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J. Christopher’s Comes of Age

March 2008

By Joni House

Twelve years ago, two Atlanta entrepreneurs introduced J. Christopher’s, a casual breakfast/lunch concept restaurant, with an upscale menu, reasonable prices, conversation-worthy art, and conversation-friendly acoustics.  The food, service, and atmosphere created a niche in the casual dining market. Now, for J. Christopher’s next phase, founding partners Jeff “J” McCann and Chris Brogdon have teamed with two notables from the Atlanta restaurant industry to form J. Christopher’s Restaurants LLC (JCR LLC) to grow the brand throughout the southeastern United States.

There are four partners in the new entity: founders Chris Brogdon and Jeff McCann, and Dick Holbrook and Sam Haddock.  Now Chief Operating Officer at JCR LLC, Haddock was previously a Moe’s franchisee and has broad experience in advancing restaurant concept growth and operations.  Holbrook retired as President and COO of AFC Enterprises, the parent of Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits, and is now President of JCR LLC.  With the new structure in place, J. Christopher’s is ready to step into a controlled but aggressive expansion program. 

The new entity, JCR LLC, owns the brand, intellectual property and concept of J. Christopher’s, while the founders retain the rights to the original 14 units under the original J. Christopher’s corporation.  There’s an agreement in place, however, under which the 14 original stores will continue to upgrade to keep pace with the overall concept of J. Christopher’s as the brand evolves over time.

“What was so appealing about this opportunity,” says Haddock, “was that the brand had such a great track record. It was clearly not a turnaround.”  The opportunity was unique in that the existing concept, with the help and expertise of Holbrook and Haddock, was poised to grow into a much larger presence in a broader geographical market.

Haddock also points out that the customers from the start were so passionate about the menu. He adds, “Breakfast is a lower food cost, and we think that eating breakfast away from home will grow. It’s got the most potential in the semi-casual/casual market.”   Holbrook concurs: “The eating out trend continues to grow, and breakfast will be the next major segment to show strong growth. It’s not nearly as well-penetrated in casual dining as some of the other segments.”

Holbrook explains how J. Christopher’s is positioned in this segment.  “J and Chris got out ahead of the curve twelve years ago with the J. Christopher’s concept. Chris is a very savvy, experienced business executive, and J’s experience helped form the foundation of the partnership.” Both Haddock and Holbrook agree that the four executive team members share a consistent value set, which is very important for a successful partnership. 

The executive team believes J. Christopher’s has advantages over its competitors in the segment, such as Raving Brands’ Flying Biscuit.  Holbrook explains how:  “Flying Biscuit does three day-parts, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s more eclectic and with an unusual menu. That skews them away from us.” The executive team views J. Christopher’s as a more traditional high-end breakfast outlet.  “We like to think of ourselves in the top tier of this segment,” says Holbrook.  “The first tier includes Waffle House and Huddle House. In the second tier are IHOP and Denny’s.  J. Christopher’s is in the top tier; our closest competitor is First Watch out of Florida.”

The executive team’s vision for the J. Christopher’s franchise isn’t the typical cookie-cutter formula found in restaurant chains.  “It’s important that each location is unique and different,” says Haddock. J. Christopher’s hopes to achieve that effect by continuing the very present artwork in all locations, and by adding local favorites to the menu.  “The brand is strong,” Holbrook says, “and we’re striving for consistency especially in our quality standards from market to market.”  He emphasizes too the need for regionalization. “For example, we’ve been successful with a fresh bread program using a different bakery in Atlanta and another one in Nashville.” He points out, “we look for something to give the brand legs in each market.”

Another of J. Christopher’s strengths is its ability to attract and retain top-notch talent. Holbrook points out that the overall staff is affected in a positive way by the hours of operation (7AM – 2 PM).  “People can work a full day and still get home and actually spend time with their families in the evenings,” he points out.  That is unusual in the restaurant industry. The hours also give those who choose to do so, the opportunity to go to school or work a second job.

The first franchise restaurant has already opened in Nashville. The Macon franchise location is scheduled to open in 2008.  So what would success look like for J. Christopher’s in the next 12 to 18 months?  Sam is quick to point out that “short term quality growth is more important than the numbers.” “The numbers,” he says, “will take care of themselves.”   Nevertheless within the next year to year and a half, the partners hope to have 8 to 10 franchises up and running, with another 20 – 25 franchise locations in the pipeline.  The company-owned outlets will also be growing.  Within three years there will be five or six additional company-owned J.Christopher’s.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to do.  Dick points out that they have a team of 25 people assembled, with an abundance of deep industry experience.  For example, Bill Sparks is the Vice President of Operations, and manages issues related to restaurant infrastructure.  JCR has also engaged  Fitzgerald + CO for public relations,  retained training and development professionals, hired Focus on Food to help with the menu, engaged a real estate consultant, partnered with the Abovo Group for marketing expertise and brought onboard a franchise professional to help navigate the franchise offering documentation and process.

Everybody has a J. Christopher’s favorite.  Dick prefers the upscale Eggs Benedict offering.  Sam’s favorite is the Bubba for breakfast, with sausage gravy.  For lunch, Sam orders one of the new menu items Shrimp and Grits. With choices like these, the J. Christopher’s team isn’t worried about how to create grassroots buzz around the dining concept that is just starting to flex its muscle in the franchise world.  “The buzz creates itself,” says Sam. “It’s all about the food and the experience.”

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