Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
George Couchell’s parents worked hard operating a restaurant. They wanted their son to take a different path. A Greek immigrant, Couchell dutifully did what his parents wanted him to do. He went to college at Duke University. But though he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, Couchell never wanted to work behind a desk. The restaurant business was in his blood. He got a taste of it working at Johnny’s Grill, his family’s restaurant, and enjoyed working with people and the constant hustle and bustle.
“What really got me hooked more than anything was the interaction I had with people,” Couchell says. “It was a wonderful experience. “
Couchell struck out on his own in 1967 with Mr. C’s, a concept specializing in Southern-style fried chicken. The restaurant grew up to a chain of seven stores, but Couchell ultimately got out of the business when the market became saturated with similar concepts and fried foods fell out of favor.
His next move was to come up with a concept he thought would have broader appeal. In 1982, he rolled out Showmars in Charlotte, North Carolina, a concept that emphasized variety in food, fresh ingredients, good value, and speedy service and was named after his bookkeeper. Working with a group of managing partners, Couchell has built Showmars into a chain of 27 restaurants, all within 40 miles of Charlotte.
The restaurants offer many Greek-inspired dishes, including gyros, pita bread sandwiches, grilled chicken Santorini sandwiches, and baklava. Showmars also features Southern favorites like North Carolina pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and a children’s menu offering burgers, chicken strips, and Calabash shrimp.
“It’s only recently that Northerners have moved into the area,” Couchell says. “I deliberately picked items that were popular and did a menu that’s not exclusively Greek per se with the flounder and burgers.”
Fillet of flounder, which Showmars dubs as “the world’s best,” is the most-popular dinner entrée. And since Couchell wanted to put a different spin on an all-American classic, burgers are served on pita bread. The pita burgers are extremely popular at dinner. Pork tenderloin tips, Calabash shrimp, chef’s salads, and Greek salads have a strong following, too. “People comment all the time about how flavorful our dinners and sandwiches are,” Couchell says.
The Showmars concept falls somewhere between traditional quick-service and full-service. Diners order their food at the counter and wait staff delivers the orders to the tables and provides drink refills. “We’re not competing with McDonalds,” Couchell says. “We don’t like to call ourselves fast food.”
In fact, two years ago, Showmars adopted a new company slogan —“casual dining fast.”
“I tried to position myself between the fast-food and full-service restaurant by offering better quality and better selection than fast food but better value and faster service than a full-service restaurant,” Couchell says. “We pride ourselves on serving restaurant-quality food quickly in an inviting environment.”
Dining rooms seat 80 to 150 people depending on the location, and the units range from 3,500 to 4,000 square feet. Thirty to 50 percent of sales come from take-out orders, and the average check is about $6.75.
Couchell believes his restaurants generate stronger sales per store than other fast-casual chains. In fact, his No. 1 competitor is a new Showmars. Whenever the company opens a restaurant within five miles of an existing store, business initially drops 5 to 10 percent at the older store, Couchell says. “Within six months, it fills in,” he says.
“Fast-casual places have made inroads in the industry by positioning themselves in the same place as us,” he says. “I know for certain our dinner business is much better than fast-casuals. Sales are better. We feel we’re almost immune to competition because we have such variety on our menu. When a burger place opens up, it doesn’t affect us. When a fish place opens up, it doesn’t affect us.”
Only two Showmars are run as franchises. One of Couchell’s managing partners operates both. But Couchell hasn’t ruled out expanding his franchise operations. “That’s on our radar,” he says.