It’s been a sweet, savory and sometimes sweaty journey for Keith Richards – from cooking chickens at Kmart to managing one of Birmingham’s most prestigious restaurants, to putting up his house as collateral to build – much of it with his own hands – the first Taziki’s Mediterranean Café.
Eighteen years later, the original Taziki’s is still going strong. Only now it’s been joined by 63 additional locations in 15 states, from Colorado to Florida to West Virginia. And four more are on the way in the next few months.
The sweaty part of the business came first. In 1998 Richards, his parents and his wife, Amy, took on much of the physical labor to transform a closed hot dog joint near Birmingham’s busy U.S. 280 corridor into that first Taziki’s.
It helped that Richards had years of restaurant management experience at Birmingham’s famed Bottega. But even more important were the ideas behind the Taziki concept, ideas sparked by a pleasure trip the couple took to the Greek isles.
“We just fell in love with the hospitality and the community that is Greek culture,” Richards recounted during a recent presentation at the Public Relations Society of America, Alabama Chapter.
What came from it was Taziki’s fast-casual, Mediterranean-style menu – with most items crafted in-house from fresh ingredients, right down to the salad dressing. Then there’s the décor, meant to evoke the warm and inviting, family-friendly atmosphere of the classic outdoor tavernas of Greece. It’s a combination that endears Taziki’s to a steadily growing number of fans in cities as different as Denver and Tupelo, Miss.
Ahead of its time
Richards, who holds the title of chief development officer as well as founder, occasionally tweaks the menu. But the focus on freshness won’t change, he said. You’ll find no fryers, freezers or microwaves in a Taziki’s café – unusual for what Richards calls the “F” word: a franchise food operation.
Richards’ embrace of the health benefits of a Mediterranean menu also was ahead of its time. It came well before the string of studies showing a diet emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables and less red meat, and using olive oil, herbs and spices versus butter and salt, can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even some cancers.
Richards also wanted his restaurant to feel connected to the place he called home. “How could we be relevant in the community? That was a big part of what we wanted to do with Taziki’s,” he said.
A chance meeting and discussion during a cruise led Richards on the path to identifying his way to connect Taziki’s to a community need.
It began with hiring adults and teens with special needs at his Birmingham-area restaurants. That led to more discussions, and the development of Taziki’s signature community initiative: HOPE, or “Herbs Offering Personal Enrichment.”
Created in coordination with the Shelby County school system, HOPE involves special needs students at Vincent High School who are hired and taught to plant and cultivate herbs on the school’s campus. Those herbs are then harvested by the students and delivered for use in Taziki’s Birmingham eateries.
“It takes these kids outside; it helps them with their attention span. It helps them build life skills,” Richards said.
“When you think about what you eat at Taziki’s – the basil in our pesto, the parsley on our rice, it comes from these kids. They are one of our vendors.”
Recently the HOPE program expanded to a Taziki’s in Franklin, Tenn., in partnership with special-needs students at Franklin High School.
Richards said the special-needs adults he hires in his restaurants are not only dedicated employees; they also inspire other employees to be more caring and compassionate to each other and to customers. He said hiring special-needs adults also benefits their families, giving the parents and loved ones who care for them a few hours’ respite from their obligations.
His own family has been blessed, said Richards, the father of two sets of adolescent twins. “If I can give these parents three or four hours to do what they want, that’s a blessing for them.”
Growing by gut feeling
As part of thoughtfully growing Taziki’s, Richards meets with all potential franchisees to determine if they are a good fit for joining the Taziki’s family. He also visits the franchisee’s town at least three times – to get a feel for the community, to scout and affirm the restaurant site and to help train staff.
“We try to find people who are rooted in their communities, because it’s really up to them as the franchisee to make it work,” he said.
Sometimes it’s a gut feeling that signals Richards whether a potential franchisee will be successful.
“We want to make sure a community is ready for our culture and for our food,” he said. “We may be bigger than we used to be, but we still see ourselves as a mom-and-pop business.”