National Casual Dining Employee to Fast Casual Owner
National Casual Dining Employee to Fast Casual Owner

Lessons from the aha moment that led a chain restaurant area manager to become a fast-casual franchisee

Jeff Martyn grew up in New Jersey with a business-owner father.

“My dad coached all my sports teams when I was a kid,” Martyn told us. “He was able to make that work because he controlled his own time. I grew up wanting to own my own business as a result. I’m at that point now, and it’s very rewarding.”

Martyn graduated from Boston College with a degree in finance and economics. Not quite ready to “enter the real world,” Martyn moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina to work at a golf course and hone his game.

Martyn played competitively for a while, but his career prospects were dim. “I was working at a restaurant to support myself, and I realized I wasn’t that great at golf, so I threw in the towel and began to focus on my restaurant work. I worked almost ten years at a national casual dining chain, going from an hourly worker to an area manager for a multi-unit franchisee with 130 locations.”

Last spring, Martyn decided to make the move into ownership. Now married with a six-year-old son, he felt it was time to commit to the role he’d envisioned for himself as a kid. Martyn had inadvertently made himself particularly well suited for ownership. He knew firsthand the struggles that casual chain restaurants were facing, and he knew the opportunity that fast casual represented.

“Fast casual beats casual dining for so many reasons,” says Martyn. “The quality of the food is comparable, but the order error is reduced because its taken in front of the customer. Also, the food service is made in open view so customers have a better idea of wait time, that’s a big deal with ever-shortening lunch hours.” Martyn explained how he saw pricing as the primary driver in the growth of fast-casual. “It used to be expensive to eat out, so it was a special occasion, and full service was a big part of making that feel special. As the cost of eating out has gone down, families are now going out multiple times a week, and the wait service has lost its novelty. People don’t need a waiter or waitress to bring them a drink that they can get themselves. Families and professionals these days are more concerned with convenience and pricing.”

With his business partners, Martyn now owns three Penn Station franchis locations and is opening a fourth next month. Martyn told us he prefers Penn Station to the other franchise models he’s looked into. “We like that corporate encourages multiple franchisees in a single market. I enjoy working alongside other franchisees. It’s a good opportunity for knowledge sharing, and it takes some of the burden of our market’s success off our shoulders. If we were going to build 30 or 40 Penn Stations ourselves, it would take 15 years. Having those other locations up and running under other franchisees is good for brand awareness and market penetration.”

Martyn remembers the first time he really got excited about owning a Penn Station. “I was already compelled by the financials, but when I walked into the store for the first time, I knew I could make this work. Everything was optimized. The kitchen layout, ordering, payments, everything is streamlined.”

The menu was another indicator that Martyn had his eye on. “I was very attuned to the operational demands of a menu. The national chain I’d worked for tried to have multiple options for every possible taste, and it was very complicated and costly. Penn Station’s menu is far more simple, and the kitchen is designed to produce those items exactly. It’s a perfect machine.”

Of course, Martyn also wanted a product he could stand behind. “I was a little bored with the burger or pizza concepts. I eat at Penn Station five times a week. I love the chicken teriyaki sandwich.”

Martyn sees a bright future following in his father’s footsteps as a Penn Station franchise owner, and hopes to have the same presence in his son’s childhood that his father had in his own.

“I do think there will ultimately be a lot of benefits to my personal life,” Martyn said. “The successes we have achieved so far took hard work, but we’re where we want to be. Compared to where I came from with the national chain, where the restaurant was open until midnight or 2 a.m., we are only open until 8 or 10 p.m., which gives me that much more time with my family.”