No Little Achievement Poquito Mas, one of the first in the ‘Fresh-Mex’ restaurant market, finally takes its proven concept into the world of franchising By JEFF WEISS Contributing Reporter Reclining on the white beaches of Cabo San Lucas 30 years ago, staring tranquilly at the ocean while devouring a soft taco sold by one of the many taco carts that abound throughout Baja California, Kevin McCarney, owner and founder of Poquito Mas, likely never imagined that what he was eating would turn out to be his life’s work. However, now the Burbank-based entrepreneur controls eight restaurants and is now franchising his brand of fresh-mex throughout Southern California. Not everyone knows it, but the Valley is ground zero in the war for the hearts and stomachs of Southern California’s legions of Mexican food lovers. Baja Fresh is currently owned by Wendy’s International, but it originally began in 1990 as a small Mexican restaurant in Newbury Park. Sharky’s Mexican Grill started in 1992 in Sherman Oaks. But while Baja Fresh has more than 290 locations and Sharky’s has approximately 15, Poquito Mas predates their existence, having been founded in a tiny Studio City storefront in 1984. Inspired by his trips to Baja where he quickly fell in love with the local cuisine, McCarney found it natural for Mexican food to be his initial business venture. Having been in the restaurant business for 12 years before opening his first restaurant, McCarney had significant amounts of experience but little capital. Yet with only $2,500 to invest in the business, he opened up his store on a shoestring budget, doing most of the construction himself with the aid of some of his friends who happened to be contractors. Do-it-yourself “I did most of the grunt work, the digging and everything. My brother did the plumbing because he was a plumber. I did the painting. My friend Joe and I did the tile. We built everything from scratch,” McCarney said. “It wasn’t by choice, we had no money. I had only $2,500 to my name and that’s all I used to start the restaurant. For the first couple months I was the only employee. It was just me behind the counter.” The basic idea for the restaurant was to serve Baja style tacos to the Southern California masses and improve the quality of Mexican food that was being served at the time. “I decided to open up a Mexican restaurant that was different from the other stores out there. This was 1984. The concept was to take everything that people were complaining about Mexican food at the time and turn it into a positive,” McCarney said. “The main complaint that I had been hearing was ‘where’s the chicken in the chicken tostada, why is everything melted together.’ We decided to change it to where there was chicken in every bite. We wanted to present it well, so that people could see what they were getting.” Twenty years later, there are eight locations scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area, six of which McCarney owns, with the Warner Bros. studio lot and Woodland Hills locations Poquito Mas’ first two franchise outposts. Longtime employee Edgar Escalante was the third employee to join Poquito Mas and after nearly 20 years of service became the recipient of the first Poquito Mas franchise, opening up his store in Woodland Hills. “It was a incredible concept that nobody had then. It was very different from most Mexican restaurants,” Escalante said. “I started working for Kevin at the bottom and climbed up the ranks and finally the American dream came through for me. My restaurant has been successful from the first day we opened the doors. We’ve stayed loyal to the concept of fresh food.” McCarney’s strategy for expansion has been to go slowly. “We’ve grown as a company, we could have 500 restaurants but we want to keep the quality of the food,” McCarney said. “We have a good relationship with our customers, they’re very loyal to us and we’re very loyal to them. I know a lot of people are raising their prices, but we’re going to hold ours as long as we can. We’re not bottom line driven, but we believe in getting to the bottom line through great service and great food. We don’t believe in gimmicky advertising, we don’t even have an advertising budget.” While Baja Fresh and Sharky’s quickly leaped onto the franchising bandwagon, McCarney decided to franchise after already having been in business for two decades. “We have a different take on things than most people. A lot of people say that we are an uncompensated development arm for the taco industry. I think that the reality is that we care what we do. We aren’t greedy.” The right people He added: “We aren’t looking for people who have been in accounting their entire life and now they want to open a restaurant. That’s not our ideal person. The people we’re talking to right now have three to five stores of a different concept and they have an infrastructure in place. We don’t want to teach people the restaurant business, it’s much too difficult to do. But we are definitely looking forward to teaching people the taco business.” But succeeding in the taco business isn’t easy. Besides the aforementioned Valley companies, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill and La Salsa also crowd the scene, not to mention the dozens of Taco Bells and Del Tacos in the area. In particular, Baja Fresh launched the first salvos in what has the potential to be a bloody battle for burrito supremacy. But Poquito Mas CFO Jeff Arnold alleged that his competitor has crossed the line. “One of Baja Fresh’s regional operators came in during our lunch rush and began handing out his business card to each of our employees in the Woodland Hills store, claiming that they could make more if they left and went to Baja Fresh. The industry is known for being aggressive in terms of recruiting but it was way beyond acceptable,” Arnold said. “I called Baja’s CFO who is a friend of mine and he said that they would stop this practice but one month later, the same regional operator popped up at our Universal City Store and did the same thing.” Baja Fresh officials did not return phone calls for comment. McCarney feels that Poquito Mas stakes its claim to the taco throne through an unparalleled freshness and an extremely stable corporate infrastructure. SPOTLIGHT: Poquito Mas Year Founded: 1984 Employees in 1984: 1 Employees in 2004: 168 Revenues in 1984: $400,000 Revenues in 2004: $11 million (projected) Goal: To expand to create opportunities for employees and to grow into areas where the restaurant’s concept is appreciated. Also, plan to grow much faster than in the past. Driving Force: Strategic partnerships, sifting through to find the right partners.