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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 3 years ago

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Ross Edlund has taken the slow and steady approach to growth with his comfort food restaurant chain. That strategy is about to change.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The retired-too-early story took a wrong turn for Ross Edlund in 1991.

Edlund had just sold a bakery and pastry business in Chicago, a company called Let Them Eat Cake. After foregoing law school at Northwestern University, Edlund and a business partner grew the company into a wholesale and retail operation with seven locations, 200 employees and $9 million in annual sales.

Semi-retired and in his 40s, Edlund moved to Collier County and bought a deli in Lowdermilk Beach Park in Naples. But what he thought was going to be a “nice seasonal business,” turned into a nightmare when slow days turned into slow months. “It just wasn't viable,” says Edlund, now 64. “I nearly went broke.”

Edlund sold insurance and annuities. But he longed to get back into restaurants. He found his way with a shuttered German restaurant on Airport Pulling and Pine Ridge roads. Edlund thought the space and location would be perfect for a breakfast-lunch-brunch spot. Says Edlund: “All I had to do was get rid of the beer steins.”

That was the first Skillets, which opened in 1995. Edlund, in conjunction with his wife, Noreen, who handles training and back office tasks, have since grown the chain to five Collier County locations. A sixth Skillets, in Stock Plaza on Collier Boulevard, is scheduled to open by the end of 2016.

Edlund is confident the business could grow faster, given the success of the existing locations. But he slowed down on purpose in the mid-2000s, he says, when rents got too high. He has since remained conservative about expansion.

Earlier this year Edlund began to think about selling the business, maybe to someone with capital to grow faster than he could, who would also maintain the brand and the culture. “I wanted an exit strategy,” says Edlund, “without really exiting.”

Turns out a regular Skillets customer, Hal Rosser, has had a long career running restaurant chains from the private equity side. A resident of Naples and Connecticut, Rosser, founder of Greenwich, Conn.-based Rosser Capital Partners, has had stakes in more than a dozen brands. The list includes California Pizza Kitchen, Steak & Ale Restaurants and Au Bon Pain.

Edlund and Rosser, through acquaintances, met over the summer and the pair hit it off. Rosser's firm bought a majority interest in Skillets in October and signed Edlund to a one-year contract to remain as CEO. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

The plan now is to grow, starting with two or three locations a year. Fort Myers and Sarasota-Bradenton are the first markets on the list, says Edlund, and then possibly Tampa and definitely Florida's east coast. “There are a lot of markets in Florida where we will be well-received,” Rosser adds.

An obvious comparison to Skillets is east Manatee County-based First Watch. That chain started small with its first location in California in 1983, and grew slowly and steadily for the first few decades until an explosion during the past five years. First Watch is now a national leader in the trendy breakfast-lunch-brunch sector, with more than 275 restaurants in 26 states, including 190 First Watch locations and 100 The Egg & I locations.

Edlund actually met First Watch co-founder John Sullivan, mostly for advice on the industry, right before the first Skillets opened. Edlund admires the First Watch model and executive team, and believes the market is big enough for both chains.

Rosser, meanwhile, says he's put together a top-notch team of restaurant executives to study expansion timing and locations. Rosser says the good service and cozy vibe is a must-keep wherever Skillets goes next. “We want to be really careful not to tinker with the culture,” he says.

That culture, says Edlund, comes from doing simple things right and paying attention to details — two key lessons he's learned in 40 years of the food business. “If there's a quality scale, you have to be at the top,” Edlund says. “I always wanted us to have the freshest breakfasts we can make. I want our breakfasts to rival the Ritz.”

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