The Lost Cajun’s Discovery Tour is Just Getting Started
People tell Raymond Griffin he’s nuts all the time. If they stopped, it might start to worry him. It would mean The Lost Cajun has become exactly what the status quo calls for—a story that fits one of the fastest growing full-service brands in the country. But eight years after opening a 15-seat, 850-square-foot Cajun restaurant in, of all places, Frisco, Colorado, nothing about this tale aligns with logic, which is exactly how Griffin wants it. What is crystal, however, is this:
“You know what,” Griffin says. “I don’t think this thing can make it anymore; I know it. Within three years we’re going to have 100 stores. It’s literally growing that way. We’re going to have in excess of $20 million in sales this year. And if that isn’t crazy, I don’t know what is.”
The Lost Cajun started franchising in 2013 and now has 17 locations across four states. Doesn’t sound overly robust until you check the timeline. By the time the year ends, Griffin’s brand expects 2017 to have included 15 openings, bringing the total to 25. A six-unit deal for North Carolina was announced in mid-June. On July 30, the company said a second San Antonio store was arriving August 13. A week earlier, The Lost Cajun shared plans for its eighth Colorado restaurant, slated for Westminster in September.
The restaurants are averaging $1.1 million per store at a paltry check average, per person of $10–$12. This gives a glimpse into the kind of volume Griffin’s stores are doing.
The response continues to surprise him, and has since day one. The improbable nature of a Cajun sit-down franchise, which serves its food on red-checkered paper in square red baskets, is still resonating with guests, regardless of the market. In other words, The Lost Cajun bewilders the heck out of those who walk in the door. Griffin refers to a Rosenberg, Texas, location to illustrate the point.
“When they hear that name—Lost Cajun—they come in there hoping to be happy but expecting to be disappointed,” Griffin says. “But, when we put that plate of samples in front of them and they smell it, you can see their head kind of roll back. They go, ‘This is like my momma’s.’”
This past winter, Griffin found himself feeling lethargic on return flights from new openings. His doctor told him, frankly, he needed to ditch 10,000 feet and return to the Bayou. The story goes that Griffin, who ran a fishing lodge down in Lafitte, Louisiana, a town about 25 miles south of New Orleans, converted his business to a housing facility for BP workers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Gustav, followed up by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The tumultuous stretch led Griffin and his late wife, Belinda, to pack an RV and vacation out to Durango, Colorado. They made it as far as Frisco and ended up sticking. And that’s where his background as a Cajun cook took on new life and met a shocked, but fervent audience.
Now 63, Griffin’s doctor told him it was time to go home. He planted his flag in Slidell, a city of about 30,000 residents on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before The Lost Cajun’s unlikely path took another twist.
Griffin is sitting at home one day when he gets a call from Keith Williams. Williams and Griffin were in the car business together some two decades ago, and he came across a story about The Lost Cajun that piqued his interest. He wanted to open one in the exact state Griffin placed an X through from the outset.
“I said Keith, listen, I will never, never open one in Louisiana. I don’t want the headline to be The Lost Cajun comes home … and gets his ass kicked,” Griffin says.
Times had changed, however. It took only a couple of nights on the town for Griffin to realize he underestimated how good The Lost Cajun’s food really was. Sitting around the table at a local, revered restaurant, a franchisee told Griffin, “If you aspire to be this, I want out.” And this was a triple-figure meal with expensive expectations.
“So after about two months of thinking about it, and eating the food here, and I’m not saying anything bad, but here’s the thing: my stuff is as good or better than a lot of Cajun spots,” Griffin says. “And I know my service is superior. That’s one of the things that we stand on firmly.”
“I tell people all the time. I tell them every day. My food ain’t pretty. It just tastes good,” he adds. The Slidell location is set to open this summer.
What Griffin is finding is that The Lost Cajun’s DNA travels. There are several reasons for this and it’s an evolving conversation, but let’s start from the beginning.
The culture is a serious angle to the concept’s business. And it’s something Griffin can wax on for minutes on end.
“Every time I talk to a franchisee, I ask, ‘Are you treating each other with courtesy and respect? Are we saying thank you, please, and welcome so our guests can hear how we treat each other?’ Because if we can create that good work environment and our employees buy into it, our guests are going to buy into it,” Griffin says. “Our kitchens are open. Guests see what’s going on. They’re going to so see how we treat each other. How we talk to each other. It creates that environment they want to come back to. I call it the murmur. The hubbub in a restaurant. It’s why we still create a sense of community, and why people keep coming back.”
The Lost Cajun sets up seating to spread the vibe. There are no partitions to separate booths. “When you sit down at a Lost Cajun, you better be ready to get friendly,” Griffin laughs. “It’s more than likely your neighbor’s kids are going to be crawling on the floor next to you.”
The culinary aspect of The Lost Cajun, and ensuring consistency with scale, has tested Griffin’s ingenuity. He’s not someone who can ignite a concept, cut a check, and go sit in a hammock, counting royalties. He’s stirring the gumbo, figuratively, and sometimes literally, in every one of his restaurants around the country.
It’s a complex task, though. The Lost Cajun has a commercial commissary kitchen in Denver where gumbo is being made Griffin’s way. It’s still a 4.5-hour process. It’s still cooked for 2 hours at the store level before being served. Currently, Griffin’s in the process of working on a Louisiana commissary to support growth. Also, The Lost Cajun’s headquarters moved to the state along with Griffin.
He brings cooks in from new locations and stands watch as they recreate every step, every process that he’s curated throughout the years to get gumbo to travel well.
“I’m going very slow. Very methodical. Step by step. Making sure that I don’t mess up the one that brought me to the dance,” he says.
Here’s how intense the test cook goes: A team flies down with the gumbo base from Colorado. Cooks will try to make the recipe and Griffin will leave the room. When he gets back they’ll put the Colorado, proven pot and the new one in front of him.
“And when I cannot tell the difference—in the way it looks, smells, tastes in my mouth, then we’ll have it,” he says. In a recent example, Griffin spooned the sample and said it was 75 percent there. “I said we’re missing a step. You either didn’t sweat the vegetables down slow enough. Something is not right. I can tell you right now I know which one is mine. The cook said, ‘You’re absolutely right. You know what, I knew it wasn’t right.’”
And on and on the process goes, with Griffin right there to oversee each step. This won’t be the last commercial kitchen he builds, either. Griffin knows that. He’s also aware that the hands-on nature of his involvement is going to change if this thing hits triple-digit stores.
As it started to get in the teens, Griffin says he realized he couldn’t visit each restaurant, every month like he used. So he started to build an executive time. He hired a franchise business consultant for Colorado and another for Texas. He trained them to be “little Griffs running around.”
“I’m in what I’ve now learned to understand is called the bleed,” Griffin says. “I thought, it was so funny, I thought once I got to 12–15 restaurants I’d be making a big pile of money. Well, that ain’t true.”
Griffin went and found The Lost Cajun’s first major hire—Richard Berns, chief operations officer. Berns’ began his career at Schlotzsky’s, where he helped grow the franchise to more than 100 locations in eight years. He then clocked time at Del Taco before spending 10-plus years at Tilted Kilt, expanding the concept from three to more than 100 restaurants. Next was Richard Leveille, a 30-year industry vet who served as executive vice present of franchise development for 25 years at Smoothie King. In that time, the brand ballooned from a single unit to more than 600. Two more corporate hires are on the way, Griffin adds. He foresees building out an IT program as well. This way, Griffin can start recording training videos so he doesn’t have to try to teach every cook in person. “Before my trainers even get there they’re going to see how Griff does it. They’re going to see my words. They’re going to hear my passion,” he says.
“I’m going to do everything in my power as long as I’m breathing in and out to make absolutely certain that these people get it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the almost serendipitous development of The Lost Cajun’s franchisee base. Griffin doesn’t really advertise the opportunity, at least not yet. He has built the brand by letting capable fans of the concept come to him. This strategy has created a diverse collection of operators who hail from all sorts of backgrounds. “I’m still getting those people out there who are the nuts and bolts, the groundswell,” he says. “They all share one thing in common: The fell in love with The Lost Cajun. You can see that in the way they run the store.”
As fast as The Lost Cajun is growing, Griffin still sees it as a niche concept that will never be on every corner like Subway or Burger King. “We’re not going to be an Outback,” he says. “We’re a niche little market. We’re a destination restaurant. I never want to have one every six blocks. I want to let my franchises drive and do well for themselves and their families. It’s working. And maybe at some point somebody will come on and say I want to do 10 or 15 and they have the wherewithal to do it. And they can convince me they have the right character.”
"I don’t have a board of directors. I don’t have stockholders,” he adds. “Old Griff gets to make the decisions. And that’s what works for me, because you know what? I’m going to be partnering with these guys for 10 or 15 years. I’ve got to like them.”