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Alon Mor / photos Jonathan Castner

Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill

by Eric Peterson on September 16, 2014, 05:06 pm MDT

www.eatgarbanzo.com

Centennial, Colorado

Founded: 2008

Privately owned

Employees: 350

CEO Alon Mor is prepping to open the 30th location, with plans to become the Chipotle of Mediterranean food and a store in every state.

Garbanzo President and CEO Alon Mor was a Panera Bread franchisee before launching the company in 2008. The Israeli-born Mor wanted to bring the taste of his homeland to the U.S., with a twist.

"Being in Colorado, the mecca of fast-casual dining, and being from Israel, it was a great combination," he says. "I wanted to create the food I grew up with in a fast-casual environment like Chipotle, Qdoba or Noodles & Company."

Mor started Garbanzo with seed money from Panera, then bought it from the St. Louis-based company with some outside investors in 2012. Today, Garbanzo has 18 corporate stores as well as 11 franchise-owned locations, after launching a franchising arm in 2012. Mor describes the company's footprint as "east to west," with locations in the Northeast (Connecticut, New Jersey, and Maryland), Southeast (Georgia and Florida), Southwest (Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona), and California.

About half of the Garbanzo restaurants are in Colorado. Store number 30 is on tap for downtown Denver at 16th and Market streets, just a few blocks from the newly christened Union Station, and slated to open in early fall 2014.

Mor credits food quality as the key catalyst for Garbanzo's coast-to-coast expansion. "It's about freshness, and healthy and authentic food," he says. "Everything is done in the restaurants daily from scratch. "We prep everything in-house. We make pitas fresh from scratch in the store, every day, several times a day."

Microwaves are forbidden at Garbanzo, and knives are commonplace -- there are no pre-sliced veggies coming from plastic bags. "I've always been in the business of fresh," says Mor of his 20 years in the restaurant industry. "To me, as long as you cut it at the store, that's fresh."

The market reception has been warm, in part because of familiarity. "It's a small global village these days," Mor says. "Mediterranean is not foreign anymore."

Chicken shawarma is the company's top seller, with recently introduced lamb and beef gyros a close second. "It's been exploding," Mor says of the latter. Garbanzo also regularly adds limited-time offers to the menu. A recent example was a quinoa salad, and a top-secret lineup of new gyros sandwiches is coming in the near future.

However, the food industry "isn't ready" for the demand for fresh and healthy ingredients, Mor notes. When it comes to organic produce and free-range poultry, "There isn't enough product. It's going to be a conflict."

Mor says relationships are key when it comes to sourcing top-quality ingredients. "When you work with the same manufacturers for years, they protect you," he says. "We partner with the best growers and the best manufacturers. We're involved from field to store."

Challenges: "Finding the right people," says Mor. "We are very selective in our recruitment process. We want to hire the best of the best. Service is what we look for."

Opportunities: The best locations, regardless of the market. "If we get the right real estate," says Mor, "we get our biggest opportunities." Exhibit A is the soon-to-open Garbanzo in Lower Downtown (LoDo) in Denver, but Mor hopes to ultimately open stores in all 50 states.

Needs: Dovetailing into Garbanzo's challenges, the company's biggest needs are people. Mor says he anticipates hiring 100 new employees by the end of the year. "It's about the people," he says. "If you hire the best people, hire the best managers, everything works itself out."

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