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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023


By WADE DANIELS Staff Reporter Several San Fernando Valley restaurant companies are looking to expand, but an Encino-based eatery called Topz may have the most ambitious plans. The owners of Topz are betting the popularity of their lower-fat selection of burger-joint-type fare will lead to the opening of 12 stores by the end of next year. “Our food is aimed at adults who love the traditional heart-attack-on-a-plate hamburger but whose diet keeps them from eating food like that,” said Mark Avila, president of Topz 2 LLC. The first Topz opened in June in Sherman Oaks. It offers low-fat burgers with 10 grams of fat instead of 40 or more grams in many similarly sized burgers and french fries cooked with hot air instead of oil. The restaurants will also serve fruit smoothies instead of fattening milkshakes to wash it all down. Avila and other company founders have raised about $6.5 million from private investors, though the goal is to raise as much as $30 million. That money will pay for the first dozen or so Topz restaurants all in Southern California which the owners hope will be in business by the end of next year. After that, the company intends to franchise in other regions and eventually to hold a public offering. Avila and his partner Stephen Keenum had the idea for the restaurant in 1996 when they stopped for lunch at a burger place and noticed a number of people standing around with a burger in one hand and a smoothie from a nearby store in another. The fact that people were willing to make two stops and pay a little more money for something healthier gave them the idea. “Steve and I looked around the restaurant and said, ‘you know, there’s a niche here,’ ” said Avila, speaking of Keenum, who is the company’s chief executive. The two, who were stockbrokers when they had the idea for Topz, subsequently founded Pacific Crest Holdings Inc., which is the owner of all Topz intellectual property and other rights. Involved in the project are a number of people with experience in turning small restaurant operations into well-known name brands. Larry Sarokin, a managing director of Pacific Crest Management Inc., an entity that manages day-to-day Topz operations, came to the company from his position of vice president of development and franchising for the La Salsa chain of Mexican food restaurants. Under his direction, the company went from five to 90 units. “I got involved with this project partly because, when I heard about it, I thought, ‘that’s a place I would eat at a lot,’ ” Sarokin said. The executive chef for Topz, Gina Galvan, has developed more than 200 food products for restaurants like Marie Callender’s and Claim Jumper. Based on his first meal at Topz on a recent August evening, Encino resident Bill Telle said he believes the company has a shot at success. “A friend said the place was good and they made fries cooked with air,” said Telle. “I would hardly guess the fries are healthier than anything else. I think people could catch on.”

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