Sam Fox Talks Expansion Challenges and the Future of Fast Casual

Most restaurant concepts fail early on. The challenges of keeping afloat in an industry driven on passion over profit are aplenty, and one of them is expansion. Even if you’ve learned how to successfully run a one-unit, independent concept, scaling operations is a huge hurdle to conquer. Those who have seen great success with multi-unit concepts — and, even more, multi-brand businesses — are admirable, and we were fortunate enough to sit down with one of them on this episode of “On Foodable Weekly.” Sam Fox, the man behind Phoenix-based restaurant group Fox Restaurant Concepts, joins us to talk expansion pitfalls, how he has overcome them, and more.

“We’ve built a really hard company to run,” says Fox. “And by having so many different brands and so many different locations, and really, even the stores that we have multiples of — whether five, six, seven, or eight — all of the stores look different, as well. And so everything we do is different.”

One of the biggest challenges, he says, is menu innovation. “Everything we do is typically seasonal and, out of the 15 concepts we have, I’d say 10 to 12 of them, we change the menu on a minimum of three to five times a year.” Fox notes that despite how difficult running the operations can be, it’s also what makes them great and unique.

Fox Restaurant Concepts includes 15 different restaurant concepts (12 of which are full-service) and a total of 40 different locations. Fox’s in-office team, ranging from marketing to IT to in-house architects, is pushing about 80 people. At this point in time, the company is preparing to open its first out-of-state unit for Flower Child, a fast-casual concept, in Santa Monica. Spreading across the country, of course, opens the door for a host of additional logistical challenges.

“What’s great about Flower Child being a startup, or being only 14 months old, is it comes from the base of an organization of 15 restaurants. And so, we’re able to figure out — once we have something that should be multiplied or grown at a bigger level — we’re able to go a little bit faster because we have the resources of the whole organization.”

Speaking of fast casual, it’s clear that the segment has evolved tremendously over the past five years — from higher quality food to chefs opening their own fast-casual concepts, giving the space a more elevated, chef-driven approach. But what will consumers expect from restaurants in the next five years?

“One of our most valuable commodities in this world is time, and so anytime that we can come up with an opportunity for people to have a great meal in a quicker, more casual experience…is a positive thing,” Fox says. “Sometimes we have experiences that are not the quality that they should be, and it’s more about speed instead of quality. So, when we work on things, we talk about speed and quality. Those are equally important to us.”

In regards to the rise of chefs in the fast-casual space, Fox is a supporter but wonders if they’ll be financially successful, “because it’s really, really hard. It’s based on a lot of volume and really understanding your pennies. Every single penny in the fast-casual business, you really need to know where everything is going because you don’t have that full-service check, where there’s alcohol and there’s a higher check average, where you’re able to sort of make up some of those mistakes. In the fast-casual environment, everyone is sensitive to the price, everyone’s sensitive to the experience, and so that’s gonna be a whole different thing where we see if all these great chef ideas are able to really translate into a business model.”