout with a combination of company-owned and franchised locations," Hajj said.
A hallmark of the GrilliT expansion plan is a restaurant model designed to take advantage of the fast-growing, fast casual restaurant segment. GrilliT also plans to minimize costs by either taking over leases of existing restaurants and/or utilizing smaller footprints.
"The ultimate goal is to significantly lower initial startup costs, increase sales per square foot of restaurant space and make a rapid build-out of new locations more feasible by using a modular interior setup for kitchens and dining rooms," said Hajj.
What it takes to be a franchisee
The estimated initial investment for a single GRILLiT traditional location ranges from $173,000 to $353,000 and for non-traditional locations from $145,500 to $226,000. This includes a $25,000 franchise fee, and royalties are 6 percent of gross sales, Hajj said. There is an additional national marketing fund contribution of up to 3 percent of gross sales of which 2 percent will be refunded back to franchisees after they submit proof of executing the corporate-approved marketing plans.
A traditional GRILLiT location averages 1,400 to 2,000 square feet with seating for 32 to 60 customers with a patio if available. Airports, turnpike plazas, hospitals, and mall food court spaces require as little as 400 square feet, and kiosks, grab-and-go cooler programs are also available.
A public company, GrilliT acquired 100 percent of Healthy & Tasty Ventures LLC in April 2013. Other successful fast casual brands such as Chipotle and Panera Bread are also publicly traded companies.
"The main advantage of being a public company is cost of capital," Hajj said. "If a company has a unique business plan, a bit of initial success, and the possibility of blooming into a much bigger operation, then it can make sense to pursue the public company path. GrilliT has all those features."
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Cherryh Butler has been a reporter and editor for nearly 15 years, writing on a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining Networld Media Group as managing editor of Food/Retail Publications, she was content specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City and has served as editor for several publications. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.