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

Ones to Watch | By Rita Connelly

Menu item at quick-service restaurant eegee's.

eegee’s started with one great idea and lots of local support. The great idea, a frozen fruit drink, belonged to Ed Irving and Bob Greenberg. The community was Tucson, Arizona, a city where summertime temperatures usually hover near 100 degrees for weeks at a time.

Back in 1971 Irving and Greenberg rented a food truck and began selling their frozen lemon slush drinks everywhere and anywhere Tucsonans gathered. People would ask for an eegee’s, instead of a lemon slush, and thus the company name became the product name. Then construction workers told the guys that if there were sandwiches, they would buy them. As a result, the signature deli sandwich, The Grinder, was born. Then customers told the guys they wanted to be able to enjoy eegee’s anywhere. In response, stores were opened throughout the city and a catering business was added.

Tucson and eegee’s grew and expanded together. Today there are 21 stores. The menu has grown to include a veggie Grinder and a variety of other sandwiches, salads, and award-winning french fries. Sandwiches cost between $2.59 and $5.99. The drink menu has grown, too. It now features the signature lemon eegee, the best-selling strawberry version, and a flavor of the month that often reflects the season. Each costs between 99 cents and $2.49.

In 2006, Irving and Greenberg sold the company to CEO Foods, a family-owned company headed by President Tom O’Connor.

Coming into such a well-established business could’ve been a difficult situation; some of the people have been with the company since its inception. But, the eegee’s team made the transition smooth and comfortable. “They are like a family. They’ve been so nice about adopting us into the family.” O’Connor says.

One of the secrets to eegee’s success is the commissary. “It gives us a lot of control,” O’Connor says. “We make sure everything is up to standard before it goes out to the stores. And in today’s market with all the concerns about food safety, I like the fact that we get a chance to check out all the food products before they get into the restaurants.” The commissary also serves as company headquarters; all advertising and marketing is produced there.

Tucson has a significant mobile population due to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and The University of Arizona, so eegee’s popularity is worldwide.

To wit: When O’Connor’s son was stationed in Afghanistan, he told a fellow soldier, who’d spent time in Tucson, that his dad was buying a restaurant there although he couldn’t remember the name. The friend told him that if the restaurant was eegee’s it was a fantastic move. And it has proved to be so. “I’m happier now a year after the purchase than I was the day we bought it,” O’Connor says.

O’Connor even has plans to expand. “The next logical market for us is to go up to Phoenix. Based on our penetration here, we’re looking at about 75 to 100 restaurants.” El Paso is also on the radar.

President: Tom O’Connor
HQ: Tucson, Arizona
Year started: 1971
Annual Sales: $20 million
Total Units: 21
Franchise Units: 0

eegee’s does more than quench customers’ thirst. The company has been socially responsible long before that term became fashionable.

Headquarter walls are filled with awards and kudos from a wide assortment of non-profit organizations that have benefited from eegee’s practice of giving back to the community. And giving means more than financial contributions. Leftover bread is donated to a soup kitchen each day. Meat ends go to the Salvation Army. Money from recycling packaging is donated to a local charity. There is a jobs program for adults with disabilities.

“eegee’s belongs to Tucson. It’s one of the biggest factors in town. It’s part of the fabric of the community,” O’Connor says.