Jim McCarney

For entrepreneurs like Jim McCarney and his father, John, the Golden Arches offered a golden opportunity.

But McCarney, 31 — who with his father developed 13 McDonald’s restaurants in Northwestern Pennsylvania — was stimulated by the idea of doing something new.

They settled on a small but fast-growing restaurant chain in the fast casual category called Baja Fresh, the creation of a California entrepreneur that features freshly prepared Mexican food.

“It’s kind of a risky proposition to go from a high visibility chain, a strong brand known everywhere, to something that’s new and in a market that’s not necessarily a stronghold for Mexican food,” McCarney says.

But they weren’t the only ones who saw the potential. Two days before they were slated to fly to California to work out a deal with Baja Fresh, Wendy’s International Inc. announced it would acquire the 240-unit chain.

McCarney and five key employees from their McDonald’s stores relocated to Pittsburgh to help McCarney launch the first Baja Fresh at The Pointe At North Fayette in June. McCarney will open a second next month in Oakland and a third in early 2004 in Monroeville, which should bring total employment to about 100.

Baja Fresh expects area franchisees to develop eight to 12 restaurants within three to five years.

Running a Baja Fresh poses challenges that McDonald’s doesn’t, McCarney concedes. It’s a new name in Pittsburgh, for one, and running an operation where everything is prepared from scratch is tougher than flipping hamburgers.

But McCarney says he has an asset a lot of entrepreneurs don’t: His father, John, who has 30 years experience in the food service business.

Says McCarney: “He’s a partner, a consultant, a coach, cheerleader, all of those things.”

Smart Business spoke with McCarney about Baja Fresh and bringing the concept to Pittsburgh.

How did you select Baja Fresh as a concept?

We had a great relationship with McDonald’s and we did very well with them. My father started 30 years ago … and built the organization up, and I came in and bought the stores and they were doing well.

But we wanted to try something new, put ourselves in a growth position and find something — a food that we’d be passionate about. We did our due diligence, not checking out just Mexican grilles but all kinds of chains. Baja Fresh’s food was the one that stood above everyone else’s. It was all about the food, and that just stuck with us.

A Technomics survey found that customers rated Baja Fresh food first in freshness, quality and taste.

Isn’t it risky to go from a highly visible brand to one that’s much less well known?

Absolutely, there’s a risk to it. That’s what makes it fun, and you never know until you open the door. We’ve been open for a month, and we feel really good about the response we’ve gotten.

People are coming in from far away and bringing their friends, and they come back. We have a physician from Steubenville who came in three times the first week. Both of his parents are from Mexico, and they heard about Baja Fresh in other markets and raved to him about the food.

It’s a risk for us, it’s a risk for the families that moved down with us, but we feel that the Pittsburgh market is ready for it.

Why did you decide to go into the family business?

I grew up in McDonald’s, I started my first day working at the store in Mercer on Interstate 80. I worked summers during high school and college.

My first job out of college, I was assistant manager for Leaps & Bounds, near Century III Mall, a big play place for kids. After a couple of months, I really did some soul searching and discussing it with my father and decided this is what I wanted to do, go into my father’s business.

I love the restaurant business, I love serving people and I love food. I was ready for a change.

Did the Wendy’s purchase of Baja Fresh play into your decision?

It didn’t play into our decision, but we had been in our decision process before Wendy’s announced its intent to acquire it. They announced their intent to acquire Baja Fresh for $275 million back in June (2002), two days before we were scheduled to fly out to meet the key people at Baja Fresh.

We were worried, being McDonald’s guys, that they wouldn’t want to talk to us. They called and said, ‘Don’t worry, we know you heard the news, but we like you guys, we still want to talk as if this thing’s not happening.’ How to reach: Baja Fresh, www.bajafresh.com