Sizzler Franchisee Discusses Chain's Growth

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sizzler is the latest restaurant brand in multi-concept franchisee Tony Lutfi's portfolio, which already includes four other chains.

Lutfi, chief executive and president of Marlu Investment Group in Sacramento, already has 72 restaurants: 21 Jack in the Box units, 46 Church's Chicken locations, four Little Caesars outlets, and one Arby's restaurant.

Last month, Lutfi signed an agreement with Culver City, Calif.-based Sizzler USA to expand the buffet chain in the San Francisco Bay area under C Foods Concepts, a subsidiary of Marlu.

As part of the deal, Lutfi will acquire five existing units that will be remodeled to fit with Sizzler's recent rebranding. He then plans to start building new Sizzler locations. Five are planned for the region between San Francisco and Sacramento.

The move marks the first step in a comeback the 170-unit Sizzler chain has been planning since last year, when the U.S. branch of the chain was acquired by its management team.

Nation's Restaurant News spoke with Lutfi about his decision to invest in Sizzler.

Why Sizzler? We like brands that have been around for at least 25 years, brands that have a special relationship with [the] consumer that have proved to work over and over again, regardless of the economy. Sizzler has had difficult times and it has continued to survive.

I've been a loyal customer for many years, and we felt the management approach and brand itself lends itself to these times, when people are looking for value and experience. We also thought Sizzler was doing a good job of taking care of the customer. Our research found that the loyalty of their customer base is as good as any in the segment.

What is the remodeling schedule? The company is working on the schedule to get them all done. When done, you get a nice bump in sales. For us it'll be a little gamble, but we think we'll get at least a 15-percent bump in sales when we get that done. There have been many [franchisees] that have done better, but that's what we think.

It's a complete upgrade of the facility. The consumer experience is improved, but the prices remain almost the same.

We hope to have the first new unit open by mid 2013.

Sizzler calls itself "family-casual." How do you see it? I see it as fast casual, but it really doesn't resemble the fast casual that most people are familiar with. You still have a server that comes to your table and takes care of you. Most fast casual, once you separate from the counter, the customer's relationship with employees comes to an end. I think it's "fast-casual plus," if you will.

Do your plans for Sizzler extend beyond the San Francisco-Sacramento area? We're trying to reach out to Sizzler to open more in Texas. We have operations in Texas and we think it could be a great market for the new-and-improved Sizzler. Currently, we have Little Caesars in Houston and Church's in Dallas.

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