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Come Saturday Morning: Baghdad Bob Sutton Strikes Again!

As mentioned last week, Republican Party of Minnesota chair and Baja Sol owner Tony Sutton, despite all the evidence to the contrary, insists via his wife and co-owner Bridget that Baja Sickly is going to be back on the mend once Army Group Steiner shows up:

Sutton said she wants to open as many as six Baja Sol Tortilla Grills in the next year and as many as 12 over the next two years. The first new store is scheduled to open at the Fountains of Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove on Oct. 4, replacing a recently closed location in downtown Minneapolis. (Chipotle is moving into that downtown space, read that story here.)The company allowed its lease at U.S. Bank Plaza to expire and will remodel its nearby location at City Center to accommodate extra traffic.

The company also plans to expand beyond Minnesota again, targeting a nine-state area in the Upper Midwest. The first stop will be the Chicago market, where Sutton said she expects to sign four deals soon.

“We’ll continue to develop Minnesota, but in order to keep deals moving at a fast enough pace, we need a new market,” she said, noting that private funds will fuel the growth.

Baja Sold now has 13 restaurants, six of which are company owned. There are two Baja Sol Cantina full-service restaurants, 10 Baja Sol Tortilla Grill fast-casual locations and one Baja Joe’s Beachfront Grill.

Now where have I heard this before? Ah, here’s a Franchise Times article from April of 2007, a year and a half before the stock market crash and recession the Suttons blame for all their woes:

…now Minnesota is also home to a Mexican restaurant chain poised to take on Chipotle, Qdoba and other national brands.

At least that’s Baja Sol Restaurants Group CEO Tony Sutton’s gameplan. The chain, with 10 restaurants in the Twin Cities area, recently signed a nine-unit development agreement in the central Ohio area. The first restaurant in Columbus is expected to open in June.

The development agreement is part of a flurry of activity that began in October 2006, when Sutton, his wife, Bridgett and retired TCF CEO Bill Cooper purchased the company from then-owner Mike Platt. The Suttons were franchisees of two restaurants in Minneapolis, and, “As the old saying goes, we liked the company so much, we bought the whole thing,” Sutton said.

Of the nine planned for Ohio, only four actually opened; all of these locations are now closed, and one of them was only open for four months, from September of 2009 to January of 2010, a collapse blamed on the economy.

Speaking of the economy, it didn’t seem so bad to the Suttons — and apparently their good friend and co-owner Bill Cooper — in December of 2008, when this story hit the news:

Earlier this week, Baja Sol opened their second Cantina location in Eden Prairie, and today, they opened a Baja Sol Fresh Tortilla Grill in Woodbury. …

The Eden Prairie location is the first of ten Cantinas and the Woodbury site is one of 20 Baja Sol Tortilla Grills (counter service concept) that are scheduled to open nationally in 2009 for the aggressively growing chain. “Even though other concepts have been struggling in this economy, Baja Sol is built with a solid foundation focusing on providing family friendly, fast and delicious food. These factors have allowed for this growth in an unsure economy,” said Baja Sol president Bridget Sutton.

And here’s an equally chipper press release — erm, article — from July of 2009:

In the midst of an economic downturn that has forced many restaurants to seek bankruptcy protection or close their doors altogether, Minnesota-based chain Baja Sol Restaurants Group, Inc. today announced plans to expand heavily into Wisconsin. Company President, Bridget Sutton and other Baja Sol representatives will start in Eau Claire, WI on Monday, July 13 to meet with prospective franchisees.

[…]

In light of the current economic conditions, Baja Sol Restaurants have been bucking the trend. “Even though other concepts have been struggling in this economy, Baja Sol remains strong and continues to grow,” said Baja Sol president Bridget Sutton. She continued; “Baja Sol’s sales increases have outpaced the industry every year for the last three years, and the chain has more than doubled in size during that same period.”

The chain has current locations in Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio. Sutton explains their intentions for Wisconsin; “expanding into Wisconsin now is a natural extension of our growth. Eau Claire, Madison, the Dells, La Crosse, and of course Milwaukee are excellent areas that are good fits for Baja Sol’s concepts.” Sutton cites several factors for their success: the increasing availability of good real estate, more reasonable leasing and construction costs, the continuing growth of Latin food, and Baja Sol Restaurants’ brand diversification.

Here’s an exercise for the reader: Try Googling “baja sol wisconsin”. Find anything besides references to this July 2009 article? Such as, say, evidence for the existence of Baja Sol franchises in Wisconsin? Me neither. In fact, there are no locations left open outside of Minnesota. The sole Illinois location was open for not quite nine months before it shut down in late October of 2009, and the former franchisees are not happy with the Suttons:

The business started off well, with customers dropping into the highly visible restaurant at 5273 W. 95th St.

Then sales started slipping. By the end of July, they took a nose dive.

[Franchisee Mark] Wicks said he expected more marketing help from Baja Sol’s Minnesota-based corporate representatives to combat the sliding sales.

That never happened, he said.

Meanwhile, Mark and [Mark’s son and co-franchisee] Terry Wicks, along with Shari [Wyatt, Mark’s daughter and other co-franchisee], started worrying.

[…]

They hoped for a reduction in rent from their landlords and an extension on a bank loan. They asked Baja Sol to let them slide temporarily on the royalty payments owed.

“We gave them notice that we cannot survive,” Mark Wicks said.

[…]

Wicks said the chain wanted to introduce a new product, a hamburger, to help boost sales. But he said the only help they got in launching the new product was a guy sent from headquarters “with no other reason than to teach us how to cook a hamburger.”

Bridget Sutton, of course, disputes all of this, and at the time of this article in November 2009, had big plans to not only reopen the failed location, but expand to several more in the Chicago area:

Although the Oak Lawn store remains vacant, the company has been talking with the landlord and plans to send a regional manager to re-open the restaurant, Sutton said. Five more Baja Sols are slated to open in and around Chicago in 2010, she said.

Well, there’s about two and a half months left in 2010, and there’s not a Baja Sol at the Oak Lawn location or anywhere else in Illinois.

So you can see where I might be a touch skeptical about the latest Baghdad-Bob-esque claims of expansion. Ever since the Suttons and their banker friend Mr. Cooper bought the chain in 2006, its history has been studded with restaurants that never were or which couldn’t last more than a few months. If any mere mortals who weren’t politically wired tried this, the banks would laugh in their faces when they came around for another operating loan. But such considerations apparently do not exist for the man who not only is the current chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, but is good buddies with a banker guy who is one of the party’s former chairs. Nice.

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