The American Cafe, the restaurant concern begun here in 1970 by three Georgetown University students, will soon be offering its croissants where crepes used to be the fare, in a new location in Friendship Heights.
The opening of an American Cafe where a Magic Pan once operated at Wisconsin Avenue and Jenifer Street NW, across the street from the Mazza Gallerie, marks the beginning of the company's national expansion plan. That program includes establishing 96 restaurants in 22 cities, as well as selling foods under the American Cafe brand name in its own market carry-outs, retail "boutiques" in department stores, grocery stores and by mail order.
Monolith Enterprises, owner of the American Cafes on Capitol Hill, in Georgetown and at Baltimore's Harborplace, bought the creperie space in April from Quaker Oats, which says it is trying to sell some of its less successful Magic Pan locations now that it appears the novelty of the early '70s crepe craze has faded.
Monolith had been interested in the Wisconsin Avenue property for several years, and is still talking to Quaker Oats about the purchase of other Magic Pan sites here and in other cities.
However, Robert Giaimo, one of the three founders and now president of Monolith Enterprises, said that "there isn't a location they're selling that we are willing to buy." He said that he and his partners, James P. Sullivan and Mark Caraluzzi, are negotiating "for what might potentially be available in the Washington area.
"Our overall perspective, our desire is to become an expanding chain and to use locations of Magic Pan or another chain like Magic Pan whose marketing is no longer current. We haven't gotten a commitment from Magic Pan. We would like locations in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, New York. It's an evolving, developing thing."
Monolith hopes to have six American Cafes operating in this area by 1984. Possible locations here include Old Town Alexandria, Tysons Corner, the post office renovation project on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and Annapolis.
Giaimo says the chain of cafes will be run by the company and by joint venture arrangements rather than as franchises. He added that Monolith hopes to become a public company within the next couple of years.
"I don't think we would be able to maintain the quality with franchises ," he said. "We need control for an operation like this and I don't think, with our goals for having high quality, you can do it with franchising."
Monolith believes that one key to the success of the American Cafes--which had 1981 sales of $5.5 million and profits of $191,000--is its "central kitchen" concept. Located behind the Georgetown cafe, the kitchen prepares all "skilled or cooked items," such as soups, roasted meats, salads and entrees, to be shipped the next day to the three cafes here. One critical difference, the company believes, between its central kitchen and those of other companies is that food is shipped fresh rather than frozen.
Preparation is done in an assembly line arrangement, with each worker performing one task, thereby eliminating most of the need for any skilled labor other than the head chef.
The company plans to proceed with its expansion by building one central kitchen for its restaurants in each metropolitan area. Giaimo points out that one major advantage to the central kitchen plan is that less space is occupied by kitchen operations, which lowers rent costs. He also says the restaurants in each city should pay the cost of setting up each central kitchen.
In the retail marketplace, the company is looking to snag the affluent, upwardly mobile, working-woman shopper with its American Cafe brand "gourmet convenience foods," such as chili, soups and entrees. These signature products, which will be packaged in a "flexible aluminum pouch," can be supplemented by fresh salads and desserts available in the company's markets.
"We are positioning ourselves between restaurants and convenience meals, but above Stouffer's," Giaimo said. "Our major real competition is people cooking for themselves . . . people who want something better than Stouffer's, who don't want to go out to restaurants but who don't want to cook from scratch. Our products will be more expensive than Stouffer's or any other frozen products."
Monolith is currently talking with what Giaimo describes as "a major New York department store with national representation" about placing the first of these brand name products in its outlets.