Richard Zaro is trying to do for the chicken cutlet sandwich what Sweetgreen did for salads and Chipotle for bowls: disrupt it.
Zaro’s natural chicken cutlet sandwich shop in New York City is about to expand. His original Cutlets Sandwich Co, located near Madison Square Park on Broadway, opened in December 2020, on a six-month lease and is slated to close mid-June.
But in 2021, Zaro, whose great grandfather launched the famed Zaro’s Bakery, is set to open four new locations by October. The first one, slated for mid-June, will be located at Third Avenue and 13th Street, not far from a slew of colleges including New York University, the New School and Cooper Union. The second one near Herald Square and Macy’s should open in early July, and next up is Williamsburg.
It continues to operate its ghost kitchen, located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for takeout and delivery, which will likely be replaced by a new storefront in that neighborhood. The fourth location hasn’t been identified yet.
Zaro’s signature chicken cutlet sandwich consists of chicken from independently owned farms and purveyors, using unprocessed proteins, and is free from antibiotics, hormones, added sugars and chemicals of any kind.
Zaro, who is 31-years-old, said that its goal was to “pay respect to the deli sandwiches we know and love by bringing exceptional ingredients to the table.” He says he was raised on “chicken cutlet wedges and turkey sandwiches” from Westchester’s quintessential deli’s near where he grew up in Harrison, N.Y.
Zaro learned the business in the old-fashioned way: working at his family’s Zaro’s bakery from 2014 through 2020. He managed operations at its busy Grand Central location and oversaw catering services.
He calls most chicken cutlet sandwiches “rubbery” because they’re buying from national purveyors and preparing it with pre-made chicken, and not cooked from scratch as his are.
“We make the bread crumbs in house, and add simple ingredients-flour, egg wash, and it’s fried to order,” he says.
But if it’s fried, isn’t it high in calories and not particularly healthy? “I’m not saying it’s healthy, calorie-wise. You’re not eating preservatives or genetically modified food. You’re eating fried foods with carbs,” he acknowledges.
And the crunchy chicken sandwiches that are trendy at Popeyes and Chick-fil-a, he describes as “frozen pieces of chicken that are more Southern fried chicken.”
He says deli sandwiches have “stagnated” while Sweetgreen disrupted salads and companies like Chipotle, Cava and DigInn transformed bowls.
The signature sandwiches at Cutlets Sandwich include: chicken cutlet with bacon, white cheddar and its special sauce, herb roasted turkey with provolone, and grilled chicken with fresh mozzarella, arugula and red peppers.
Consumer feedback on Yelp was extremely positive. One woman noted that she ordered a grilled chicken cutler hero for delivery and it arrived “hot and tasty, without being soggy, which is impressive for a delivery.” Another customer said “the cutlets are crispy and the special sauce is on point too.”
To fund its four new locations, Zaro is providing about 15% of the capital, and the remainder is stemming from three venture capital funds, Riverside Ventures, Arete Capital and Ryan Bloomer, founder of K2Ventures.
All of the outlets will offer off-premises delivery including curbside pick-up and mobile app ordering and third party delivery.
During the six-month stay on Broadway, about 60% of sales stemmed from off-premises. As workers start returning to offices, he expects that business will increase from in-store visits. And that will increase its margins by decreasing the cost of paying third-party delivery services.
And prices are moderate, by Manhattan standards. The classic chicken cutlet on a roll goes for $11 and with a $3 beverage equates to dinner under $15.
Both locations debuting will have limited seating with about 15 seats on Third Avenue and 35 seats near Herald Square.
Expanding at the tail end of a pandemic has contributed to its growth. “There’s a lot of retail space available. We can open at a fraction of the cost; the pandemic has been an opportunity,” he explains.
At the Broadway storefront, about 75% of business was from lunch, but he says, “Dinner is growing now that people are coming back to Manhattan.”
Looking into the future, he says its goals are simple: “We want to have four stores operating profitably, and we have ongoing plans to open more.”
He’s targeting areas such as Hoboken or near the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick. “We see a huge opportunity,” he declares, going beyond those locations.
He pinpoints the three keys to its future success as “consistency of product and service, keeping the food simple and clean, and respect and honesty toward our customers and employees.”