Diane Mastrull: He's bullish about burgers

Posted: January 22, 2013

A health-food nut Jiger Patel is not. At least not from an entrepreneurial perspective.

And his certainty over Americans' continued affinity for that which is not exactly fitness fare is why he is spending his days lately in the shadow of the Market-Frankford El in West Philadelphia, amid remodeling contractors, security-system installers, and job applicants.

There, on a high-profile corner at 52d and Market Streets, the finishing touches are being applied to the second of what Patel plans as a Philly-centric empire of fast-food hamburger restaurants.

His Checkers eatery, due to open Feb. 2, will join Patel's first, which debuted on Island Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia in April 2011. A third is planned for this summer on Columbus Boulevard, near the United Artists theater.

The 34-year-old father of two has a goal of opening two Checkers a year as long as cash flow allows, development sites are available, and customers are plentiful.

Patel is so bullish about the growth potential of a relative unknown in a market dominated by heavyweights (their lower-calorie menu items aside) McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, that he paid Checkers $40,000 in 2010 for exclusive development rights in South, West, and North Philadelphia. The agreement is effective through 2014, requiring Patel to open at least four restaurants by then.

The franchise fee on each is typically $30,000, with build-out an additional $400,000 to $600,000.

Patel lives in Holland, Bucks County, a 20-minute drive from the two closest Checkers - there are only 20 in what the Tampa, Fla.-based company defines as the Philadelphia TV market. Fourteen of them are company-owned.

Patel passed on an opportunity to buy development rights in suburbs where the average household income is higher than the neighborhoods where he wants to introduce Checkers' made-to-order burgers, "Crazy Good Wings," and Baconzilla loaded fries.

That's because he wants to satisfy more than a gastronomic craving, he said. "We could create a lot of jobs where jobs are needed."

Each Checkers restaurant employs 25 to 30 people in jobs paying from $7.25 an hour for counter work to annual salaries of $60,000 or more for managers, Patel said.

His franchising career was essentially a family calling. Patel's father, Kaushik, owns 13 Dunkin' Donuts shops in the area. He required his son to rotate through every job in them - from cashier to district manager - to gain an appreciation for all levels of the business.

Jiger Patel was eager to prove his independence. A graduate from business school in India before moving to the United States in 1998, he embarked on some franchise-building of his own.

His first effort, a convenience store in Bristol Township, didn't go well. Patel opened Happy Food Market in 2008, but instead of growing it into a chain as he had planned, he closed his sole store two years later, losing $300,000 - "if not more" - in the experience.

It taught him that trying to create a chain from something that was not an established brand was "a lot of work," he said.

His subsequent investments, which remain part of his portfolio, include a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in Harrisburg, two Sunoco/APlus gas station/convenience stores in Northeast Philadelphia, plus a Golden Corral buffet restaurant in Allentown and a Shell gas station/convenience store nearby.

For a man of modest build, Patel has an outsize food obsession - at least when it comes to business. His reason?

"Food is recession-proof. We've got to eat."

According to a 2013 Fast Food Industry Analysis report by FranchiseHelp.com, an independent information resource, quick-service restaurants (as the industry prefers to be known) weathered the latest recession pretty well, despite market saturation and loss of market share to the growing niche known as fast casual.

There are more than 200,000 U.S. fast-food restaurants, with total revenue of $160 billion, up from $6 billion in 1970, according to FranchiseHelp.com.

Locally, Checkers opened its first restaurant on Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia in June 1993. Although only 19 others have opened since then, the company thinks the market could support 200, said Jennifer Durham, vice president of franchise development. Seven are planned for this year.

"In Philadelphia, we want to become top of the mind," Durham said. "Part of that is being on every street corner we can be."

Patel intends to figure prominently in that, hoping also to buy some company-owned restaurants. He acknowledges healthy eating trends, but doesn't worry that the public's taste buds will change enough to prove his investments unwise.

"We can't stop eating burgers no matter what," he said. "Which is a good thing."

Contact Diane Mastrull

at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com,

or @mastrud on Twitter.

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