Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
At the restaurant where she worked as a waitress, Erin Connors noticed diners increasingly ordering lighter, healthier items off the menu. That was 12 years ago.
Today Connors is capitalizing on the interest in healthier eating. Instead of collecting tips, she receives e-mails from customers thanking her for opening Eatin’ Healthy in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Eatin’ Healthy specializes in creatively prepared sandwiches, salads, and other light entrées that are low in fat and calories and made from all-natural and organic ingredients. In her market, Connors says, the restaurant doesn’t have any direct competition in the quick-service healthy-dining niche. That could explain why sales are up 18 percent compared with last year, she says.
“People still want to eat healthy, and they don’t want to cook,” Connors says. “They want to know what they’re eating is good and good for them.”
Before opening the restaurant, Connors studied the competition. She pored over menus from dozens of area restaurants and got ideas for recipes from shows on the Food Network. She followed her instincts, which told her people wanted to eat healthier food without sacrificing flavor. Connors sought ways to inject lots of flavor into dishes without adding tons of fat. The result is “delicious and nutritious made easy,” according to the restaurant’s Web site.
The menu offers an assortment of light entrées and baked goods, including options for vegetarians. The top-selling sandwich is the Avocado Turkey, featuring turkey, avocado, roasted red peppers, and mixed greens with chipotle mayonnaise. The Funky Veggie, made with goat cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, avocado, carrots, and mixed greens, and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, is the No. 1 vegetarian sandwich. Hot panini sandwiches on sourdough and seven-grain bread are also available.
Down the road, Connors wants to increase the selection of breads, now limited to several varieties of wraps, sourdough, and seven-grain. Some diners shun bread altogether and order a sandwich served on lettuce. Wrap sandwiches feature a combination of warm brown rice with grilled chicken, seasoned three ways.
Salads introduced this summer included Really Grape, a blend of mixed greens, cheddar cheese, red grapes, toasted pecans, tomatoes, and reduced fat raspberry vinaigrette. The Honey Mustard Chicken is a mix of grilled chicken, Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, red cabbage, carrots, angel hair pasta, and low-fat honey mustard dressing. To keep fat to a minimum, all dressings are made at the restaurant, using olive, canola and grapeseed oils and no hydrogenated oils. Homemade soups, burgers, creamy frappes, smoothies, and baked treats including chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin and banana breads are also available.
Eatin’ Healthy has a fun and funky interior, decorated in shades of purple, red, and yellow. Customers can see their meals prepared inside the open kitchen. The dining area, dotted with light wood tables and chairs, can seat up to 40 people. Connors, a single mom with two young children, wanted her store to be kid-friendly. A popular table for four offers coloring books and crayons to entertain children.
The breakdown of sales from take-out versus dine-in orders runs about 50/50, with lunch orders generating 40 to 50 percent of total sales. The average check ranges from $9 to $10.
There’s always a learning curve for new restaurant operators, and Connors admits she’s learned the hard way. When she started her business by herself, Connors says, the biggest mistake she made was leasing the site of a former toy store in the historic Munroe Building, next to Quincy’s City Hall. Construction costs were “astronomical,” she says. In its first year, Eatin’ Healthy also didn’t meet sales expectations and incurred huge expenses. The restaurant, with 2,100 square feet on the main floor and a 3,000-square-foot basement, is larger than it needs to be. Down the road, Connors says she envisions using the Quincy store as a central kitchen to service future locations. She wants to grow the company and hopes to team up with a partner with franchising experience.
At the moment, she has her eye on a well-located, high-traffic site in nearby Boston that could work for a second restaurant. It’s in the middle of a college campus and close to three hospitals.
Connors also wants to build up the catering business, which generates about 10 percent of overall sales, primarily from breakfast orders. The restaurant has catered orders for groups as large as 225. “The average catering job is $300 so it’s definitely business we want to go after,” she says.
Moving forward, Connors plans to pursue certification from the Green Restaurant Association. Eatin’ Healthy already follows environmentally friendly practices like recycling cardboard, offering earth-friendly packaging like cups made from corn, and using biodegradable and nontoxic cleaning products.