Tried And True: Sunset Grill Taps Into Tradition to Ensure Future Success

Photo by Daniel Alexander

While we’re used to hearing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, data from Toronto-based NDP Group proves that regardless of category (QSR, FSR or total commercial foodservice), breakfast has been, and continues to be, a strong growth driver — and Sunset Grill is cashing in on the exploding popularity of the daypart.

When it concerns breakfast, Sunset Grill is setting the pace, doing business the same way it did when founder Angelo Christou launched the concept in 1985. The first location — named after the Don Henley song, Sunset Grill — started as a one-shift breakfast-and-lunch restaurant in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto. And although the concept has evolved, the business philosophy — and menu — have remained almost the same.

“The menu hasn’t changed much in 35 years,” says Stelios Lazos, COO of Sunset Grill Restaurant Ltd., adding “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And Sunset Grill’s business model is far from broken — the company has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. In 2009, there were 30 franchised units across the country. At the beginning of 2020, there were 200 — a growth rate of 666.7 per cent over the course of the decade.

The chain is showing no signs of slowing down, with another 15 locations in the pipeline for 2020. How does it continue this torrid pace? Lazos says it’s simple, “while others try to keep up with trends, we stick with the classics.”

“[This is what makes] us unique from other [breakfast restaurants],” he says. “We stick to a traditional breakfast. Bacon and eggs go hand in hand — they have for a hundred years. You’ve got to stick to what you know.”

Almost all of Sunset Grill’s signature menu items fall under the all-day-breakfast category, with close to 90 per cent of its sales being attributed to these items. The brand is known for its home-style breakfasts, such as three eggs with bacon, home fries and toast ($9.75); the Sunset Super with sausage, two pancakes, three eggs and home fries ($11.75); and Eggs Sunset — three eggs over easy with peameal-style bacon on English muffins served with Hollandaise sauce and home fries ($13.25).

The brand also offers a few select lunch offerings, such as the Sunset Sandwich made with peameal-style bacon, egg and cheddar cheese, served with home fries and vegetables with dip ($8.25); the Sunset Western Sandwich with ham, onion and two eggs ($7.75); and the Banquet Burger — an eight-ounce patty with bacon and cheddar cheese ($12.75).

Despite the trend towards veganism, Sunset Grill offers only a few vegan options — such as Southwest Vegan Breakfast Hash ($9.99) — choosing to focus on its traditional dishes instead. “We don’t have a huge demand for vegan food,” says Lazos. “There’s only so much you can do and it’s based on demand.”

Rise and Shine
NPD Group foodservice analyst Vince Sgabellone says over the past five years, the breakfast daypart has grown by approximately five per cent per year and operators such as Sunset Grill are reaping the rewards.

“[Its] menu is the perfect fit — breakfast is trendy and brunch is on trend in full service,” says Sgabellone. “Canadians also love their coffee, and breakfast and coffee go perfectly together. In Canada, when we roll together all those morning coffee occasions, our morning meal — which is breakfast, brunch and snacking lumped together — is the biggest, most-popular daypart. It’s in only two countries in the world where that’s the case.”

Sunset Grill also differentiates itself with its focus on fresh ingredients, commitment to detail and excellent customer service — all factors Lazos says are instrumental in keeping the company thriving.

“Everything we do is five-star inspired — no preservatives in our orange juice, our potatoes and fruit salad are prepped daily. We have an emphasis on high-quality fresh products and commitment to detail,” Lazos says. “There’s no singular thing you do to be successful — it’s all about the little things.”

That meticulous attention to detail is reflected throughout every facet of Sunset Grill’s operation. From store location — the company prefers to be near thoroughfares and main roads in order to attract more customers — to the design of its restaurants, where function is just as important as style.

“We’re a California-style 1970s breakfast restaurant,” says Lazos. “We like to incorporate pine to keep things relaxing; we want it to be warm. People who go to restaurants want to be around people, there’s a certain experience to it, but at the same time, you want your own space with a certain level of coziness. We try to find the fine line between the two.”

Most Sunset Grill locations are located in the Greater Toronto Area, with the majority found in Mississauga, Brampton and Vaughan, but expansion throughout Ontario is on the books in the coming year. The company also plans to reach as far as Calgary and Los Angeles for its upcoming ventures.

The units average 100 seats with a footprint of approximately 2,200 sq. ft. — a large portion of which is devoted to the brand new signature open-concept kitchens. The kitchens are meant to give customers a window into the behind-the-scenes operations, but also to reduce front-of-house labour by giving servers and hosts a better idea of what’s going on in the back of the house.

While the menu has remained relatively unchanged throughout its 35-year history, the chain’s hours of operation have evolved to meet changing demands. When the first restaurant originally opened, it was open until the early evening and did not serve all-day breakfast. But, when late-afternoon sales didn’t pack as big a punch as anticipated, it began opening at 7 a.m. and closing between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.

While the future is bright for Sunset Grill, no company succeeds without overcoming some adversity and, for the breakfast chain, Lazos says adversity came in the form of trying to get its fresh ingredients to its restaurants. When the company expanded nationwide, its original supplier found it hard to ensure ingredients reached all of the new locations.

“We were with a smaller distributor who couldn’t reach some of our restaurants, but then it was bought by Gordon Food Service, which ended up simplifying operations for us on the supply side,” explains Lazos.

All of Sunset Grill’s 200 locations are franchised, which places the commitment to quality in the hands of its franchisees. Lazos says the company takes pride in choosing franchisees who work hard and feel the same passion for quality that’s inherent throughout the company.

“Just because you’re buying a franchise doesn’t mean cheques are going to start rolling in. It’s a business — it’s your business — and you have to make your money. On Monday when the fridges are empty, get in there and check it out, smell it, touch it — only serve food to your customers you would serve to your kids.”

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