To New Orleans natives, a beignet is more than a square fried piece of dough coated with powdered sugar-it's culture and history. So how does this Southern favorite make it in urban Chicago?
It's the challenge John Nastav was prepared to face when he bought a Crescent City Beignets franchise in the Chicago area. When Nastav, 55, opened his doors a few months ago in Lincoln Park, he figured customers would come in and say, "You're selling beig-whats?" Instead, he discovered that Chicagoans are big beignet fans. "We're shocked," he says. "The majority of people know what they are."
Though Nastav figures these instant customers have visited New Orleans, he also markets the product to reach those who aren't in the know. His direct advertising, consisting mostly of fliers and mailers, targets the local hospital, colleges and schools. Plus, he's got a publicist on the case.
Nastav first patronized Crescent City Beignets while visiting Texas, where the franchise was born in July 1997. CEO of a construction company specializing in large plants, oil refineries and steel mills, Nastav jumped into the restaurant business without any prior experience. "It somehow struck me as something the people of Chicago would like," says Nastav, "so I thought I'd give it a whirl."
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle in transporting the concept has been not the cultural factor, but the climate factor. At press time, Nastav expected sales, which were just below the break-even point, to boom as the city cooled down, forecasting between $500,000 and $1 million for 2001.
"We know now not to open stores unless we can get at least three months of cool weather," says Nastav. When it's hot, he explains, "people don't want to leave their house."