by Beth D'Addono, contributing editor
Crescent City's menu has expanded beyond beignets and chicory coffee to include soups, sandwiches and salads.
Beignet strips, made from leftover beignet dough, are coated with confectioners' sugar or drizzled with icing.
Tucker Bunch, Crescent City's chief operating officer, plans to take the New Orleans favorite, the beignet, nationwide.
It's amazing how far a little donut can go. Tucker Bunch grew up eating beignets, fried sugar donuts that are synonymous with New Orleans. Those humble little puffs of dough inspired Bunch to start a thriving business in Houston because he is trying to set the record straight. The Louisiana native believes that the state's cuisine has been misrepresented. "The New Orleans food experience has been lumped together with the Cajun ethnic identity and cuisine, and the two are really very different." So, Bunch is spreading the gospel of New Orleans food through a growing network of franchises called Crescent City, Real New Orleans Food. With 17 stores and more than 100 in the works, the Crescent City concept is breaking out. Currently, the company has six locations in Houston, including a company-owned store, along with units in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Ft. Worth, Texas; Plano, Texas; Richardson, Texas; San Antonio; Salt Lake City; Orange County, Calif. and Memphis, Tenn.
What started as a modest coffee shop, serving the same kind of chicory coffee and fried sugared donuts that tourists line up for in the French Quarter, is now much more. Bunch is rolling out a new design for the family-oriented restaurants, one that is 20 percent larger and will include a beer and wine bar, a take out area and a more upscale looking dining room.
"People fall in love with the food in New Orleans. It reminds them of their whole travel experience. That's what we offer them, from the beignets to the crawfish ètoufèe and po boys."
The original New Orleans breakfast
But it all starts with the beignet (pronounced ben-yay), a French breakfast pastry that was made popular in New Orleans during the Civil War. The deep fried, 4-in. square of hand rolled dough is topped with confectioners' sugar and puffed with air. The essential dough ingredients are flour, milk, eggs, shortening and leavening. Bunch contracted with a New Orleans company to produce a proprietary base, to which he adds shortening, flour and water.
Producing the beignets is very simple. "We take the mix, cut in shortening, add water, weight all the ingredients for accuracy, roll them out, cut them and pop them in the fryer," says Bunch. He uses partially hydrogenated soybean oil for frying, changing the oil twice a week.
To save ingredient costs, Crescent City also produces traditional beignets with a twist. "There's a lot of waste in the rolling process, about 25 percent, so we started selling beignet strips, which are just as popular." The dough ends are cut into long strips, fried and tossed with confectioners' or cinnamon sugar, or drizzled with chocolate and vanilla icing.
Bunch, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La., earned a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales. He moved to California, working for a variety of restaurants. "I somehow managed to work for start ups my whole career. I guess there's something about wresting order from chaos that appeals to me."
He eventually moved to Houston where his family had settled, and worked for a range of operations, including Whole Foods and the Quilted Toque under acclaimed chef Monica Pope. "It was an exciting time, but I wasn't doing what I really wanted to do."
Bunch had often visited a little familyowned beignet shop in Baton Rouge, and he decided to introduce Houston to the beignet.
Beginnings of beignet franchise
In July 1997, the original Crescent City Beignet opened its doors. "We weren't thinking of franchising, or even of running a restaurant. Just a beignet shop."
The beignets caught on like wildfire. By the fifth week, the store was doing $5,500 in sales. When an article came out in a local paper soon after the store opened, 3,000 people showed up the next day. Sales spiked to $14,000 over the next three days with checks averaging $3.
"I rolled every single one of those beignets," Bunch recalls. Now the company's chief operating officer, he shares responsibilities with his brother Wayne, chief executive officer, and his sister Marcy (Bunch) Gray, who heads up training for franchisees. The siblings' father was the initial investor.
Growing all day parts
"We saw our business peaking at breakfast and after dinner with dead times in between," says Bunch. "That's when we started offering a few food specials at lunch."
In 2002, the menu expanded to include sandwiches and salads. "There is a mild disconnect between the real New Orleans and what people perceive," he says. "We wanted to recreate what people experienced in New Orleans, from the muffulettas and po boys to the red beans and rice."
Bunch has turned Crescent City into a viable breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon and brunch spot. "What started as a small neighborhood restaurant, has grown legs and defined itself, independent of my expectations. It's all been driven by customer demand."
The leap to franchising was a natural one. With the help of a Virginia based franchise development company, Crescent City Beignets has expanded beyond Texas to six other states. The company is looking for locations with at least 60,000 residents within three miles and 10,000 workers within a mile.
The company-owned store in Houston on Westheimer is a little smaller than most, with 2,000 sq. ft. of space divided evenly between front and back of the house. Beignet production, mixing, rolling and frying is in plain view of the customer, and the smell of the popular donuts constantly fills the air. The Westheimer location employs 10 workers full time, and averages about $12,000 in sales per week.
Even as the menu expands, the beignets still drive the store's profitability. Due to low food costs, the sugar donuts make up 20 percent of gross sales. Each 100 pound batch of dough delivers about 300 orders of beignets, with a busy store going through three to four batches a day.
Bunch concentrates on designing menu items that work with the restaurant concept, and creating systems to support the franchisees. He sources equipment and studies costs, down to the smallest item. "It's all about hitting our cost objectives," he says. Franchisees are trained in the company-owned location for three weeks prior to opening their own location. Then, two members of the corporate crew go on-site to help train the staff, working with the new owners for an additional three weeks.
Bunch has high hopes for the future. "McDonalds took 40 years to saturate the market," he says. "The fast casual segment of the restaurant industry is a dynamic market. We're attempting to build a new ethnic food category, while remaining true to the needs of the customers, and serving our franchisees. We're not in it because of ego." He says he wants to grow a successful restaurant chain to support himself and his franchisees.
Crescent City ...at a glance
Market served: The original, company-owned location is in Houston, with 17 franchise stores open in five states.
Store size(s): 2,000 sq. ft. divided evenly between front and back of the house.
Product line: beignets, muffins and cookies, Creole entrees, sandwiches, soups and salads.
Annual Sales: The original store averages $12,000 per week, $624,000 a year.
Key personnel titles: Tucker Bunch, COO, Wayne Bunch, CEO, and Marcy (Bunch) Gray, Director of Franchisee Training
Major bakery equipment: mixer, fryer
Plans: 100 franchised locations in five years
Is your business franchise-worthy?
Tucker Bunch, COO of the Crescent City franchise operation based in Houston, shares his real world franchising experience.
"Few restaurant or food concepts succeed as a one trick pony," says Bunch. "To succeed, you have to build a portfolio that drives sales in more than one day part. While it's great to have an exciting product or menu item, is that enough to drive sales all day?"
For Bunch's business, success came because the concept resonated with a large segment of the public. " People visit New Orleans and they're familiar with beignets. They want to recreate their experience. Ask yourself, does my product strike a familiar chord with a majority of the population, enough to add up to consistent sales?"
The idea to franchise can't be ego driven, adds Bunch. "You think your product is great, but what is the bigger picture? Are there inquiries about franchising, or is your store an anomaly that is location and personality driven? To be a proven concept, you need a broad base of success to build upon."
Ask yourself these questions and be honest with the answers if you think that franchising might work for your business, he adds.