NC trend: Yafo’s boffo

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By Adam Rhew

The summer turned out to be even busier than Frank Scibelli expected. The Charlotte restaurateur opened his newest concept, the Mediterranean-inspired Yafo Kitchen, in June. Then, in early July, he got an unexpected phone call from the manager at his barbecue joint, Midwood Smokehouse. “She said, ‘Frank I gotta get off the phone, the Secret Service is here, they’re searching everybody. Obama and Hillary are coming.’”

The visit came after a July 5 campaign stop — Scibelli arrived just in time to meet the president — and drew attention to his FS Food Group, which is the parent company of five brands. “It’s great for our team, great for the brand,” he said later.

Scibelli, who is 52, moved to Charlotte in 1990 after earning bachelor’s and MBA degrees from Wake Forest University. He opened Italian restaurant Mama Ricotta’s two years later and is now one of the city’s most successful restaurant owners. Last year, he and his business partners, including Lone Star Steakhouse co-founder Dennis Thompson, sold their Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar chain to a Colorado-based restaurant group for $21 million. Started in Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood, the chain had 15 stores in Colorado, the Carolinas and Tennessee at the time of the sale. Midwood Smokehouse, which opened in 2011, has three locations in the Carolinas.

Yafo is Scibelli’s first foray into “fast casual,” where diners order from a menu board at the front counter and work their way down the line to pick up their food. “That’s where everybody’s going,” Scibelli says. “They want to eat chef-caliber food, but they want it quickly.”

He got the idea for a Mediterranean restaurant from a former college roommate at Wake Forest who is Iranian, while the rapid growth of Zoe’s Kitchen obviously suggests big opportunity. The Plano, Texas-based chain now has more than 180 restaurants in 19 states that feature soups, sandwiches and salads with a Mediterranean twist. Yafo’s menu emphasizes organic, sustainably sourced products for hummus and bright sauces. “One of the things that’s going to happen over the next few years,” Scibelli says, “is people will understand that Italian, Chinese and Mexican aren’t the only kinds of ethnic foods.”

The 3,000-square-foot restaurant near SouthPark Mall employs about 30 people. Scibelli and his team are still tweaking recipes and refining their process, but he says he wants to add more Yafo sites when the time is right. A new concept can cost FS Food Group anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million. Yafo was close to the higher end of that range, Scibelli says.

“I would like to grow it,” he says. “Anything you do, you want to grow it. We need some data, more structure. Our sales are really great, they’re solid, but it’s really just understanding the business concept.”

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