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

Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Pesto Creative Italian Bistro

At just 23, Lee Shadle is young by CEO standards. But he’s been launching businesses since he was seven, when he sold acorns from his yard for a nickel each, promising the small investment would yield big results— evidenced by the oak tree that was his backdrop.

There were many other short-lived businesses and ideas, some chronicled in a journal he began keeping at 13. “I was always looking for money-making schemes,” says Shadle, founder and CEO of Pesto Creative Italian Bistro, in Columbus, Ohio. “I’d run them by my parents, and they’d always tell me to keep working on them. Now I’ve found one that combines my passions: building a creative business and cooking.”

This plan got more than a nod of approval from Shadle’s parents; they put their house up as collateral to help him secure a Small Business Association loan. Shortly after Pesto opened in December, he began working on his second Columbus store, which he plans to open this fall.

“The numbers are speaking for themselves,” Shadle says. “Our sales are right up there with the big guys.” He projects annual sales to be between $900,000 and $1 million.

The secret to Pesto’s success is likely its simplicity. The menu offers just eight recipe combinations for pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and salads; and every entrée is $5.95. “It makes ordering, training, and preparation easier, and still provides a lot of options,” Shadle says.

The top seller is the Pollo Pesto (grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato, and cheeses, with basil-pesto sauce) on penne pasta. Other options include the Margherita (basil, roma tomatoes, and mozzarella) and the L’Atomica (spicy Italian sausage, pepperoni, crushed red pepper, and other ingredients in a meat sauce). Sales are dominated by pasta orders, followed by pizza, and then sandwiches and salads.

“I modeled this after Chipotle,” Shadle says. “My research showed Mexican fast-casual was pretty saturated. But with no major national player in fast-casual Italian, I began honing a model to make Italian as easy as Mexican.”

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