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Beachy Concept: Hits Dry Land

Stepping off a wintry New York City street into the inviting confines of Maui Tacos, patrons are instantly transported to a tropical paradise. Island music fills the interior, which bears a striking resemblance to a surfer shack. On one side, a Volkswagen bus filled with bags of chips and salsa appears to be bursting through the wall. A barn door hangs over the counter, surf boards are suspended from the ceiling and vintage island photos decorate the walls. All this and you can order Mexican food too.

With locations in Atlanta, Manhattan and Delaware, the Mexican quick-service chain with a retro-Hawaiin twist is now gearing up to spread across the country.

Maui Tacos actually did get its start on the island of Maui. Acclaimed chef Mark Ellman decided he was tired of not being able to get the kind of Mexican food he had enjoyed while growing up in Southern California. After starting a popular, upscale Hawaiian restaurant, Avalon, he and a partner opened the first Maui Tacos in 1993 in Napili, Maui. Ellman's recipes utilize Hawaiian spices and a lighter, lard-free cooking.

"(The recipes) are what sets us apart," says Charles Leaness, CEO of Maui Tacos and executive vice president of Atlanta-based Blimpie International Inc., which bought the chain in 1997. "As a quick-service chain we're pretty upscale. We have high-quality products and some locations have beer and wine. You come up to the counter and get your food, but we're using high-quality ingredients. We give large portions, a lot of good food for the money."

A quick-service restaurant providing high-quality Mexican food, Leaness says, is not only in demand in Hawaii, but also throughout the country.

"We spent time developing the concept so that it could be franchised," explains Leaness. "We made it simple enough so that we could franchise it all over the United States. In Hawaii most people eat outdoors. So those are small units, about 500 sq. ft. The Atlanta store is 2,100 sq. ft., and that's the basic footprint in the states."

In addition to being larger, Maui Tacos crafted its menu to make it easier for franchising. While the franchises couldn't provide locally caught fish, they still had to retain the flavors and atmosphere that made the chain so popular.

To design the mainland stores, the company brought in Seattle-based The Retail Group. The result was a look that won this year's Hot Concept Award from Restaurant News.

"Once we had the design and the simplicity of the cooking operation down, we decided to franchise it," Leaness says. "We're doing what we did with Blimpie to make it successful by selling area development territories."

The company has already sold franchises in Atlanta; Manhattan; Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, Austin and San Antonio, Texas; and Delaware. In addition to strip centers and street level shops, Maui Tacos will soon sprout in mall food courts, airports and large anchor centers.

Maui Tacos' goal is not only to serve a diverse and high-quality menu, but also to create a fun atmosphere that will encourage patrons to linger.

"Maui Tacos is very pleasant to be in," says Leaness. "With most quick-serve restaurants you're in and out. We offer a dining experience."

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