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Business Observer Thursday, May 14, 2009 11 years ago

Entrepreneurs to watch: Careful Growth

The founders of Evos are slowly growing the concept, banking on their emphasis on healthier food preparation and environmentally friendly practices.

The founders of Evos are slowly growing the concept, banking on their emphasis on healthier food preparation and environmentally friendly practices.

At a time when restaurants are cutting prices, hours and even locations, Tampa-based Evos, a fast food restaurant that air bakes its food to cut fat, is planning to add restaurants as its revenues rise.

What has made the difference? Careful and slow growth; a healthy, fast, good-tasting and affordable product; environmentally friendly business practices; and the uniqueness of the brand, says co-founder Dino Lambridis.

Add sacrifice to that.

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, don't become one if you don't plan to do major sacrifices time-wise and money-wise for your goals,” Lambridis says. “That's what entrepreneurship is all about.”
Lambridis, 40, and his two other founders, Michael Jeffers and Alkis Crassas, were driving around Florida during one spring break, looking for a place to get a hamburger, fries and a shake and realized there were no healthy alternatives. So they decided to start one.

They used all of their credit card balances to open an Evos test kitchen in South Tampa in 1994. After testing the products, they opened a restaurant, triple the size, in South Tampa in 1999.

With the help of corporate investors and some franchisees, the company now has eight restaurants, including locations in California, Las Vegas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. The company has experimented with different types of locations, including some in malls, some freestanding and some in strip shopping centers.

It is looking at new sites in Atlanta, New England, Orlando and Miami.

But its growth has not come easily. The economy has limited financing and slowed interest by some potential franchisees, who pay $425,000 to $525,000 to open an Evos. Evos has trimmed its staff.

“It is a tough time right now,” Lambridis says. “Really tough. There are labor, food and insurance costs. We're not immune to that. In the end, it's a numbers game. When the economy turns, we hope to capitalize again. This economy is a major game changer.”

Still, the concept has won fans — Evomaniacs as the company calls them. Despite price increases, revenues have not declined. The key to this trend, Lambridis says, is being healthy and having decent tasting food.

“Taste is king,” he says. “There's no way around that. We're not going to close the local health food cafe. We're a burger joint. But we're also healthier fast food. I don't think people want to sacrifice a lot when it comes to flavor.”

They do sacrifice a little on price. An Evos meal, on average, is about $1.50 more than one at McDonald's. But it has half the fat. The average sale ticket at Evos is $9.25, but a customer can get a meal there for as little as $8.

The company uses no deep fryers or grills and instead uses hot-air ovens. Its fruit smoothies use real fruit.

“Our goal is to refine the concept,” Lambridis says.

Its corporate stores showed double-digit revenue increases last year and were profitable.

“It was a great ride and I can't complain,” Lambridis says.

Evos has incorporated many elements of green building design into its locations, including natural building materials, efficient fixtures and recycled items. Evos also uses recycled-content items for menus and to-go containers.

This year, all Evos sites switched to a new type of wax wrapper for burgers and wraps that is made from a natural paper stock that is chlorine-free and blended with soy wax instead of petroleum wax.

In the next few months, Evos will switch to drink cups made from corn. The cups are clear and look like traditional plastic cups, but are biodegradable and can be turned into compost.

All stores will also be switching to brown paper bags that are 100% biodegradable, recyclable, and bleach-free. The bags will be constructed with water-based adhesives and printed with water-based ink versus petroleum-based inks.

Even the gift cards are eco-friendly. Evos greenback cards are made from 100% recycled PVC, made up mostly of recycled credit cards.

Lambridis grew up in a Greek family of restaurateurs and sees himself as a pioneer because of Evos' unique healthier fast food niche.

“Our niche doesn't exist,” he says. “I'm really doing pioneering work. I've got to be on my toes.”

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