In a hyper-competitive restaurant market, even a mound of investment capital and restaurant experience doesn’t ensure success.
Such is the case of Zeggz Amazing Eggs (4600 Chamberlain Lane), which opened last April. Bob Dotson, Bob Eberle, Christopher Harding and Jerry Wilson, whose industry experience includes operating multiple Hooters, Popeye’s and Qdoba franchised locations, brought leadership and capital to the breakfast-centered concept. Yet they struggled to make it work at the outset.
Ticket times exceeded company and guest standards, kitchen and service miscues were constant, and employee turnover became an issue.
“A lack of brand recognition and brand equity in the market didn’t help either,” said Harding.
Not surprisingly, he said finding quality skilled restaurant labor also was a struggle. (Zeggz is not alone. See my recent commentary about the city’s significant restaurant labor shortage.)
“It’s hard to find good people to work with no matter what industry you’re in now,” he added.
Yet apparently, there’s no lack of customers willing to eat out if you talk to restaurateurs constantly opening up new eateries. The partners originally considered becoming Wild Eggs franchisees but ultimately decided against it.
They did, however, recognize Wild Eggs’ success in the breakfast daypart and decided to give it a go on their own. Smart move given that breakfast is the fastest growing daypart in the restaurant industry. Add with a clever name that goes well beyond the bacon-and-egg standards, and you’ve got real potential, right?
Not without the right people, said Jesse Johnson, who was hired as Zeggz’s general manager in July to fix the sputtering operation. Zeggz’s owners knew him through Hooter’s, where Johnson started as a cook, became a Hooter’s general manager and eventually ran the chain’s highest-grossing unit in Las Vegas.
Johnson moved to Louisville three years ago when an old friend, Allan Rosenberg, asked him to help with the expansion of his burgeoning Papalino’s Pizza concept. He later became general manager of the Panera Bread Co. store on Breckenridge Lane before moving on to manage Guaca Mole. He left there after a year to take the top ops post at Zeggz and found a complicated problem in need of a rapid solution.
It was clear the operation lacked essential systems for production, training and service, and food cost was way over budget.
“As they say, there were no aces in places,” Johnson said. “So we started in the kitchen first.”
The restaurant’s original chef had designed a menu a bit too upscale for a casual breakfast spot, so Johnson set about rationalizing the lineup.
“A good example was using Tillamook cheddar cheese in our omelets,” Johnson said. “That’s fine on a $16 burger, but what we need for omelets is a simple sharp cheddar. There were lots of chances to change things like that.”
He then standardized recipes and shortened ticket times before moving on to fixing the front of the house.
“When they opened, there were people hired who simply didn’t have the experience they needed to run this correctly,” he said. “Now 85 percent of the staff is new, and we have people who want to be here and know how to serve guests.”
Harding said making those adjustments took time and effort, but he said the changes allowed the operating team to see opportunities for improvement in unit No. 2 in Middletown (11615 Shelbyville Road, next to the new Coals Artisan Pizza). It’s set to open in February.
But while the menu will remain the same, Zeggz’s service model there will switch to fast casual. (The Chamberlain Lane unit will remain a full-service restaurant.)
Guests will place their orders at a counter and grab soft drink and coffee refills at their leisure, and a limited service staff will roam the dining room.
“Switching to that format will alleviate the server issue for one,” Harding said. Average check at Zeggz is about $11. “We’re also seeing a trend toward people not wanting to sit for an hour or hour-and-a-half lunch to be served. Those are big considerations in the new model.”
Harding also acknowledged the shift to no tipping policies at chains like Joe’s Crab Shack and Landry’s, and independently operated companies such as Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Consumers, he said, increasingly want to eat and move on without service delays at breakfast and lunch.
Zeggz’s owners already have the keys to a third site at 2400 Lime Kiln Lane (by McAllister’s Deli), but they won’t open it until the new fast-casual model is proven in Middletown. They also want to add catering to the mix, which they’ll launch at the more spacious Middletown unit.
Both men allowed that not opening leased Lime Kiln space is costly and an unwanted delay, but given their vision of developing the concept into a regional chain, they consider it prudent to ensure their formula is sound before opening additional sites.
“We want to have everything in place to be able to franchise this,” Johnson said. “We want to be able to say, ‘Here’s the book,’ and be confident it’s right.”