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Ones to Watch | By judy kneiszel

California Chicken Grill
An entree from California Chicken Grill.

When brothers Sherif and Tarek Habib returned home to Florida from a trip to California in the late ’90s, they realized the Sunshine State was missing something.

“There was a need in this market for healthy delivery and takeout food,” Tarek Habib says. “At the time there was the usual standard stuff like pizza, burgers, and wings, but that was it. The West Coast is pretty innovative and gave us inspiration to do healthier cooking.”

It was not their first foray into healthy food, however. The two previously owned a concept in Gainesville called Sano’s Healthy Pizza.

“I’m a healthy person who likes to work out and eat clean, and I saw a niche in the market for people like me that wasn’t being filled,” Habib says. So in 1998 they began working on the healthy chicken concept and brainstormed ideas for homemade side dishes and sauces that would become the California Chicken Grill menu.

The most popular item at California Chicken Grill is the Skinless Boneless Combo, which consists of grilled chicken served on a bed of seasoned yellow rice with a choice of a homemade side and sauce. The price of the combo is $6.99 for the small and $8.99 for the large. Grilled wings, baked chicken tenders, wraps, sandwiches, and salads are also featured on the menu along with sides like baked beans, black beans, macaroni and cheese, mashed sweet potatoes, and baked potato wedges.

Homemade sauces include teriyaki, barbecue, sweet & sour, Jamaican jerk, honey mustard, Caesar, and ranch. Fresh fruit smoothies blended in-house add interest to the beverage menu and although the focus is on healthy eating, the New York cheesecake is a popular finish.

“We don’t own any fryers,” Habib says. “Everything is either baked or grilled.”

The first California Chicken Grill opened in 1998 in Gainesville near the University of Florida campus, and soon after a second store was added in Tallahassee at Florida State University. In fact, four of the five Cali-fornia Chicken Grill locations are within a mile of a major university, with about 90 percent of the restaurants’ employees being college students.

Accommodating the erratic schedules of college-age consumers means being open long hours: 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week. “College students get the munchies late at night,” Habib says.

The proximity to campus also means stable traffic for the restaurants, since faculty, staff, and students all need to eat throughout the day. California Chicken Grill also does a lot of catering for the college athletic teams, who appreciate having healthy meal options.

“We haven’t experienced any economic downturn,” Habib says. “Our stores are in isolated areas close to universities, so we don’t feel it as hard. We haven’t dropped at all in some stores and some have gained in sales.”

California Chicken Grill

CO-FOUNDERS: Sherif and Tarek Habib

HQ: Gainesville, Florida

YEAR STARTED: 1998

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 5

FRANCHISE UNITS: 3

WEB SITE: www.californiachickengrill.com

All five California Chicken Grill stores are between 1,800 and 2,200 square feet and seat between 50 and 80 guests. About half of each restaurant’s sales are delivery and carry out, which presents both challenges and rewards.

“Delivery is a huge liability,” Habib says. “You have to make sure your delivery drivers have clean records for one thing. Plus your customer service has to be up to par so the food always arrives hot, fresh, and as ordered. It’s challenging but definitely worth it.”

There are three California Chicken Grill locations in Florida and one each in South Carolina and Tennessee. Although growth has been slow lately, Habib says plans are in the works to start franchising again in 2010.

“We are making improvements to the concept to make it more franchise-friendly,” he says. “And we are tweaking the menu to make it more diverse.”

That means adding teriyaki steak and ground beef to the now chicken-centric offerings. They also plan to add a $5 express lunch menu to include soft tacos, burritos, and wraps or what Habib calls, “quick grab-and-go for a cheap price.” They also plan to use technology to streamline delivery.

“We are adding online ordering because people are so consumed by their computers today that they prefer to do everything online,” Habib says. “Also, when customers call in and talk with a live person there is more chance of error.”

The brothers also want to make the concept more like that of Moe’s Southwest Grill or Chipotle Mexican Grill with a quick-service buffet line, where the food is prepared as customers walk down the line and determine exactly what they want. “That will help expedite the speed of service for those dining in,” Habib says.

Once these changes have been put in place, the Habib brothers hope the California Chicken Grill concept will fly the coop and bring a healthy eat-in or delivery option to diners throughout the Southeast.