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Hero of Gyros

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  • | 8:19 a.m. September 3, 2010
  • Strategies
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Company. Salem's Gyros & Subs
Industry. Quick-service restaurants
Key. Winning repeat customers through value pricing and more options

Salem Gharsalli wants you to eat better, and he's willing to help.

With nine locations of Salem's Gyros & Subs throughout the northern Gulf Coast region, and two more on the way, he is trying to prepare new sites almost as quickly as his kitchens turn out food.

This isn't ordinary quick-service fare, though. He makes the argument that Greek gyros are far better for us than typical fast-food burgers, that submarine sandwiches should contain a few more slices of thin-cut meat, and that seafood and chicken wings shouldn't take so long to cook.

Most importantly, beyond what customers select from a menu board and what they pay, he says we should pay attention to how we feel once we're finished eating. Sodium and other preservatives can take a toll after lunch or dinner, and may affect how we function the next day and beyond.

“I want to give you something today where you will wake up the next morning feeling great,” he says enthusiastically. “I want you to come back tomorrow.”

Repeat business apparently hasn't been a problem for Salem's, which began with a single location on East Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa in 1988 that now serves as its corporate base. The chain has expanded to three other locations in Tampa, plus three in St. Petersburg and one each in Bradenton and Lakeland.

Part of a process

Despite the tough economy, Salem's isn't pulling back on expansion.

A location in Auburndale has been in the works for the past year, and Gharsalli recently acquired a 2,176-square-foot former Dunkin Donuts location at 5605 W. Manatee Ave. in Bradenton from Community Bank of Manatee, which foreclosed on the property in July. He estimates investing another $500,000 to refurbish the location over the next six months on top of the $890,000 purchase price.

“That property was such a great deal,” Gharsalli says. “It's on the way to Anna Maria Island. You couldn't buy the land and build the building there for what we paid for it.”

Yet this is just the beginning of his plan to make Salem's a familiar name among the various walk-in and drive-through eateries whose brands are recognized even by the smallest of children (as demonstrated in “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock's popular documentary on the fast-food industry).

Going national isn't impossible in the mind of the Tunisian native who came to the United States in 1984 for work, inspired by the boundlessness of this country. He realizes he has a long way to go before he can achieve anything as great as Harland Sanders or Sam Walton, two of his influences, but he points out that they also started with one shop.

“They say if you work hard, the sky's the limit. I'm still working hard,” he says in clipped but precise English. The Spring Hill resident adds that he isn't looking to retire early and would rather put profits back into his own business than invest elsewhere.

“The harder you work, the more it pays off,” he says. “I want to see how far it goes.”

Diverse food offerings

Salem's menu is far more diverse than the average quick-serve food place, and even rivals most buffets along the Gulf Coast. Chicken strips are available alongside wings, and so are livers and gizzards for more adventurous eaters. Seafood lovers can try fish, shrimp or oysters, plus real calamari — not just those small breaded rings, but the other crunchy stuff that goes with it.

Hot and cold sandwiches are available, as are classic gyros, plus hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Salads are also on the menu, but so are milk shakes and desserts. And there's no problem with adults ordering from the Kid's Menu to save a few bucks.

Gharsalli's goal is getting customers to eat at Salem's not just every day, but more than once in the same day. He says he tries to keep menu prices in comparison with what it costs to eat at home, without any of the cooking and cleanup. Breakfast isn't available, but Salem's makes up for that by staying open until 4 a.m.

Kane Gonzalez, a longtime Salem's employee from Bradenton who now serves as Gharsalli's vice president and business partner, emphasizes the freshness of all items, with kitchens laid out efficiently for the shortest distance between coolers and cookers. A five-minute target time is put on service of all items, including wings and seafood, which seem to take a while at most other restaurants.

“Customers want quality and they're more conscious about where they spend their money nowadays,” Gonzalez says. “They want to make sure they are spending their money in a place where they are going to get value.”

Controlling costs within such diverse offerings has been a challenge in the recession, but Gharsalli says he has negotiated better pricing with local and national food suppliers rather than cutting back on staff and service. “This economy is making us better businessmen,” he says.

However, spending money where necessary does not seem to be an issue. All of Salem's locations are outfitted with electronics that allow for quick processing of food orders as well as security cameras monitoring practically every move inside and outside the restaurant. Extra touches to meet customer demands, such as shake machines and free wireless Internet service, ultimately pay for themselves through repeat business, he says.

Scouting the competition

Gharsalli keeps a close eye on would-be competitors, especially sandwich chains offering short-term discounts on popular items. He points out one in particular that offers longer bread but doesn't necessarily put more meat on its sandwiches.

“I understand why everybody is losing weight going there,” he says jokingly. At the same time, though, he credits their efforts to offer a healthy alternative to burgers, which he terms in a more serious tone as “dangerous” because of trans fat and potential carcinogens.

As other once-popular food chains fall victim to the downturn, Gharsalli points out that this is prime time for him and other restaurant owners to secure quality sites, as well as personnel, for future growth.

His own expansion plans are a bit more meticulous. For example, his location at Ninth Avenue and 34th Street North in St. Petersburg was built a year and a half ago, but he has owned the property for almost a decade.

“We try to grow slowly but surely,” he says. “We don't want to open in front of us and close behind us.”

Protecting name and reputation

Like most growing restaurant chains, Salem's Gyros & Subs is always on the lookout for prospective franchisees. But putting one's brand and reputation on the line can be a scary proposition, especially when that brand is your own name.

Salem Gharsalli says he has had to learn the hard way with some of his current locations. He owns most of them and is partners in others, with only a few franchisees. He compares each to a child, with his role being both parent and pediatrician to make sure each one remains healthy.

“I'll protect it with everything I've got,” Gharsalli says of his brand identity. “This is my legacy. This is my ship.”

A dustup occurred earlier this summer over Salem's coupons for a free Cuban sandwich that were issued locally but not honored at its location on 34th Street South in St. Petersburg. Its operator, Khalid Eljamal, declined to accept the coupons and referred customers to the 34th Street North location instead.

The problem was highlighted in a “Consumer's Edge” column in the St. Petersburg Times, with Eljamal blaming the problem on Gharsalli. In return, Gharsalli points out in his franchisee agreement that Salem's locations are legally obligated to accept company coupons, regardless of whether the company owns it directly.

It's not the only time Gharsalli has had trouble with rogue franchisees, such as one who is copycatting the Salem's concept (down to the menu design) at a separate location under another name. He's taking that one to court.

In the meantime, he says he isn't discouraged from issuing coupons, emphasizing that freebies and discounts are still the best way to turn first-time customers into repeat eaters. He's going a step further this Thanksgiving, giving away hundreds of free turkeys at all Salem's locations as a thank-you for the support he receives in each of those neighborhoods.

“I'm not rich and wealthy, but I appreciate everything they have done for me,” he says. “It's the least I can do.”


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