When Benton Smith talks fast food, he doesn't mean french fries and drive-thru windows.
Over the next few years, Smith plans to bring a fast-growing restaurant franchise with an emerging business concept to seven states.
"I've always sold food," said Smith, owner of Be One Food Service LLC, which owns the East Memphis restaurant Boneheads. "The thing about the restaurant business is that whether it's full service or fast food, there's an honor in serving others and there's the entrepreneurship. Things are fast paced and always changing."
Boneheads occupies 3,400 square feet on the first floor of the First Federal Bank building on Perkins Extended between Poplar Avenue and Southern, where it offers healthier menu alternatives to burgers and fries like grilled fish and chicken, cooked zucchini and asparagus, Greek salads, and shrimp tacos. Smith opened the store in January.
Patrons order at a counter, but the food is cooked at the time of the order and then brought to the table. Wine and beer are offered, as well. Still the average ticket per person is between $8 and $10.
Smith said the concept of "fast casual" dining — meaning a step above "fast food" and a step below "casual dining" — was what originally attracted him to Boneheads after visiting one of the restaurants in Atlanta in 2006.
"I think in all markets, the fast casual concept is blowing up, even in this economy," said Smith who used to own Back Yard Burger franchises in Arkansas and still owns a Bruster's Real Ice Cream shop. "The whole idea is that you've got 30 minutes for lunch, you can go in and sit down, and it's still going to be reasonably priced."
Typically fast casual restaurants focus on sandwiches, and Smith said there's a breakout market for something more.
"Something that was attractive to me about this concept is that we really don't have a national competitor, not yet anyway," Smith said. "Fast casual grilled fish and piri piri chicken just isn't really out there yet. We feel like we're on the cutting edge."
Piri piri is an African pepper sauce used in several dishes.
Smith said 2013 will be a year of exponential growth for franchises in his seven-state territory which includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and northwest Florida.
Though the East Memphis store is the first in his territory, Smith said a five-store contract has been sold in Nashville, and a store will open in Oxford, Miss., by the end of 2013. Baton Rouge, La., has two stores slated for 2013 as well and is nearing a deal in Shreveport, La.
Smith is closely watching another Memphis location near Germantown, as well. He said it's possible that he will open a store in DeSoto County, but most likely that will happen after 2013.
"Memphis is in everybody's development plan, especially East Memphis, Germantown and North Mississippi," said Clay Carson, a partner with Boneheads Acquisition Group. "Those are really booming areas at least prior to the recession and they're on their way to getting healthy."
As for Smith's fast-paced growth plans elsewhere, he said the economy would dictate how soon new restaurants can realistically open.
"A lot truly depends on the economy and the environment," Carson said. "We've been able to be really successful in spite of the economy in general. So we're being cautiously optimistic. (Smith) has got a lot going on both in Memphis and Nashville.
"There's very good potential in Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well. If the environment changes a little I wouldn't be afraid of the numbers at all."
Smith said the initial investment for the franchise is relatively low — between $350,000 and $400,000. The East Memphis store began making a profit in the second quarter of this year.
Smith said there were some initial challenges with the building because most of the parking and a 40-seat patio are hidden behind the building, but demand for healthy, quick food is keeping tables full both at lunch and dinner. He expected lunch to be busier than dinner, but it turns out that they are close to an even 50/50 split of the store's revenue.
"Ten years ago this menu might not have worked," Smith said. "The market dictates that. I think five years ago there was less demand for us than there is now. I believe five years from now there will be more. I think it's safe to say we are an accidentally healthy concept."
-By Jonathan Devin
Owner: Benton Smith
Address: 555 Perkins Extended, Ste. 101