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Ingredients for Success

Hot Table Puts Expansion on the Menu

Co-founders John (left) and Chris DeVoie.

Co-founders John (left) and Chris DeVoie.

John DeVoie calls it an “internal motivator.”

That’s how he chose to describe the small, rather nondescript note taped to one wall of what passes for the corporate headquarters of Hot Table Panini — the cramped back room of the location within Tower Square in Springfield.

It reads simply “500 stores by 2030.”

That’s not an official goal of this company, which now operates three sites that specialize in what could be called custom panini sandwiches, and has another two set to open in the next six months or so. But it is a target, or a conversation starter, or, as he said, a number designed to motivate those working for this growing venture.

“If you don’t put goals on the walls, you don’t get anywhere,” he joked, adding that Hot Table may indeed have 500 locations by the start of the century’s fourth decade. “Or it could have five by 2030.”

Right now, the plan is to be exponentially closer to the former number than the latter, said both John and his brother, Chris, who launched this venture together, along with their brother-in-law, Don Watroba, in 2006, and have made their brand a growing part of the local culinary lexicon ever since.

They started in the Breckwood Shoppes in Sixteen Acres near Western New England University (they’re both alums) in the spring of 2007, opened their second site in Tower Square in 2009, and their third in Enfield in 2012. They plan to open a site in Glastonbury, Conn. in September, and another on Route 9 in Hadley a few months later.

After that? Well, that’s to be determined, said the brothers DeVoie, who noted that there have been discussions about more locations in Connecticut and Western Mass., a likely push toward Central and Eastern Mass., possibly starting in the region known as MetroWest, and perhaps expansion in the Albany area.

“We’re leaving ourselves open; we’re pushing further south into the Hartford market,” said John, adding that the company is in preliminary talks with franchising consultants about that eventual step. “But we do see opportunities in Eastern and Central Mass.”

What is known is that the co-owners feel good about where they are, and excited about where they could be a few years down the road. In other words, they believe the concept they’ve adopted — what’s known in the industry as ‘fast casual,’ which rests strategically between fast food and traditional sit-down dining — shows great promise and staying power, and also that their brand has established itself in this market and has the potential to do so in other markets.

For evidence, they look at what’s been achieved at their first three locations. The Breckwood Shoppes store has shown steady growth and has attracted a following that goes well beyond the university across the street, said Chris. Meanwhile, the downtown Springfield location has succeeded in space where several other eateries failed, growing each year since it opened and showing enough promise to re-up on the lease for another five years.

The original Hot Table location

The original Hot Table location, in the Breckwood Shoppes, has drawn business from well beyond Western New England University, which sits across the street.

And in Enfield, on Freshwater Boulevard next to Costco, Hot Table has proven it can go toe-to-toe with a host of competitors in close proximity, said John, noting that the location there, in a major retail area, competes effectively with Starbucks, Red Robin, Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Friendly’s, Arby’s, and many others.

“You gain confidence when you jump into the sandbox, and there’s a Panera Bread across the street, and a Chipotle, and a Moe’s, and a D’Angelo’s,” he explained. “In Springfield, we were working in a certain market with not a lot of competition, but then we jumped into Enfield, and all the national brands are there — you name it, it’s there — and we’ve grown sales every year since 2012, hopefully taking market share from all those other people.”

Chris agreed. “When you’re on that stage with all the nationals, you need to perform,” he explained. “You need to give people a reason to choose Hot Table over all the others, and we’ve done that.”

All of the above has given the DeVoies that confidence John noted, as well as the wherewithal to scale up their concept. The questions now concern when, where, and how the expansion will play out.

The partners intend to be patient, picking their spots carefully and strategically, and for this issue, they talked at length with BusinessWest about just what those terms mean.

Bread Winners

While certainly not as well-known as the exploits of the Blake brothers — Prestley and Curtis — who launched Friendly’s almost 80 years ago, the story of the DeVoie brothers is becoming part of local entrepreneurial lore.

A decade or so ago, they were both working in corporate sales, doing well at their craft and making good money. But they were not feeling entirely satisfied.

“I was getting tired of making money for other people,” said John, effectively speaking for the two of them. “I always wanted to do something on my own, and I was definitely ready for something else, something entrepreneurial.”

HotTableLogo0614And he and Chris were leaning strongly toward that ‘something else’ being in the restaurant business.

They started talking with Watroba, a veteran of the industry who had operated the Gold Mine, Admiral DW’s, Captain DW’s, and TD Smith’s, among other area venues, and eventually agreed to go into business together.

And in choosing a dining concept, they listened, and responded, to advice from other family members.

Indeed, it was the DeVoies’ sister who told them about a dining model she encountered on a trip to Italy — cafés of sorts called tavola calda, which translates, literally, to ‘hot table.’

“This was their version of fast casual,” said Chris, adding that more input from their parents helped solidify the concept. After returning from an ocean cruise, they reported that the most popular dining option was a made-to-order panini bar.

Meanwhile, the two took what they had learned from years on the road in sales and applied it to their vision. “We had a lot of experience with taking clients out, all over the Northeast, and all over the country, for that matter,” said Chris, “and we could see the fast-casual market was what people were migrating toward — away from the sit-down restaurants and diners, where they could sit in a good environment or get it to go. We knew that this was the kind of restaurant we wanted to establish.”

What eventually emerged and opened its doors in the Breckwood Shoppes in 2007 was what John described as a cross between Panera Bread — which he credited with popularizing fast casual — and Subway, where customers could customize their sandwich, see it being prepared, and, if they desired, eat it in a warm, relaxed atmosphere.

“People like to customize their sandwich as they move down the line,” John explained. “They like to see what’s being done, and they love to see presentation.”

Over the past seven years, the brothers DeVoie have solidified their place in the market (Watroba is no longer involved in the venture) while also putting in place a product and a culture they believe will help take the company to the next level, or the next several levels, as the case may be.

“To succeed in this business today, you have to fire on all cylinders; if not, you’ll get gobbled up,” said John, referring to food, service, cleanliness, and the environment. “You have to do it all well, and I think I can say that we do that here.

“At this point in the game, we’re pretty confident that we have a product that people want, and while we’re still streamlining things, we know who we are,” he went on. “Now it’s the real-estate game — finding the right real estate for us to expand.”

Turning Up the Heat

As he talked with BusinessWest, John DeVoie opened his laptop and clicked his way to Google Earth and then to aerial photos of the area in Glastonbury where the next Hot Table location will open in the fall.

He did so to illustrate just what the company is looking for as it goes about selecting sites. This particular location, on Main Street, is in the middle of a bustling retail area that sits on the edge of a large, somewhat affluent residential area, he said, adding that this site is very similar to the Enfield location in that regard, and this is the model the company is eyeing as it moves forward.

“Look at the rooftops,” he said while panning across the specific site. “It’s right off a major highway, and this plaza is loaded — there’s a whole bunch of high-end retail. And right down the street, there’s a Whole Foods, Panera Bread, Plan B Burger, Five Guys, and more. There’s also a corporate center where a lot of people work; this is where we want to be.”

That same phrase could be applied to Hadley, he went on. The chosen location on Route 9, a plaza now under construction, is just in front of the Home Depot, visible from the road, and surrounded by a host of national chains, including Panera Bread. Hot Table will share the building with Starbucks, Aspen Dental, and two or three other tenants, and hopefully draw from the area colleges, but also the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.

“That area has a lot going on,” said John. “It has the university and the five-college system, but there are also a lot of people living there, and it’s a huge retail area.”

Chris agreed. “The college community is part of it,” he explained, “but we look for rooftops, industry, businesses, and a destination shopping area, because people will often drive to an area like Hadley or Enfield and say, ‘where do we want to go to eat?’ — and there are several choices.”

While working to get the next two locations off the ground almost simultaneously — something the company hasn’t done before — the DeVoies have been thinking about where to go next, and when.

They are in no rush to expand, and will be careful and deliberate in this process, waiting for sites they know will enable their model to succeed.

For example, the company would like to expand into West Springfield and be part of the sprawling retail area on Riverdale Street. But they can’t find exactly what they want and have no intention of forcing the issue.

“There’s tons of space available, but finding the right spot is very difficult, and I’d rather wait for the right spot than make a mistake,” said John, referring to his overall philosophy with regard to expansion. “I’d love to be in West Springfield on Riverdale, but we’re not going to put a store north of I-91 — that’s a deathtrap there. I’d like to be in the Riverdale Shops, and we’ve been looking for four years, but there’s nothing that meets our criteria.”

Overall, said Chris, the preferred locations must offer visibility, accessibility, and parking, and would ideally be in a regional shopping center located in a heavily populated area. In other words, Hot Table is looking for the same qualities that all other chains are seeking.

And this helps in the selection process, he went on, adding that it’s very easy to track where other brands, such as Panera Bread, have gone, and essentially follow their lead when it makes sense to do so.

“The nationals spend a lot of money picking the right real estate,” he explained. “We can piggyback on what they do.”

This is what many experts say Burger King did decades ago — locating almost everywhere McDonald’s did — and it’s not a bad strategy for an emerging company that doesn’t have a small army of people scouting possible sites.

Elaborating, John said the company won’t expand simply for the sake of expanding and reaching stated goals, something he said Starbucks did years ago when it was adding roughly six new sites a day and eventually had to close many of them due to poor performance and what amounted to market oversaturation.

“It’s all about picking the right spots,” he said, adding that the proper equation involves both quantity and quality. “The big guys can afford to make mistakes, and they all do, but at our size, we can’t.”

Food for Thought

Looking ahead, the DeVoies said they’ll continue to look for expansion possibilities in Western Mass. and Connecticut, but also look hard at taking the brand — complete with a new logo featuring the name and a grill — into new markets.

“Our short-term goal into next year is to stick our toe into Eastern and Central Mass.,” said Chris, adding that MetroWest, a cluster of cities of towns west of Boston and east of Worcester, will likely be the landing point.

Also, there could be movement west into the Albany area, he went on, adding that there are ongoing discussions about which direction — figuratively, but also quite literally — to take next.

But there is more to taking a brand like Hot Table to the next level than scouting for locations, said the brothers.

Indeed, the company must be aggressive in its branding and marketing, said John, with the goal of associating the name with a product — in this case, paninis — an important consideration when it comes to taking it to new markets.

He noted that, with products like fried chicken and burritos, a few brand names immediately come to mind. And when it comes to burgers, it’s more than a few, especially with the flood of new chains to emerge in recent years. The goal with Hot Table is to make just such an association, he went on, adding that the company is working hard on that assignment.

“Paninis are very popular, and you’ll find them on a lot of menus,” he explained. “And the industry leader [Panera] has a section of the menu dedicated to paninis. But no one, on a national scale, has said, ‘this is ours — this is what we identify our company with.’

“Before McDonald’s came on the scene, everyone was selling hamburgers — they were very popular, and they were on everyone’s menu,” he went on. “Then McDonald’s came along and said, ‘this is going to be what we do.’ Our strategy is to do the same thing with the panini.”

As part of this process, the company, working in conjunction with the Springfield-based marketing firm Six Point Creative, has introduced a logo, one that ditches the coffee cup that was once juxtaposed against the Hot Table name and replaces it with a grill mark.

“This is one of the ways we’re working to associate us with the panini — and nothing leaves the store without a logo on it,” said Chris, adding that the company is building name recognition, and a reputation, largely through word of mouth and aggressive use of social media, although other vehicles, such as billboards, may be put to use after the two new locations open for business.

Meanwhile, another challenge for the company as it expands, said John, is maintaining standards for excellence, as well as the company’s culture — which he said is grounded in taking care of both customers and employees — as it moves into new markets, either organically or through franchising.

“One of the challenges to growing, and especially with franchising, is making sure things get done the Hot Table way, and also making sure people know the heart of our company, know who we are, know our systems, and know how we treat employees,” he explained.

“If you open a store in Natick and just hire someone off the street,” he continued, “you might find someone who’s great, but they still don’t know the culture. So we have to figure out a way to imbue that culture without watering it down. And that’s a challenge for any company that’s growing.”

Setting Their Sites

Returning to that small sign in the Hot Table headquarters room, John DeVoie said, in essence, that 500 is just a number, or, as he said, a motivator.

He and Chris are not at all sure how many locations they’ll have in 16 years, or 16 months, for that matter. What they do know is that their concept and their specific product works. And they believe they can take it to new markets regionally and perhaps nationally.

“When we started this venture, the plan was never to build just one of these,” said Chris, adding that the business plan has been altered many times over the past eight years, and that process will certainly continue. “How many we open and where we go … those are questions we can’t answer now, but we wanted to build a scalable model, and we have.”

In other words, and as they say in another medium, stay tuned.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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