Ones to Watch | By By Lynne Miller
Baja Sol Fresh Mex Grill carved out a niche serving up kid-friendly food in a family-friendly environment.
The fast-casual chain offers a full kids menu of traditional Mexican dishes in smaller servings. To appeal to families on a budget, the restaurants offer children’s meals for 99 cents one day each week and online ordering and curbside pickup to speed up service. There’s even entertainment for children. The song selections on the restaurant jukeboxes include tunes by Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, and other musicians popular with young listeners.
Given the chain’s focus on pleasing kids and their parents, it’s not surprising that many of Baja Sol’s customers have young children.
“We like being family-oriented,” says Bridget Sutton, president of the Baja Sol Restaurants Group and mother of three. The company also includes Baja Joe’s Beachfront Grill and a full-service concept known as Baja Sol Cantina.
In 1995, Baja Tortilla Grill, as it was then known, opened its doors, becoming one of the first fast-casual chains to offer Mexican fare in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It didn’t take long for the restaurant to develop a following. The company started franchising in 1999. As franchisees, Sutton, her husband, Tony, and their partner, Bill Cooper, became convinced the chain had potential beyond the Twin Cities. They approached the owners with an offer. After purchasing the chain in 2006, they immediately set to work on a makeover. Everything from the food to the décor, the advertising, employee training, and franchisee support materials got an update. The company created new positions and hired a corporate chef who modernized and improved menu items. The owners were determined to turn the chain into a regional and, ultimately, national brand.
“We reinvented everything,” Sutton says. “It is kind of a whole new company.”
The 11-store chain is now poised to grow beyond its Twin Cities roots. Two new restaurants are slated to open this year in Chicago and Minnesota, and a dozen more stores are under development in existing markets and San Diego.
Sutton believes Baja Sol’s focus on budget-friendly family dining and quality ingredients sets it apart from competitors, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, which operates more than 40 stores in the Twin Cities. While Chipotle targets the under-30 crowd, Baja Sol’s customers tend to be older. Company research shows 52 percent of customers have kids.
“We didn’t want to be a ‘me too’ concept,” Sutton says. “We wanted to create a distinguishable brand. We offer things people can’t get anywhere else.”
Diners enjoy unlimited trips to the chips and salsa bar free with every entrée. The bars feature nine varieties of salsa, from mild red to fire-roasted to sweet peach mango. All are made from company recipes. Tortilla chips are also made in house. The average check is $8.15.
The children’s menu includes cheese quesadillas, mini burritos, and tacos served with Spanish rice, a churro, and choice of beverage. But the most popular item with kids does not have south of the border roots.
“Our chicken fingers outsell everything else,” Sutton says.
To appeal to diners seeking healthy food, the chain plans to add Honesty juice pouches from Coca-Cola to the children’s beverage selection, which now only includes milk and soda.
Baja’s formula seems to be working. At the four corporate stores, sales are up 9.2 percent over 2007, Sutton says.
The restaurants steer clear of burros, sombreros, and other Mexican restaurant clichés. Bright shades of lime green and red give the interiors a contemporary feeling. Measuring about 2,500 square feet, the restaurants seat from 60 to 80 diners. Booster seats, high chairs, and baby cradles keep little ones comfortable.
Before Baja Sol, the Suttons and Cooper had no experience operating restaurants. Because of that, they want to make franchising easy for other rookies. They’re willing to work with operators who can only run one franchise.
“We look at everything we do through the eyes of someone who’s never worked in the restaurant industry,” Sutton says. “All of our training materials, follow-up support materials, everything is geared toward being able to support a neophyte as well as an experienced operator. That’s one thing that sets us apart.”
Franchise costs vary depending on the size of the restaurant. Potential franchisees must have $80,000 in liquid capital and the ability to borrow up to $400,000. The $30,000 franchise fee does not include a 5 percent royalty fee on net sales.
“We don’t expect you to walk in our front door with $2 million in your pocket expecting to open a minimum of six stores,” Sutton says. “We wanted to create a system in which anyone, regardless of background or experience, would have the ability to succeed.”