Cafe Rio scouting more locations in Orlando market for Tex-Mex fast-casual chain

As Cafe Rio gears up for the opening of its first Florida store in Winter Park, a company executive said he is already scouting out more locations in the Orlando market.

Development Director Don Lewandowski told GrowthSpotter the Winter Park Square store's grand opening has been pushed back to Oct. 4 because of hurricane-related delays. The fast-casual Tex-Mex restaurant will have its soft opening the last week of September.

Lewandowski also confirmed that the Utah-based company has executed a lease at the shopping center that's now being built in front of Kissimmee's Margaritaville Resort. That store should open in September 2018.

"It's going to be a really cool project, and it's right next to a new water park. So strategically, it made a lot of sense for us," he said.

Cafe Rio operates more than 100 company-owned restaurants in 11 states, primarily across the western United States.

Lewandowski said the company has been eyeing an Orlando market entry for at least three years. He recently attended the International Council of Shopping Centers deal-making conference in Orlando, and spent 10 days in town looking at real estate.

"We typically look for leased properties, although I do bring in developers to do build-to-suits," he said. "We average 2,500 to 3,000 square feet and look for highly visible end-cap locations."

He said the company doesn't envision a rapid expansion in Orlando because it's not a franchise model. "We're pretty selective on real estate. We use our own cash to build our restaurants, and we don't take on debt."

Private equity firm Freeman Spogli & Co. acquired a majority stake in the company earlier this month, but that doesn't mean the Orlando expansion would be accelerated. Somewhere around two or three new restaurants per year is a realistic schedule, Lewandowski said.

Another reason for the moderate growth plan is to ensure the company's food quality standards are fully implemented in the new market. Lewandowski said about 60 percent of the crew at Winter Park are experienced Cafe Rio employees who are relocating to Orlando. They will be expected to train locally hired staff and then move to each new store as the company expands its footprint in the market.

"We're a made-from-scratch operation," he said. "Our tortillas are cooked to order in the store. We don't keep anything overnight. We have no freezers or microwaves in our kitchens."

Cafe Rio will go head-to-head with burrito mainstays such as Moe's Southwest Grill, Chipotle and Tijuana Flats. It's the second fast-casual chain to enter the Orlando market this year, following Puerto Rico-based Taco Maker Mexican Grill

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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