The NextGen Casual kept its menu at 180 items despite COVID and thrives on sourcing locally. 

Ray Harper, who founded Maggie McFly’s 30 years ago, will never franchise his concept. 

The brand—which fits many of the characteristics under a NextGen Casual (chef-inspired dishes, unique store designs, and affordable price points)—is admittedly too complicated. While Harper has much respect for the Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, and Ruby Tuesdays of the world, the industry veteran doesn’t aspire to be them. No, he’s not interested in simplifying his menu. He’s not going to veer from scratch-made standards either. 

However, there is one particular brand Harper doesn’t mind being associated with. 

“I think one of the best brands out there who has been doing this for longer than I’ve been around is The Cheesecake Factory,” he says. “A restaurant like that, that cooks from scratch with a big menu that’s so broad, I think to me years ago revolutionized what casual dining needed to be in the future.”

Similar to The Cheesecake Factory, Maggie McFly’s boasts a 180-item menu. It’s remained that way despite advice to do otherwise. Harper recalls a meeting with Yard House founder Steele Platt, who advised him that the industry was heading for smaller menus. The Maggie McFly’s owner responded by claiming he didn’t want to be like everyone else and that having a large menu was a major factor in separating from the herd. 

Plus, Harper didn’t want to change something that was decades in the making. Executive Chef Rogerio Prates—who came from Brazil and started as a dishwasher—has been with the company since its inception. He and his culinary team slowly built the menu into what it is today. As Harper explains, “It gets bigger only because it’s hard to take something off because everything sells. So making it bigger wasn’t that hard.”

Harper acknowledges having nearly 200 menu items is difficult, but it’s not as onerous if you’re efficient. Many ingredients are cross-utilized; getting a company to supply a non-antibiotic, non-hormone chicken product ensures superior quality for half the menu right off the bat. The same goes for companies that grind burgers for Maggie McFly’s. COVID was difficult, but if the brand needed to remove something because it couldn’t get the right specs, it didn’t deter customers from coming because there are so many other choices. 

Maggie McFly’s distances itself from The Cheesecake Factory by sourcing local ingredients, and doing so without “jacking up prices,” Harper says. There are advertisements throughout menu pages highlighting these local vendors. 

“That’s something a big corporation, a big chain can’t do,” he says. “But us little guys, we can, and the hard work is doing it in the beginning and sourcing these smaller companies out. But once you get them established and once you get those relationships going it’s so great and it’s so beneficial. And I don’t advertise. We never have. It’s all about creating relationships with our local partners and they promote us, and we promote them.”

The brand has eight stores across Connecticut, New York, and Virginia. Harper—unburdened by investors, cofounders, or private equity partners—has been able to grow at his own pace since 1993. Two units opened in 2019 and another two were supposed to debut in 2020, but the pandemic changed those plans. 

Live Music At THRōW Social

Don Cordeiro, Maggie McFly’s executive manager. 

Dart Throwing At THRōW Social

Maria Cordeiro, Maggie McFly’s executive manager

Growth is returning in 2023 with an opening in Boca Raton, Florida, which is more than 900 miles from Maggie McFly’s next-closet restaurant. Although the distance is large, the decision to expand to the Sunshine State was measured. Firstly, Harper loves Florida. He used to own a home there and it’s where he wants to retire. The state has plenty of sunshine, so if there isn’t enough room in the dining room, there’s year-round patio space to work with. Even more importantly, he’s following the lead of two trusted executive managers, Don and Maria Cordeiro. 

Don started with Maggie McFly’s working as a busser in Middlebury, Connecticut, while Maria joined as a host in the same location. Both rose through the ranks and played a significant role in opening stores in Springfield and Virginia Beach, Virginia. The couple ran those restaurants for years before coming to Harper expressing a desire to move to Florida to be closer to family. Not wanting to lose his best executives, Harper viewed it as his next opportunity. 

“I said, ‘Well, if you guys go to Florida, then I’m opening up a restaurant in Florida,’” Harper remembers. 

As for brand awareness, Harper relies on the skills of corporate marketing manager Carrie Koscal, who’s worked with influencers in previous openings. Maggie McFly’s will also leverage relationships with local companies to push word-of-mouth promotions. Site selection will be a key part of the process, too. The restaurant will be based in the Boca Town Center, which features more than 200 stores and “incredible foot traffic,” Harper says. 

Harper himself will focus on execution. Maggie McFly’s will use its best chefs and trainers to get the Florida store up and running. That group will stay as long as necessary to prepare the local team. The same pattern took place when the brand entered Virginia and New York.

“You’d never hear of a restaurant closing that had great food and great service,” Harper says. “I don’t care how bad their location is. If you got great food, you got great service, people are going to find you and people are going to support you as opposed to advertising the hell out of the place and getting people to come in and not being able to achieve the experience that they really need.”

Boca Raton will be the southernmost location. The idea is then to reach Orlando and Tampa and start hitting the West Coast. More expansion is coming to the Northeast as well; Maggie McFly’s is planning for a 10th outlet in Cheshire, Connecticut, sometime in 2024. The Florida location will be 8,200 square feet, which is an average size for the concept. Some are 10,000 square feet. The one in Brookfield, Connecticut, is 14,000 square feet because it includes indoor golf simulators. But Maggie McFly’s also has one unit that’s 6,800 square feet. Harper likes to go with modern upscale finishes inside his restaurants, but the Boca Raton store will be “a little boujier” since it’s South Florida. Not changing the pricing or menu, but just trying to implement a more sophisticated feel to the interior. It will be the chain’s fifth mall-based unit.

Opening in Florida will be a daunting task, Harper agrees. He has numerous friends that own larger restaurant groups that ask how he does it. How is he able to open a store that many miles away? It’s expensive, no question. But Harper says the reward is worth it. Soon, Maggie McFly’s will be known in different regions and that could lead to infill opportunities in the Carolinas.

Harper believes his success comes from being different and not listening to outside noise. And he’s not stopping that strategy anytime soon.

“I’ve been working for myself for 30 years. I can’t see myself answering to somebody,” Harper says. “I have a fantastic life. My kids are grown. They’re in college now. I make more than I need and right now I’m doing it to really try to set up the executives that have gotten me here.”

Feature, NextGen Casual, Maggie McFly's