The fast-casual restaurant boom has another entry for the Gulf Coast in Newk's Eatery, a Jackson, Miss.-based chain.
The company plans to open at least 30 locations in west and central Florida in the next five years, and the state is Newk's fastest-growing market for both franchise and company-owned restaurants. The Aeolus Group, a Zephyrhills-based franchise operator that owns several Five Guys Burgers and Fries locations in Pasco and Hernando counties, signed an agreement to open 11 Newk's stores from Lakeland through Sarasota. The first Aeolus Group-run Newk's opened in Clearwater in December and the second one opened in east Manatee County Sept. 12.
David Baker, director of operations for the Aeolus Group, says he and his partners studied Newk's for more than a year before they signed on. Founded as a sandwich shop in Oxford, Miss., in 2004 by Chris Newcomb and some partners, who previously founded the McAlister's Deli chain, Newk's currently operates more than 100 locations in 13 states. Private equity firm Sentinel Capital Partners bought Newk's in 2014, and has backed the aggressive growth strategy, including a goal of surpassing 200 locations by 2018. “We like the concept of the food that's fresh and full of flavor,” Baker says.
One of the biggest challenges so far, says Baker, has been in site selection. The Aeolus Group has scouted for locations in the Sarasota-Bradenton and Tampa markets since early 2015. “There are some opportunities out there,” Baker tells Coffee Talk, “but it's been tough.”
The first Sarasota-area location, in a Benderson Development property across the street from the Mall at University Town Center, is the kind of site where Baker would like to open more Newk's locations. The area already has several competitors, including Jason's Deli and Panera, which Baker considers an advantage, not a threat. “Even though there's a lot of restaurants around here, we are where a lot of people are,” says Baker. “This is an area where people are flocking to.”