NCtrend: Dining dynamo

 In 2015-12

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If you have eaten out recently, there’s a good chance Phil Friedman, 69, had a hand in the meal. The Bronx native and Wharton School grad has worked for, owned or served as a director at more than a dozen restaurant companies ranging from pizza to Chinese to burgers. Over the last five years, he’s worked to whip into shape the fast-casual Tex-Mex chain Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, which has 80 locations in 18 states. While the Charlotte-based company won’t match the size of Qdoba or Chipotle, Friedman is confident Salsarita’s can compete, particularly by offering lighter fare to attract women. Friedman discussed his career in interviews that were edited for clarity.

— David Mildenberg

What has given you the most career satisfaction?
Showing leadership in good times or bad. I like to see things progress and blossom. I’d rather lead a smaller group than a larger one so that people develop their careers by doing more things than in compartmentalized jobs. It is very satisfying to work with people around you who want to grow.

Why restaurants as a career?
Sometimes life is random. When I left Wharton, I spent two years in manufacturing, including plant management and supervision, but I was recruited by PepsiCo, which owned KFC and had just bought Pizza Hut. Rather than taking a corporate-level job, I wanted to get out into the field. I met a lot of entrepreneurs and joined a group that was one of the original franchisees of Chi-Chi’s on the East Coast. That was in the early 1980s when Chi-Chi’s was a really high flying building. After our group was sold to the parent company, I joined them as vice president of planning.  Then I jumped to Marriott, which had its origins as a restaurant and food service company. I worked extensively on expanding their Roy Rogers and Big Boy restaurants.

What sparked McAlister’s success?
When I got involved in McAlister’s in 1999, they had about 29 units. By the time I left in 2010, they had 300. The three keys to success were a great training program, excellent store-opening skills and very good support for our franchisees. We worked extensively on franchising and then sold it to a private equity group. Then we started a restaurant group that acquired Salsarita’s.

Why did Salsarita’s interest you?
It was a good brand that had gotten to a point where it needed more professional leadership. They had gotten overextended. But the concept met all of the things we were looking for in a franchise organization. It’s taken us awhile to work through some issues, but we now have a good prototype that is doing well. We are opening 10 locations this year, and we expect to add another 15 next year.

How have you changed Salsarita’s?
There were no company-owned units when we bought it, and now there are 12. We have skin in the game, and it lets us test menu items and develop support staff. Most burrito-oriented restaurants get 80% of their business from men, but we are doing a better job of offering options that attract more women. Quick-casual Mexican keeps taking share away from fast-food restaurants. We’re in a growing category.

Have you preferred public or private ownership?
Private ownership is preferable because public companies have to be short-term oriented. They have to know what the industry analysts want to hear and watch the analysts’ latest comments. I’d rather be a turtle than a rabbit.

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