Keith Richards’s first job in the food industry was working at the Kmart Cafeteria, back when Kmart had a cafeteria. Keith worked in the kitchen where grease-stained hands deep fried their fowl and plopped it on a paper plate alongside potato salad and sweet tea in a Styrofoam cup. Now the 49-year-old businessman and Taziki’s founder owns 33 kitchens, and in 2014 eyes twenty more. Taziki’s, Richards’s hobbyhorse, is a Mediterranean café that will knock you on your derriere with a-can we say outstandingly – good menu of fresh, mama’s cookin’ fare inspired by Grecian cuisine and its wine-washed revelry.
Keith’s inspiration came from a 1997 trip to Greece, where he and his wife Amy learned that what happens in Greece definitely does not stay in Greece. That’s because when the eager pair traveled to that picturesque Hellenic peninsula seventeen years ago, they smuggled the idea for a Greek-style restaurant in a fried-chicken-and-sweet-tea-obsessed Alabama back to the states.
While in Greece, Keith and Amy hadn’t planned on being inspired by anything but the azure seas and their white, picturesque mud brick villas. With $200 in their pocket, Keith and Amy island-hopped, scaled Mt. Olympus, sailed sailboats, and befriended a couple who serendipitously introduced them to a traditional Greek restaurant.
“We fell in love with this restaurant,” describes Keith. “It inspired me because there was nothing like this place in Alabama.”
At the time, Keith was the café manager at Bottega, and had come to know several of the loose-tied men who, after work, propped up on the bar and pled for whiskey drinks. Keith assumed that these same men might look favorably upon his new business venture, and donate a truffle of green from their deep pockets. He was wrong.
“We love you and you took care of us, but no,” they said.
After Keith looped back around, he borrowed $50,000 against his house and started Taziki’s. The first restaurant opened in May 1998 at the Colonnade, with 11,000 square feet sans Greek columns. “We had 76 people our first day, and we’ve never had less than that in sixteen years,” says Keith.
The recipes since day one have been homemade with fresh ingredients, and include salads, gyros, deli sandwiches and roll-ups, and several mouthwatering “Taziki’s Feasts”: chicken breast, grilled tenderloin, chargrilled lamb, and herb-roasted pork loin. Favorites are the Grilled Chicken Roll-Up with tomato and feta in a griddled flour tortilla; the Grilled Veggie Plate with zucchini, squash, peppers, onions, asparagus, and tomatoes tossed on a bed of rice and served with a salad; and of course, Friday Pasta (penne and grilled chicken tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette and topped with tomatoes, feta, and fresh basil). The menu is also kid and health-nut friendly, and largely gluten-free. Appetizers include hummus and chips, dolmades, and spicy pimento cheese. For the drinking patron who likes to unwind, a variety of wine bottles line the shelf like revolutionary soldiers, and necks of beer bottles peek from ice-choked coolers.
Richards will confess that Taziki’s is indeed a family affair. “The rice recipe is my sister-in-law’s, and the chocolate cake on the menu was once my wife’s birthday cake,” he admits. He also enlists the help of special needs kids, who grow their own herbs-basil, rosemary, thyme, and parsley- at Vincent Middle School. “We set them up a business,” says Keith. “They water, pick, and bag and then bring us the herbs and we buy them.”
So the secret is out. The menu is all original, made from simple ingredients and family recipes that don’t take Socrates of the Skillet to make. Carpe Gyro.
And if you’re expecting Greek, per se, you might find that Richards’s menu could better be described as “Greek with a Tweak.” Richards explains that when he opened Taziki’s satellite in Little Rock, Arkansas, some Greek men came in asked, “Where are the Greeks in the kitchen?”
“I kinda ducked,” says Richards.
But although Richards has taken creative license to open up the menu, customers keep returning for more. “I can be nice all day long, but if I serve crappy food, you won’t come back in,” Keith says. “We make sure we take care of our guests.”
Richards will tell you it takes more than good food to franchise; it takes a bit of horse sense. “I didn’t know what it took to take it from 3 restaurants to 100 restaurants,” he says. “I had the infrastructure and I had customers, but I had no idea how to grow the business.”
So he lassoed some partners who understood his overall vision for Taziki’s. Keith partnered with some experienced restaurateurs in 2008 who came on board to help grow the brand. Soon after, Jim Keet became the first to open a store outside of the corporate market. His success in the Arkansas area led Taziki’s to pin him as their new CEO in 2012 so Keith could focus on franchise growth.
“I think you have to find someone who understands your passion,” says Richards. “We wanted someone sort of ‘in-house’. Someone who’s done this before.”
As Richards stepped over into the role of CDO (Chief Development Officer) Jim’s job was to advance the company through franchising-growing “organically” as Richards describes. Taziki’s now has franchises in nine states.
While Jim spearheads this effort, Richards also relies on diviner help. “I go to the Lord. This is the first place I go to make my decisions,” Richards says confidently.
Helping matters has been a loyal staff, which has stabilized the backbone of Taziki’s. “Some of my employees have been with me since the day I opened. Take Else for example-I can’t get rid of her!” Richards laughs.
All rolled up, Taziki’s is a business to watch in 2014 and the coming years, as the triune union of Jim, Keith, and (dare I say!) God bring Mediterranean fare to a city near you. 78