Keke’s Stays Ahead of the Breakfast Boom
Keke’s Breakfast Cafe cofounder Kevin Mahen thinks he and brother and cofounder Keith have found the secret to full-service restaurant success: fresh-made food served quickly in a daytime setting.
The nearly 50 Florida restaurants—all around 5,000 or so square feet—will open at 7 a.m., turn the tables seven to eight times, and close up shop by 2:30 p.m., with all workers on their way home by 4 p.m. “The thing that you hear from everybody else in the hospitality business is that they’re getting burned out, and we don't have that in our operation,” Kevin Mahen says.
For a restaurant open less than 60 hours a week, Keke’s is very profitable, and boasts a $13.50 average check. That’s high for the breakfast business, where most competitors do around $9.25 per check, Mahen says. It’s not uncommon, he adds, for a Keke’s restaurant to serve 700–800 people a day.
“You could get a meal and get out of there in 40 minutes without feeling rushed, because our objective is to have a meal sitting in front of you in anywhere between six and 10 minutes,” Mahen says. “We accomplish that goal even on the busiest days.”
And the great thing about the early daypart, Mahen adds, is the quality of workers the brand is able to attract: mature people seeking a manageable work schedule.
The Mahens hail from central Pennsylvania and got into the restaurant business in 2006 after anticipating a shift in the mortgage business, their previous industry. “Keith said, ‘Let's get in the breakfast business.’ And I said, ‘What do we know about that?’” Mahen says. “He said, ‘The same thing we knew about the mortgage business 20 years ago.’”
Five years after opening the first Keke’s in Orlando, the brothers sold their first franchise. “Our plan was to have four or five units of our own, but the demand from our guests was so great that we didn’t feel we could accomplish that with just the two of us—at least not to the standard that we were looking for. That's why we decided to sell franchises,” Mahen says.
Aside from great, quick service, Keke’s high-quality food and laid-back vibes helped propel the brand, as well. Instead of plasticware, guests find real glass, real china, and contemporary finishes like upholstery and granite. And everything from the Florida Pancakes with fresh strawberries, bananas, blueberries, and powdered sugar to the Eggs Florentine Poached Egg Meal is made fresh to order in the scratch kitchen.
“Our home fries are red skin potatoes that are boiled, hand-sliced, and cooked on a griddle. We don't get anything in a frozen bag and put it in the fryer. We just refuse to do that,” Mahen says.
Although the brand has lunch on the menu, with paninis, burgers, and salads, Northeastern-style breakfast is Keke’s bread and butter. “We're 93 percent breakfast, and that's our goal,” Mahen says.
Another layer to the secret sauce, he adds, is the locale. “There's just nothing about Florida that I find difficult about having a business,” he says. “It really is the best place that I could think of to start a brand.” Customers and employees alike are happy and cooperative, and the state is hyper business friendly, he says, even despite the challenge in finding locations and then building them to hurricane standards with low water tables. “Florida is just having an economic boom; it's unbelievable,” Mahen says.
The Mahens are the only Keke’s owners. They have no debt, shareholders, or board of directors to worry about. They’re open to growth outside the Sunshine State, Kevin Mahen says, but it’s going to require an exceptional partner. If the brothers cap off at 80 Florida units total, all owned themselves, there are worse things in this world, he says.