The first Muscle Maker Grill in California has been so successful that the chain plans to double the number of restaurants it’s developing in the state.

The first Californian store opened in Antioch in mid-March with sales 25 percent higher than typical new opening sales. Within a few weeks of opening the franchisee had committed to opening 10 more Muscle Maker Grills in the East Bay area.

This is exactly what the chain’s owners hope for the brand.

“We love multi unit operators, who have the financial wherewithal and the experience,” says Chris Ottenstroer, vice president of finance and corporate development.

“We prefer one franchise group or one developer to focus on a market. It helps to develop our brand awareness in that area because we have more penetration.”

Having just one store in an area doesn’t give you the brand presence you need to build a customer base, he adds. The best way to grow is to build out in concentric circles from one store.

This is how Muscle Maker Grill has grown in New Jersey, where there’s an area with 25 restaurants in a 35 to 40 mile radius.

“It has allowed us to reach critical mass in this market,” Ottenstroer says. “If we can replicate that [in other states], “I think over the next few years Muscle Maker Grill will become the fastest growing concept in the country.”

Multi-unit operators are always preferred, Ottenstroer adds. “They usually bring a deeper level of experience and have a greater ability to penetrate a market.”

More is not always better in terms of units per franchisee, but it’s a goal, Ottenstroer points out. If a franchisee has no restaurant experience, the first goal is to have them open and run a successful restaurant before they move onto a second unit.

“If the operator has experience we encourage them to focus on a three-store minimum, usually within a set geographic area. This allows them the benefit of penetrating their local market while maximizing their marketing dollars,” he says.

Franchisees typically come to Muscle Maker Grill because the chain’s stores have become part of their lifestyle. The chain, which was founded in 1995 in Colonia, New Jersey, offers lean, protein-based meals, including chicken, seafood, pasta, burgers and salads.

It’s this passion for the brand and the lifestyle that it portrays that the executive team at Muscle Maker Grill looks for in its franchisees, Ottenstroer says.

“Experience is not mandatory. If you have someone that has the energy and the passion and the drive and they believe in Muscle Maker Grill and have the time to invest in making a location successful, those things are just as important as experience.”

And most franchisees are living a healthy lifestyle prior to opening a store, he says, since “it is very important as they represent the brand to their customers. Those that were not living a healthy lifestyle before [opening] certainly are now.”

This was certainly the case with the Antioch restaurant, which is run by franchisees Sam Shaer, Tony Shoman and Zee Dames. The trio will operate all ten California restaurants.

"All of us prefer the type of food offered by Muscle Maker Grill—great-tasting but without the guilt—so this fit in perfectly with our own lifestyles," Shaer says.

"We also really like the idea that since everything at Muscle Maker Grill is prepared with your health in mind, you don't have to worry about asking to customize your order to make it healthier."

As it stands now, Muscle Maker Grill has 35 restaurants open. By the end of this year Ottenstroer plans to have 60 and by the end of 2015 there will be more than 250 across the country.

By Amanda Baltazar

Industry News, NextGen Casual, Muscle Maker Grill