Keith Richards, founder and chief development officer of Birmingham-based Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, first fell in love with feeding the public at 18 years old when he worked at a Kmart cafeteria.
The restaurant job was his mother’s idea rather than his own, but Richards soon grew to enjoy frying chicken, cutting up tomatoes and serving sweet tea in Styrofoam cups. “I liked working with my hands and making customers happy, ” he says.
After Kmart, Richards went on to other food industry jobs, including waiting tables at Olive Garden, and pursued his interest in art as a graphic designer. Then in 1988, a friend recommended Richards apply for a job at Bottega, on Birmingham’s Southside, a popular upscale restaurant owned by award-winning Chef Frank Stitt. “At first I didn’t know what to think. It was a different atmosphere than I was used to, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it, ” Richards says.
But Richards stuck with Bottega for about a decade, beginning with valet parking cars, then working up to bartender, bartending manager and finally café manager. “People talk about what a wonderful chef Frank is and how he has influenced so many other great chefs, but he also is a great teacher when it comes to running a business, ” Richards says. “He has such a passion for his work and food. He continues to inspire me.”
Richards took a fateful vacation from his job at Bottega in 1997. On a long-anticipated trip to Greece with his wife, Amy, the couple was so impressed with Greek cuisine that they decided to start a casual Greek restaurant. “I had loved working at Bottega, but it was time for me to go out on my own, ” Richards says. “We really didn’t have Greek restaurants in Birmingham back then, so it seemed like a good opportunity.”
Richards soon kicked off the first Taziki’s in a 1, 100-square-foot space on Highway 280 in Mountain Brook. His flavorful menu was inspired both by his Greek experience and family recipes. Prices were reasonable and the walk-up-and-order food was prepared quickly and served in a casual setting. Take out and catering soon were popular options.
“It was a very different type of restaurant than Bottega, but the emphasis on going above and beyond customer expectations was a commonality, ” Richards says.
From the start Richards treated his customers like family and was determined to serve them with fresh and healthy ingredients. Many regular customers at Bottega who knew Richards well also began eating at Taziki’s.
“Relationships are the most important things in life, ” Richards says. “We first got to know the couple who are the godparents of our children as Taziki’s customers.”
The early years at Richards’ new restaurant were full of hard work and the arrival of two sets of twins. By 2008, 10 years after opening the first Taziki’s, Richards owned and operated only three locations. But that soon changed, after he agreed to partner with Michael Bodner and Nick Pihakis, of Jim ’N Nicks BBQ Restaurants, to create a Taziki’s chain.
“I knew we had a successful formula at Taziki’s and that it was time to grow, not only for myself and my family but also for my employees, ” Richards says. “They needed new opportunities for greater responsibility and advancement.”
The first step in the brand expansion was bringing in Jim Keet as a Taziki’s licensee in 2008. Keet, a former lawmaker in the Arkansas state legislature, has extensive restaurant ownership and management experience, including the development, expansion and operation of 25 Wendy’s restaurants, 48 Barnhill’s Buffet locations and 50 Guest House International Hotels.
Keet’s sons wanted to partner with him on opening some new restaurants, so Keet approached Bodner, his longtime friend and business associate, for ideas. Keet and his sons soon were opening two Taziki’s in Little Rock and now own a total of six locations in Arkansas.
The Taziki’s partnership with Keet was to become even more fruitful after Keet came on board as president and chief executive officer of the chain in 2012. “We had a successful brand, and it was time to expand our reach with the right hand at the helm, ” Richards says. “I wanted an active role, but not as CEO, as I wanted to have more time for my family.”
Taziki’s, which now has restaurants across the country from Denver to Richmond, is set to bring its 40th location onboard this month in Clearwater, Florida. The company’s board of directors plans to bring the total number of locations to 100 in just the next few years. Keet anticipates the company going public within the next three to five years. “The timing needs to be right, of course, ” Keet says. “We’re going to be watching the market and our growth.”
Sales for the chain totaled $28.8 million in 2013, and Taziki’s has been noted as one of the fastest growing chains in the country. “It helps that the Mediterranean diet has become known for its healthfulness, ” Keet says. “But the success is more than that. It’s a commitment to superb food quality and customer service.”
Taziki’s also has a commitment to give back, using its success to help others by donating more than a million dollars in free food to charities throughout the country. “To truly be considered part of your community, you have to get involved, ” Richards says.
Richards’ restaurants are known for organizing fundraising campaigns for charities, such as Children’s of Alabama and Special Olympics. Richards also has a policy for hiring special needs students and has partnered with Shelby County’s Vincent High School on an enrichment program for such students. “Working with them has been one of my greatest blessings, ” Richards says.
After slowly growing the Taziki’s brand during the early years and now rapidly expanding it, Richards has learned a variety of lessons, he says. The biggest lesson was learning to relinquish some control. “You want things to be done right, but you can’t do everything, and, at a certain point, you have to trust others, ” he says. “Learning to trust isn’t easy.”
On the flip side of trusting more, Richards also has learned to be extremely careful about who is allowed to franchise Taziki’s. Unless a prospective franchisee has the right mindset, it’s not going to be a good fit and could reflect negativity on the Taziki’s brand. “It’s a lot easier to avoid problems. Working with someone who doesn’t have your same philosophy ends up being time consuming and frustrating, ” Richards says. “It’s just not worth it.”
Richards has successfully worked with franchisees with 30 years’ restaurant experience to those with no restaurant ownership experience.
“So much is attitude, ” Richards says. “If you have a passion and dedication to quality and customer service, and a commitment to developing a close connection to your community, you’re much more likely to succeed.”
Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelancers for Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.
text by kathy hagood • photos by Art Meripol