Fast casual bowl concepts have continued to gain momentum in the market for a few reasons. First, they are customizable. The guest can create their own meal with the ingredients they want. Second, a bowl is arguably the most reliable container to eat most foods, especially when a guest wants to mix different flavors and textures for their meal. Not to mention, bowls are a great grab-and-go option.
Each bowl concept usually offers a base ingredient, like rice, noodles or salad. But, why hasn’t the beloved potato emerged as a popular base? Well it’s time for potato lovers to rejoice! The fast casual concept, Potatopia is bringing bowls to the masses showcasing the majestic spud.
With locations in New Jersey, New York and the latest in south Florida, the chain is spreading the potato fever.
Potatopia also caters to paleo free, gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan eaters with a broad menu of ingredients to complement the spud.
We sat down with the CEO and Founder Allen Dikker to learn what inspired him to open this unique concept, how the brand leverages technology, and what is to come next for Potatopia.
What influenced you to start a potato-focused concept?
Dikker: In 2008, I started planning. I was actually in a different business entirely. I was in the advertising business, but I was a big foodie. I was traveling 10 months out of the year. I love to cook at home and my uncle was a chef by trade.
Back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, there was a lot of burger concepts coming out. Shake Shack was on the rise and Umami Burger was getting popular. You had all these different burger concepts coming out. I never wanted a full-fledged restaurant, I always wanted to create a cool fast casual concept. I looked up to the Shake Shacks of the world. I looked up to Chipotle. I looked up to Starbucks. I admired how they created their brands and I knew if I did something, it had to be something super unique and different.
I started to take a closer look at the fast casual segment. But, if you look at any of these fast casual concepts, they start up a carb or a starch as the base. Italian places start off with dough. Sandwich places start off with two pieces of bread. Burger places also start off with two pieces of bread. Mexican places start off with a wrap or rice. It’s always a carb or a starch. So I asked “why not potatoes?”
My family's from Ukraine and in Ukraine, potatoes are a part of our daily diet. We eat it all the time. But, potatoes appeal to every culture and age group.
I started to plan from 2008 to 2011. The reason why it took so long is I wanted to make sure I understood the entire business aspect of it as well. I became a sponge of industry. I became a student. I would go to the NRA Show or any food show and ask a million questions.
What do your customers like about Potatopia?
Dikker: I think it’s the uniqueness factor of it. There is nothing like this out there.
Our biggest, biggest challenge here in the states, is the American Consumer. The Atkins diet killed the potato, if you will. Consumers think that it's heavy or it's fried. With that in mind, we took a challenge, myself and my GM, to eat potatoes every day at our store to see if we could lose weight. He lost 37 pounds. I lost almost about 30 pounds.
So, we have to help educate the consumer. People who understand food and nutrition, get it. You can get a delicious baked potato or you could have a big sweet potato. We use a rice brand oil that nobody uses in this industry because it is very expensive to use. It has no trans-fat and it's a non-GMO.
Now, I am not saying that some customers don’t come to the stores and get curly fries with cheese and bacon and that heavier stuff because they do. But, I really believe that the customers love it because it really does accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions. Customers can come in and indulge or come in and be super healthy.
Where have the stores implemented technology to enhance operations?
Dikker: This is big for us. I have been the biggest supporter of iPad ordering and have pitched it to my investors and my partners. It is important because of a couple of reasons. We have a custom build-your-own, then we have signature meals. 65 to 70% of all our orders are build-your-own. Consumers just naturally want to do mass customization. They love the fact that they can customize their own meal.
Implementing a touch screen gives the benefit of the customers customizing their entire meal. From our employee perspective, there's no mess ups. It gives us operational, inventory, and quality control and we can truly see what's moving and what's not and we can adjust based on the market we're in.
That’s one of the greatest things about our concept. Potatoes hit every age and race and culture. So, we can go to any market and localize ourselves to that market specifically just by adding a couple different toppings here and there or by adding different sauces.
Most of the stores are in food courts, why did you start there? And why the recent move to a fast casual brick-and-mortar store?
Dikker: We started out in a mall in Addison, New Jersey and it was a tiny 154 square foot kiosk. It hadone fryer and a 200 square foot commissary kitchen in the basement where we were cooking everything. We were bringing the food up to the kiosk, where we were finishing the product. That was the first store because I put in all of my money into the store myself. Even though, I had a business plan, I had to prove the concept worked.
I picked the mall because I wanted to see if we could compete with the Chipotles of the world, or with Chick-fil-A, or with Charley's Subs. Not only did I sustain but I started to thrive there.
The reason we just stayed in malls is because we were doing okay in malls and we were testing it. But, the problem is in recent years, mall traffic has started to drastically decline. Everyone shops for everything online.
However, the mall operators still feel like they have a captive audience and want to continue to charge extremely high rent for it. So, we have decided to adjust our model. That was really the reasoning behind, we wanted to see if we could also thrive with a brick location.
We are truly handpicking only the top notch malls now to set up stores.
Why did you make the decision to franchise?
Dikker: I was always against franchising, but when I opened up my fourth store, we just started to get so much organic interest about franchising. We were just getting bombarded with emails, people leaving their business cards, and phone calls coming in about franchising
My partners said we should definitely franchise because we don't have that McDonald’s money like Chipotle did. They got 300 million dollars to start growing their concept corporately. We don't have that luxury and we want to grow, not aggressively but moderately grow the concept. The franchising model is just the quickest way to get scalability and grow more stores.
I took a different approach to franchising by really vetting out these franchisees to find those that have a love and passion for food and to serve food the right way.
We also focus on training, marketing and supporting these franchisees to operate well. At the level we're at right now, we don't treat them as franchisees, we treat them like partners.
What are your future plans for the chain?
Dikker: We are continuing to grow and our next store will be opening at the Sawgrass Mills Mall. We have probably two other stores opening in New Jersey. In the next 8 months or so, we have three to five locations opening. We also have deals that are already completed in Toronto, Canada. We're just waiting for the franchisee to find the site and open.
Again, in terms of franchisees, we’re looking for those with a passion for operations, while also believing in the concept. Most successful food concepts take either 15, 20 or 25 years to really get out there. We want people who want to take the ride.