Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By Ann Loftin

Uptown Kitchen
Uptown Kitchen uses fresh ingredients when possible.

Granger, an affluent suburb of South Bend, Indiana, is a nice place to raise a family. It wasn’t, however, a great place to get a decent meal until Chicago native Jonathan Lutz moved to his wife’s hometown and opened Uptown Kitchen.

Lutz is proud to say that Uptown Kitchen doesn’t have a deep fryer, a heat lamp, or even a microwave. The chicken sticks on the kids menu are baked. The kids’ fruit smoothies are made with fresh fruit. Everything is made to order, based on organic ingredients whenever possible. Dressings are made in-house. You can get breakfast all day—and the eggs, any style, are certified organic.

“One of the main reasons I created this restaurant is because I have three young kids, and there’s a serious problem with the way children are being fed,” he says. “It’s especially true here in Indiana, where the restaurants mostly serve deep-fried, frozen, processed food.” Even Granger, with a median family income of $88,415 (compared with Indiana’s overall median income of $47,448) was no exception.

Breakfast dishes served all day at Uptown Kitchen range from whole wheat hotcakes with fresh fruit on the side to baked oatmeal to two kinds of frittata. There is also the Chicken Sausage Hash (chicken sausage, spinach, sun dried tomatoes, onion, and potatoes with two eggs any style) and Stuffed French Toast (cinnamon or challah bread stuffed with either banana, peanut butter, chocolate, raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, honey, or cream cheese). Customers can also order a customized omelet with three ingredients that include such premium options as goat cheese, scallions, and Bavarian ham.

Lunch includes items like salads, individual thin-crust pizzas, and sandwiches such as the Ham and Brie or the Lunch Burrito with organic grilled chicken and homemade salsa. For dinner (served Wednesday through Saturday) Uptown Kitchen offers fresh grilled fish and beef tenderloin. There is even a wine list, offering brands from around the world.

Lutz estimates that a meal at his restaurant costs about $2 more per person than at other fast-casuals in the area (breakfast and lunch dishes are mostly just shy of $10) but he firmly believes that people will pay more for quality.

Lutz opened Uptown Kitchen in August 2007, with $600,000 in savings and a bank loan. As he says on his Web site, “the goal was to create something that has a little bit more of a colorful, funky, urban atmosphere that you would find in a big city … something that was bright and happy and had a fun energy to it, so when people walk in they kind of say, ‘Wow, we haven’t seen something like this in the area before.’”

Though it was risky, Lutz expects to recoup his initial investment by year’s end, thanks to “slow but steady growth.” A 10-minute drive from Notre Dame University, Uptown Kitchen got an enthusiastic reception from faculty and administration, and Lutz has started doing catering for the university.

“This area is inundated with chains,” he says. “There’s a lack of customer service, of customer focus—and all the food is pretty much the same no matter where you go. I firmly believe that if you provide an excellent product and excellent service and atmosphere, people are going to come.”

Lutz may be a dreamer, but he is no neophyte. He says he started cooking at age seven and that food remains his great passion. He worked in restaurants during high school and college as a waiter, cook, and bartender. After college at the University of Texas at Austin, he returned to Chicago and snagged a job in the management training program of Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant company.

Lutz trained at one of the company’s fish restaurants, Shaw’s Crab House, in Chicago. “They don’t pay you much, and they work you a lot, but it’s a great education,” he says of the company’s management training program.

Uptown Kitchen

Owner: Jonathan Lutz

HQ: Granger, Indiana

Annual sales: Not disclosed

Total Units: 1

Franchise Units: 0

www.uptownkitchen.net

His ambition is to create “a miniature version” of Lettuce Entertain You in the South Bend area. He says Uptown Kitchen—where he is often seen hopping from table to table, conversing with guests—is one of eight restaurant concepts he’s had in mind since college, and he’s planning to open a second restaurant within the year. “I’ve got a great seafood concept that I think would blow away the folks in this town,” he says. He’d also like to open a diner with a gourmet twist, an upscale South American steakhouse, and “an Italian restaurant that serves thin crispy pizza baked in a wood-burning oven.”

“My long-term plan is to have somewhere between seven and 10 restaurants in this area that will all be underneath a company I create called the Clean Plate Club Incorporated,” Lutz says.