Some people go to college as a way to get a better job. Then there are those whose jobs take them to college.
In 1995, Nelson Lang and John Sotiriadis opened a restaurant on the campus of Queens College in Ontario, Canada. The idea was to appeal to health-conscious students with a menu of fresh cuisine, while still serving the fast food lifestyle of a college student. As an alternative to the typical high-carb, bread-based fare of most fast food establishments, the partners featured sandwiches using pita bread, a soft, light Lebanese-styled wheat flatbread made with yeast. The pitas were designed with a special cavity to neatly fill with a wide range of lean grilled meats, fresh vegetables, flavorful cheeses and special toppings. The rollable pita offered all the conveniences of a bread sandwich with a unique ‘package’ that could easily handle customized combinations of healthy low-fat, low-carb contents. The name of the restaurant – the Pita Pit – reflected both the fashion of sandwich and a student hang-out.
In 1997, the partners began to franchise the concept in Canada, and then in 1999 aimed below the border to the United States, a natural growth strategy given the greater number of college campuses. The first Pita Pit in the lower 48 opened in the college town of Syracuse, N.Y.; similarly, the first franchise west of the Mississippi was in Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho.
In 2004, the United States operations were purchased by a group of investors led by Jack Riggs, currently company CEO, a former Idaho state senator and lieutenant governor and retired physician. Lang sold his stake in the Canadian Pita Pit, which continues to operate under that name but is a separate company, and came south to help develop the concept in the U.S. The corporate franchiser is now headquartered in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, home of Riggs and his son Peter, a former Pita Pit franchisee.
“It was a great idea that has now snowballed, in large part because the founders started out with a college crowd that really liked the affordability of freshly made pitas that are different from the standard stuff you get at a fast food restaurant. Well, college kids grow up, lifestyles become even more hectic, but they still want food that not only tastes good, but is good for you. But many don’t have the time for a traditional sit down restaurant where you’d expect that, so Pita Pit has a built-in marketplace for future growth,” says Peter Riggs, vice president of corporate development. “I’m a perfect example of that. During college, I worked in an Italian restaurant, then I moved to Southern California where Pita Pits are a natural fit. I always thought they were a great place to not only get a quality meal quickly, but to get something different from the run-of-the-mill sandwich; and when some friends asked if I wanted to get involved as a Pita Pit franchisee, well, one thing led to another.”
Currently, there are about 170 locations in 38 states, with more than 50 in active development and more than 80 in predevelopment, according to its corporate mantra of “good franchisees in good locations.” In 2007, Pita Pit opened 37 new restaurants, up from 26 openings in 2006, representing an 18 percent system-wide growth. In July 2008, Restaurant Business magazine selected Pita Pit for “The Future 50” list of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the country. The magazine noted that even in the current economy, Pita Pit is expected to continue growing because “you just can’t keep a good concept down,” a healthy trend Riggs expects to continue.
“These days, it’s tough for everyone in business,” he says. “However, one truism in the food and restaurant business is that everyone has to eat. We’re making good positive growth in terms of market share. In a way, I think we benefit in a downturn, because what we generally see is that consumers become more discretionary in their spending. They’ll still go out to dinner, but instead of going to that $15 or $20 a plate restaurant, they’ll choose something less expensive. However, they still want high quality. That’s where Pita Pit is particularly well positioned with good food that gives you great value. And not just in terms of getting your food and getting out, though you can certainly do that. We strive to create a fun atmosphere for people who want a dining experience to meet with friends or business associates. Pita Pit is a place where people want to gather.” He also notes that most Pita Pit locations are open long hours for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night – “basically, anytime you’re hungry.”
Indeed, Riggs emphasizes, “We see ourselves as being in the hospitality business, which means that beyond serving food, we’re trying to create a unique consumer experience. We operate as a traditional franchiser, and we have a national training center to properly develop quality franchise operations, but one thing that makes us a little different from other fast food franchises is our focus on making every Pita Pit a place where people can come to hang out.”
He also stresses the need for friendly employees who are good not only at food preparation, but at making customers feel welcome and special. At the same time, he also notes, “Dependable labor is an industry-wide issue. It’s a challenge these days for franchisees to attract and retain quality employees. We’d like to think that the general atmosphere of a Pita Pit is more attractive than most other fast food type establishments. However, staffing a restaurant is something every operator has to deal with on a constant basis.”
Pita Pit stores also seek to contribute to the community and the environment. A case in point is a Pita Pit in Philadelphia, Pa. that became a Certified Green Restaurant™ last July. The store is Styrofoam-free, and initiated a comprehensive recycling program while also stocking biodegradable cutlery, cups and lids as well as merchandise bags. It also installed compact fluorescent lighting, motion detection lighting in the bathrooms, and non-toxic cleaning supplies. In addition, it contracted with a local produce supplier to minimize fuel consumption and consolidate deliveries to reduce expenses. It also offers vegan options on its menu.
Like everyone in the foodservices industry, Pita Pit is grappling with the rising costs of ingredients. “We partner with suppliers like Sysco and Tyson to ensure both high quality and consistency across all Pita Pit locations. We don’t impose prices on our franchisee; rather, we set suggested retail prices. When ingredients costs go up, we try to minimize what must be passed on to our customer. One approach by our competitors is to substitute inferior products that are less expensive. We never do that, we never would consider compromising on quality. What we do is to try to work with our suppliers to be as cost-effective as possible and use whatever savings we can achieve to hold down pricing on the other end.”
While nationwide menu selections are standardized (though customers can always “make their own” from a wide range of ingredients, including hummus and babaganoush toppings as well as falafel and gyros, along with more standard selections as Philly steak and chicken breast, as well as range of egg-based breakfast pitas), Riggs points out that, “Each store is encouraged to come up with one item of their own creation. It’s good for the franchisees as away to express their own individuality and creativity. It’s good for Pita Pit as a whole because if something really takes off, it might be something we’d integrate into the system-wide menu that our patrons nationally could enjoy.”
Current menu selections include smoothies, salads and soups, though Riggs stresses that there is no inclination to expand beyond the pita. “Even the salads are basically one of our pita sandwiches served with the ‘insides out’ and we call it “Fork Style.” We don’t ever want to lose sight of the fact that we have a unique concept and brand identity.”
And that’s the wrap on this success story.