Diane Mastrull: Working to build an empire of healthy fast food

Bryn & Dane's founder and CEO Bryn Davis. "When I opened up with smoothies and popcorn, people thought I was insane."
Bryn & Dane's founder and CEO Bryn Davis. "When I opened up with smoothies and popcorn, people thought I was insane." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 18, 2013

Editor's Note: This column is sponsored by TD Bank. The opinions and analysis expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TD Bank, N.A. or its affiliates.

Bryn Davis ate his way to entrepreneurship.

Davis, who lives in Horsham, says he entered college a "lean-as-you-can-imagine" 170 pounds. By his junior year, he was stressing the scales at 240.

A doctor scared him into committing to a healthier lifestyle. Davis took it one step further: He started a business featuring only healthy fast food.

"When I opened up with smoothies and popcorn, people thought I was insane," said the founder of Bryn & Dane's, a low-calorie, low-fat, high-fiber fast-food company in Horsham with a freestanding restaurant - and a recently added catering arm - that expects to exceed $2 million in sales this year.

"Now, people say, 'Holy crap! It's probably going to happen.' "

By "it," he means his vow - written on the wall of his flagship sit-down/drive-through restaurant on Horsham Road, which also features salads and wraps with mostly local-source ingredients - not to stop growing "until you see a Bryn & Dane's on every corner in America."

A second restaurant that will serve as corporate headquarters is on track for an October opening in Plymouth Meeting. Davis, 28, plans to open 10 to 15 restaurants, first building recognition in the suburbs. He plans to expand into downtown Philadelphia in 18 months, if not sooner.

And then, "I want to go full throttle in every American city that I can," said Davis, who included his brother, now 12, in the company's name because of all the nights Davis kept him up while he worked on the business plan.

"It's a great idea," said David Levitsky, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. "If you look at the trends in food, there certainly is a clear increase in organic food, and the only reason for that is health. It's clearly riding a wave right now."

When Davis came up with the idea as a 2008 graduate of Elizabethtown College with a marketing degree, he said a Google search for "healthy fast food" came up empty. So did his bank account. He returned to Horsham, sharing a bedroom with Dane, then 8, and crunching start-up numbers.

Davis concluded he would need $400,000 and actually found a willing local investor - until the financial markets collapsed later that year and the investor said he couldn't commit the money just then.

"It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me because I didn't have to give up equity," he said.

The unrelenting, high-energy Davis sought out someone he had never met but had long admired: former 76ers president, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker Pat Croce, who agreed to meet with him. Croce urged him to start small, Davis said.

So he struck a deal to work on his grandfather's farm for a year for $12,000. Davis supplemented those earnings by working at Starbucks, a pizza place, and as a driver for partyers. At the end of that year, he persuaded the owner of a strip center in Horsham to lease him space for three years, the first seven months free.

Davis' equipment consisted of two used blenders and a popcorn machine. He couldn't afford menus, so he wrote the offerings - six flavors of smoothies, three kinds of popcorn, and two types of coffee - on a chalkboard.

That first restaurant opened March 5, 2010. That summer, Croce's son Michael helped secure Bryn & Dane's a fill-in location on the Ocean City, N.J., boardwalk at Sixth Street.

"That summer was the summer we kind of exploded," Davis said, recalling lines out the door at the Horsham site.

His thoughts turned to the space he had in mind when he drafted his business plan: a rustic, high-ceilinged place near Hatboro-Horsham High School on a former donkey pasture. Starbucks had intended to build there, then scrapped the idea. A Seattle's Best went in instead and lasted about eight months.

"This place sat here empty for a year," Davis said over coffee in what became Bryn & Dane's new Horsham location in February 2012 under an eight-year lease with Starbucks.

With no bank financing or outside investments, Davis runs the profitable business of 40 employees on its revenue only. Social media takes care of marketing, he said, seemingly blown away by Bryn & Dane's 18,000 Facebook followers.

His mother, Dianne Cichon Hoffmann, admittedly a skeptic when she heard her son's business plan, now works for him as Bryn & Dane's "experience coordinator."

"I think I drank the Kool-Aid," she said, first laughing and then praising her son's vision and determination. "He's never come short on his dreams."

Brother Dane, headed to seventh grade at Chestnut Hill Academy in September, is pretty impressed, too. Having a restaurant named after him, he said, has made him "like a star."


Bryn Davis talks about his dream: A healthy fast-food restaurant in Horsham. www.inquirer.com/fastfood


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @dmastrull on Twitter.

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