The Classic breakfast dish at Eggs Up Grill.
Eggs Up Grill

NextGen Casual breakfast brands are all the rage of the moment.

2022’s Breakout Brand of the Year: Eggs Up Grill Takes Flight

With an experienced leader at the helm and local franchisees on the ground, Eggs Up Grill is poised to bring its welcoming atmosphere and approachable menu to markets across the Southeast. 

If ever a restaurant dining room embodied the overall brand spirit, it would be Eggs Up Grill. The cheery interior, with its robin egg blues, yolk yellows, gingham tiles, and blonde hardwoods, is at once inviting and homey. In so many ways, the design speaks to what makes the restaurant different from others in the breakfast category, both legacy chains and fellow NextGen Casuals. Eggs Up Grill has the relaxed vibe of a diner but with a decidedly more polished look. At the same time, the restaurant boasts offerings and price points that fall below other emerging breakfast brands.

Eggs Up Grill

A TGI Fridays alum, Eggs Up Grill CEO Ricky Richardson came onboard in 2018.

“The breakfast space has gotten really active over the last decade. The category had a lot of legacy players in it,” says CEO Ricky Richardson. “There’s a sense of sameness across all of those. … So it created the opportunity for people to come in and do a similar type of cuisine with one of those dayparts—breakfast and lunch—and be a specialist in that and do it better from a quality standpoint, a value perspective, [and] a friendliness standpoint.”

A TGI Fridays alum, Richardson came on board in 2018, shortly after WJ Partners acquired the then 26-unit brand and moved its headquarters to Spartanburg, South Carolina (which also happens to be the homebase for Denny’s). With the combination of Richardson’s experience, private equity funds, and an established brand reputation, Eggs Up Grill has swelled to nearly 60 locations with another dozen in construction.

And that’s just the beginning. The company plans to open 20–25 units this year, pushing its footprint as far north as Richmond, Virginia, as far south as central Florida, and as far west as Texas. Covid may have delayed its expansion timeline, but not by much. Richardson estimates Eggs Up Grill will hit 200 locations by the end of 2026, bringing the unit count to seven times the pre-acquisition amount in less than a decade.

“Growth is always a lot of fun; there’s just an energy and an excitement that comes from growth. [It’s] a lot of work, but a lot of fun times,” Richardson says.

Eggs Up Grill

Eggs Up Grill revealed a cheery new design in 2019.

A go for growth

The origin story of Eggs Up Grill begins on Pawleys Island, a popular vacation spot along the South Carolina coast. In 1997, after about a decade working in his family’s restaurants, Chris Skodras struck out on his own to open a breakfast-driven restaurant. From there, growth was organic and measured. The first franchisee agreement was informal at best, with Skodras’s brother as the operator.

But friends who were McDonald’s franchisees turned Skodras onto the idea of a more formal structure, and a few years after his brother signed on, the brand began to take a more proactive approach. Though, Richardson specifies, it was proactive in that Skodras “would entertain people who were interested in doing that,” he says “There was never any active franchise outreach. So it would have historically been guests of Eggs Up Grill that had been attracted to the brand and wanted to bring it to their community.”

Under WJ Partners, the approach is more aggressive, but not overly so. For one, the brand wants to, at least for the foreseeable future, stay in the Southeast, where Richardson believes it could easily reach 400 units without becoming oversaturated. Secondly, it’s still connecting with potential partners the way it did under Skodras’s direction: through word of mouth and in-person interactions.

That’s how Ron Donaldson first became acquainted with Eggs Up Grill. Now, he’s on track to be the largest franchisee in the system, planting outposts in the virgin soil of Texas.

While working the graveyard shift at Subway as a teen, Donaldson promised himself he’d one day own his own—and he made good on that promise. For about 14 years, he operated multiple concepts, including Subway units and some regional brands in both quick and full service. Eventually, he sold the business and switched to buying and building apartment buildings. It was on a work trip to Charleston, South Carolina, that Donaldson happened to dine at what he assumed was a local institution.

“The atmosphere was great; the people were great. Whenever I go into a restaurant, I’m always assessing things just because of my history, and I assumed it was a local concept. The more I ate there, the more I enjoyed it. Then I found out it was a franchise brand,” Donaldson says. He started doing some research and eventually connected with Richardson and WJ Partners. “We were just smitten. We were very pleased with the culture, with the brand, and the great opportunities,” he adds.

So last summer, Donaldson, along with his brother and son, signed a deal to develop 30 Eggs Up Grill locations in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth market. The first Texas store, slated to open early this year in Carrollton, clocks in just shy of 8,000 square feet and includes a training kitchen that will be used for onboarding as more locations open.

Face-to-face interactions between senior executives and boots-on-the-ground operators are at the heart of Eggs Up Grill. And company leaders are betting on these strong franchisee ties to not only fuel growth, but also ensure the brand personality is maintained across the entire system. After all, it’s one of the first things guests and operators like Donaldson notice when they visit.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air. When we were with some of our other brands—and I can’t say names—we just felt boxed in with a lot of things, and it made it difficult to interject things that we felt would improve the overall brand image and sales,” Donaldson says. “We’ve been doing this for a little while, so we understand the temperament of folks who are in the industry. We felt the ownership was very genuine in terms of working with the franchisees to be true partners in the growth of the brand.”

This same intentionality was present when WJ Partners took the reins. Richardson recalls sitting down with multiple players who had a pivotal role in shaping the Eggs Up Grill family, including Skodras and the brand’s longest tenured franchisee.

“We spent a couple hundred man-hours over about a three-month period getting down on paper what I call the DNA, or the soul of the brand, and what those points of differentiation are that have made it successful to this point in time,” Richardson says. WJ Partners and the new leadership wanted to accelerate growth, but they wanted to do it the right way and make sure they didn’t “lose sight of what it had been that made it successful, so that all the work that we did was complimentary versus creating confusion or disconnects or murkiness about what Eggs Up Grill is really about,” he adds.

One of the first changes to come out of these meetings was the new store design, which can be found in about half the system, due to new locations entering the system and legacy operators updating their spaces. While this new look might differ from the original (think: old-school diner), it reflects brand values that have remained unchanged.

“It’s about being light, bright, and it kind of helps put a smile on your face,” Richardson says. “It has some design elements and color schemes that remind you of the sun coming up in the morning. It reminds you a little bit of our heritage from the beach area.”

Eggs Up Grill

The work-life balance is a major selling point for Eggs Up Grill.

Not a chain

Richardson and his team have brought infrastructure and streamlined practices to Eggs Up Grill, positioning it for big growth, but at the root, it remains a hands-on, heritage brand. This was a perk for Richardson, who had spent seven years at TGI Fridays, half of which he served as brand president.

Part of the appeal in leading Eggs Up Grill was the opportunity to be at the forefront of a smaller operation with runway ahead and less distance between the corporate offices and the operators. Richardson wasn’t the only one to have these sentiments.

Before joining Eggs Up Grill, Nate Young had spent many years climbing the corporate ladder at Red Lobster. He graduated right as the dotcom bubble burst, and although he’d never aspired to a career in foodservice, that’s where he landed. At age 23, he was promoted to general manager before eventually ascending to director of operations in South Carolina, a position he held for about a decade until shortly after Golden Gate Capital acquired the brand in 2016.

“The culture was kind of deteriorating, and the brand itself was doing what brands that age typically do after a run like that. I wasn’t loving life; I had four small kids, so getting home late at night was not a great thing for my wife or for me as a father and husband,” Young says.

He took some time off to do consulting work in the franchise world, collaborating with brands like Raising Cane’s. Eventually Ryan Gripper, who would one day be his business partner, introduced him to Eggs Up Grill. After some digging, the pair along with two other partners filed their Franchise Disclosure Document for northeast Columbia, South Carolina. They were up and running by late 2018.

A second store in Camden followed in February 2020, and in 2021, the quartet purchased an existing location in Rock Hill. Then late last year, Young and his partners acquired three more units, which made them the largest franchisee in the Eggs Up Grill system. On top of that, their first unit in northeast Columbia posted the highest first-year sales of any location. The second store, which had the misfortune of opening just a month before Covid began, still managed to best the rest of the system in terms of its first two weeks of sales.

While Young and his partners might seem aggressive in their growth, it’s worth mentioning they won’t expand without a solid system in place. For example, when another store became available for purchase about two months after the Rock Hill deal, they decided to pass.

“We declined the opportunity because we didn’t feel that, from a personnel standpoint, we were in a position where we could do the right thing by the people at Rock Hill,” Young says. “So we very much try to keep that front and center when we make these choices. We don’t want to get blinded by dollar signs and lose the team in the process.”

Like Richardson, Young’s experience at a much larger brand gives him an edge in creating standards and best practices. It also helps him appreciate—and protect—the human element that’s so crucial to success at Eggs Up Grill.

“If I were to say the biggest advantage Eggs Up Grill has over large corporate brands, it’s the footprint to start with. We’re not operating a behemoth of restaurants, like a lot of these casual-dining restaurants,” Richardson says. “Our footprint is part of what makes us feel a little bit more quaint, a little bit more local. If you walk in, we get the ‘it’s a diner without feeling like a diner’ comments all the time. It’s Waffle House without feeling like a Waffle House.”

Eggs Up Grill


A winning trifecta

NextGen Casual breakfast brands are all the rage of the moment. (Need proof? Look no further than First Watch’s billion-dollar valuation in 2021.) Besides legacy brands like IHOP and Denny’s, most breakfast-centric full-service restaurants have, until recently, been regional players. But as breakfast booms, many, like Eggs Up Grill, are blooming into newer territory. At present, the category has plenty of white space, but it still raises the question of differentiation further down the line.

When asked, Richardson can point to three distinct features that separate the brand from the pack. The first is approachability. While many growing breakfast players push the envelope in terms of culinary innovation, Eggs Up Grill prides itself on serving high-quality yet familiar dishes.

“Eggs Up Grill really appeals to a much broader guest base than our competitors,” he says. “Our products are very approachable; you’re going to see menu offerings that you’re very familiar with. Our No. 1 selling dish is what we call the Classic, and it’s two eggs any way that you’d like them, some great tasting breakfast meats, a side of our proprietary home fries, and your choice of toast or biscuit or bagel. It’s pretty standard fare, [like] waffles and pancakes. Now, we do them in fun and unique ways, but you’re not going to come to Eggs Up Grill for a flavor adventure in the context of ‘I want to try ingredients I’ve never heard of before.’”

Second on that list of differentiators is the friendliness of the staff, Richardson says. He credits the welcoming nature of the restaurant and team members to a combination of company-wide culture and local ownership. That’s why it’s so important for Eggs Up Grill to work with the right partners.

“We would spend a lot of time during the prospect and selection process making sure there was an understanding on the new franchise prospect’s part of what the DNA of this brand is about and how you deliver those experiences that put smiles on guests’ faces,” Richardson says.

Potential operators who were excited by the brand were the best fit in terms of culture. They were also the most likely to be successful, he notes.

The final piece, Richardson says, is affordability. Eggs Up Grill has a check average of about $12.50, which is anywhere from $2 to $5 less than others in the category. As skyrocketing inflation leads more and more price-sensitive consumers to rethink their away-from-home meal occasions, Eggs Up Grill has a significant advantage. Its prices aren’t much higher than those at more established breakfast chains. At the same time, the NextGen brand  boasts arguably better quality food and a personal touch that edges out legacy players.

From the franchisee and employee side, there’s a lot to like about Eggs Up Grill, too. After working late nights as a regional manager, Young was happy to take a job where the workday ended by mid-afternoon. It’s an attractive perk across the board. With one shift each day, staff have the flexibility to pick up kids from school, schedule appointments, etc.

As Donaldson points out, “We won’t be getting in at 11 o’clock or [getting]  one o’clock calls with this concept.”

The work-life balance is a major selling point for Eggs Up Grill, but that’s not to say the job is a cakewalk. After all, maintaining its warm, local vibe and quality standards will become increasingly difficult as the concept fills existing markets and expands into new ones.

“Big brands have had a hard time getting that culture boiled down to the hourly level. I don’t have that issue,” Young says. “As we grow, will it be harder to do? I expect that it will be. ... It will be interesting to see how many deals like the Donaldsons’ in Dallas come about. Those are huge opportunities.”

For those larger operators, Young says it will be especially critical for franchisees to install and empower leaders with roots in the communities they serve.

As a seasoned operator, Donaldson is well aware of the sweat equity this undertaking will require. But then again, he has no reservations about diving in.

“We work extremely hard, but we know signing is the easy part,” he says. “But we love it. It’s going to be great.”