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The nation’s largest Panera Bread franchisee has entered a joint venture with Tampa-based Ciccio Restaurant Group to expand its fast-casual Fresh Kitchen restaurant concept statewide.

Covelli Enterprises owns and operates 77 Panera Bread locations in Florida, including 32 in the Orlando area. The company also franchises Dairy Queen and O’Charleys restaurants.

The announcement comes three and a half weeks after GrowthSpotter reported that CRG would open its first Orlando-area FK store at Waterford Lakes Town Center. The company’s fourth store, which opened in Boca Raton in late March, was the first JV with Covelli Family Limited Partnership.

A typical FK bowl combines a salad, rice or noodle base with a grilled protein, roasted vegetables and a combination of sauces and condiments.
A typical FK bowl combines a salad, rice or noodle base with a grilled protein, roasted vegetables and a combination of sauces and condiments.

CRG Vice President Steven Lanza told GrowthSpotter the company is currently eyeing more stores in the Orlando market, and the partnership with Covelli will help expedite that expansion.

“The partnership will help us grow faster,” he said on Monday. “They bring a lot of expertise in operations and real estate management.”

CRG is looking for retail spaces of at least 2,500 square feet, and drive-thru windows are not a priority. “Coming in and watching us prepare the meal is a part of the Fresh Kitchen experience,” he said.

The company isn’t targeting tourists. Lanza said they picked Orlando because it has the right mix of neighborhoods, college communities and a demand for healthy dining options.

“There’s really nothing like us in the market, and the need is there,” he said. “We have people who eat Fresh Kitchen three or four times a week. We cook really good, simple food like you would cook at home.”

Partner Matt Lanza said several new stores would be announced in the coming months, but there is no specific target for the size of the rollout. The company wants to grow organically and not lose focus on the quality of the food or its culture, he said.

CFLP President Kevin Ricci, grandson of founder Albert Covelli, will join Fresh Kitchen’s board of directors.

“Our guests will be the real winners of this partnership as we intend to grow the FK concept together and offer an unparalleled experience,” he said in a statement.

Both companies are well-established in the quick-service market, and they share a commitment to community service and philanthropy. Lanza’s father, James Lanza, founded CRG more than 25 years ago and has since expanded to include a half dozen restaurant concepts.

CRG introduced the FK fast-casual, build-your-own-bowl concept in Tampa in 2014 as a healthy alternative to fast food. The entire menu is gluten-free.

Diners create their own bowls by first choosing two bases from five standard, among them brown rice, kale slaw or sweet potato noodles. Next, the customer selects a vegetable topping, like roasted mushrooms, brussel sprouts or sesame green beans.

The protein choices include herb-grilled steak, chia seed tuna poke and teriyaki tofu. Finally, the diner picks one of five sauces and can top it off with a variety of add-ons (such as feta cheese, avocado or corn and salsa) for anywhere from 25 cents to $2.

Prices start at $7.95 for a basic four-item bowl ,and $9.95 for a six piece. Family meals are also available for $34 for a family of four.

Cold-pressed juices and flavored teas round out the menu.

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