Rockfire Grill named winner of 'Perfect Pitch'

| by S.A. Whitehead
Rockfire Grill named winner of 'Perfect Pitch'

There may be no better way to recapture the spirit of ingenuity, excitement and entrepreneurship that has brought so many into food service than to attend an event like the Perfect Pitch on the last day of the Fast Casual Executive Summit. In the hour-long session, three relatively new restaurant entrepreneurs took the stage to make their best five-minute "pitch" for why their concept was the most worthy of both investment and good ol' collegial respect from an audience of restaurant executives. 

Alhough all three of those selected from the more than 50 restaurant concepts that applied for the event were clearly extremely passionate, innovative and creative about their restaurants, food and presentation, one California-based concept stole the show this year — the first year that the entire audience got to vote for their favorite concept after all three pitches were complete.

Thanks to an on-the-spot live vote calculation board the audience and "pitchers" were also able to almost instantly see that the Rockfire Grill was the clear crowd favorite at this year's summit.  Chicago-based MoJo's East Coast Eats landed the second-place slot, and New Jersey-based Jersey Girl Cafe came in third. 

Rockfire Grill, which opened two years ago and now has three locations, was represented by its owners, the father-and-son team of Raj and Neil Syal. The men were polished, enthusiastic and equipped with a great video to help tell their story, and attendees rushed toward the stage to congratulate them after the vote declared them the winners. 

"The Perfect Pitch gave us a better perspective (on) how financing would work for us at the current growth stage and perhaps helped us hold off our growth strategy of franchising too soon," said father, Raj Syal. "Instead, (the event and panel of experts) directed us into planning a flagship model first."

Rockfire Grill, which has already been named to Yelp's Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. this year, is centered around the idea that there are few greater gastronomic pleasures than fresh-baked bread straight out of the oven. That's why these restaurateurs manage to bake every single hamburger bun and flatbread, fresh to that order, while also providing all homemade sauces and other menu items. 

"Nothing compares to hot fresh bread right out of the oven," the elder Syal told the audience. "In India, we have a term for this that means 'hot and fresh, straight from the fire.'"

A panel of industry veterans helped the Syals and the other contestants come up with new approaches to their next steps for growing the chain. That panel, this year, included: 

•    Ben Butler, of Rock Creek MT LLC
•    David Oddi, of Goode Partners
•    Otto Othman, of Pincho Factory
•    Larry Reinstein, of LJR Hospitality Ventures

The suggestions from the panel largely revolved around the idea that it might be best to get professional guidance on a more developed franchisable restaurant design, perhaps even trying to find a professional in that realm who might also invest in a joint venture to "dip their toes" into joint ownership while simultaneously getting a great franchising prototype created.  

"If I had to go back and do it again," said one panelist, "I'd probably do a joint venture for 60 percent, then buy them back in a few years for four or five times more. … Then I'd find a designer/architect for a prototype (for the franchise restaurants). In fact, that would be a way to find a partner for trading for services."

A spirit of sharing with each other
The spirit of sharing wisdom of lessons learned was one of the most remarkable things about the Perfect Pitch. It was a walking, talking example of what makes this business so unusual and quite often, successful: Restaurateurs like to help each other succeed. 

The owners of Mojos and Jersey Girl also received advice and direction from the panel and executives in the 150-plus person audience.

For instance, when former tech worker Kathleen Rana took to the stage to relay the highlights of her Jersey Girl Cafe, she clearly impressed by showing her penchant for business management and creative problem-solving. She told the audience that she started the business after realizing the restaurant catering business in the area for the corporate community revolved around pizza and burgers, which Rana said many women aren't always crazy about. 

She opened her shop to not only provide a great place for breakfast, nutritious sandwiches, paninis, rice bowls and quesadilla, but also to give corporate meeting planners another option for their catered events. It appears to be working, too, since the chain – now with two locations – was named one of New Jersey's best sandwich shops in 2015, and has achieved a mix of about 30 percent catering and 65 percent in-store sales, along with a small amount of "personal chef" business. Now, Rana wanted to learn how to grow her dinner business.

Reinstein suggested she tap into the gold mine that is her lunch customers for direction. "Spend time with your guests to find out how you can bring them back," he said.

Next up was MoJo's East Coast Eats Co-owner Jon Scoggin, who with his wife, Molly, started his Philly cheesesteak-centered brand when they moved to the Chicago and couldn't find anything close to what the couple considered "true Philadelphia cheesesteak." 

They made that their food focus and built their Chicago restaurant to be kid-centric with kids meals served on Frisbees and pint-sized tables and chairs for the little guests of honor. Scoggin wanted to know where his restaurant needed "to be" revenue-wise before the couple took that big leap toward opening a second location. 

The panel responded generously with advice to look under every rock and crevice for investors and to make investments in technology that might ease the workload on Scoggin, who spends his day at the cash register. That could allow him to spend more time with customers, which would help him learn what it will take to grow business.  

Register here for the 2017 Fast Casual Executive Summit. 


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Fast Casual Executive Summit

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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