Longtime entrepreneurs Debra and Khen Raviv, co-owners of Toasted, LLC, felt there was a market for a chain of unique, casual sandwich shops in Connecticut. Innovation Destination Harford spoke with Debra about the couple’s entrepreneurial journey and plans for future growth.
IDH: Were you always an entrepreneurial? Did you always know you were going on your own business?
RAVIV: Yes, I was definitely entrepreneurial. I grew up in a household of entrepreneurial parents who ran their own business for 25 years. I went to Syracuse University and post-graduation decided to move to Europe where I trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Then, at 25, a business partner and I opened The Frog & The Peach, which was in Canton, CT. We were there five years. I worked for people in the industry in between each of my own projects. So I have worked for other restauranteurs, but I would say yes, I was kind of laser-focused on having my own business.
IDH: Toasted launched in 2013 as a food truck. You opened the Hartford storefront in 2015. Tell us about that evolution.
RAVIV: After having two full-service restaurants and three kids, Khen and I decided we wanted to do something different. We looked into the quick service restaurant (QSR) industry. I did a lot of research and attended some franchising expos. We liked the flexibility of being able to duplicate a storefront that’s small without table service.
IDH: At what point did you decide we don’t want to do a franchise, we want to do our own thing?
RAVIV: I think there’s a lack of creative control with a franchise; you’re not reaping the full benefits of your hard work. It’s 100 times harder to start your own franchise, for sure. It would have been easier to just buy something. But that’s not always going to make you successful.
We really believed that we had our own idea and we believe there is room for another chain, whether we stay as a corporate-run company or we switch to franchise, I don’t know.
IDH: How did you develop the business concept for Toasted?
RAVIV: We asked ourselves: What’s missing in the market? Where is the food industry going?
The Toasted concept developed because we felt the market was lacking really good sandwiches. We originally planned to open a storefront and have a chain of Toasteds. How we got to the food truck is another story.
We spent six months looking for a location in New Haven—we originally wanted to launch near Yale. We couldn’t find any spaces that were under 2,000 ft.² We spend lot of time in New York City, where there are so many food trucks—that gave us the idea to start with a food truck and test the market before diving into a fixed lease. So we purchased a food truck, had it retrofitted, and decided to launch in Hartford because we live in West Hartford.
When we launched in the spring of 2013 in Bushnell Park we had such a great response. Since then, we have more than 3,000 people following us on Facebook and more than 650 Instagram followers.
Our next step was opening the storefront. We decided to be a Hartford-based company. About 15 months after the food truck we signed a lease in downtown Hartford. This is our flagship. The reception to having the storefront was even better than the food truck. People absolutely loved it.
IDH: Is the food truck still in operation?
RAVIV: No, we don’t go out daily anymore. We still go out several times a week, but we’ll go to companies like The Hartford and MassMutual, or we do private events at places like UConn Health Hospital or Hartford Hospital.
And then on the weekends we do tons of events. We do all the University of Connecticut football games at Rentschler Field, we are contracted through the food service company. We are inside the stadium, which is a really cool venue.
That’s actually how we got to UConn. We developed so many relationships from being at the UConn football games that we started getting approached by the developers at Storrs Center.
IDH: Tell us more about that.
RAVIV: In September we’re going to open a second location at Storrs Center. That relationship with UConn is really good for us because we are very student-friendly. Because of the food truck events we do at UConn, the students already know who we are. We have a good visibility there.
We also recently signed with IMG, so we’ll be the official sandwich of UConn and we’ll be a UConn sponsor of athletics. That relationship is really big for us because we can use the UConn logo on everything we do.
IDH: Do you have plans for additional locations?
RAVIV: We have ideas. We always had a five-year goal, which was that we want to have a minimum of 10 stores. I think once you pass that second and third location, you’re able to grow more quickly. The first couple locations are challenging because you’re an unknown and it’s hard to negotiate good deals. Once you have two, three, four stores, the people you work with—vendors, landlords—they know you. You become a household name and you start to have more leverage.
We’re looking in New Haven. We always wanted to be near Yale. It’s a really hot area. The casino would be a phenomenal area too, but it’s very tough to get in there. We’re also looking at the southern part of the state, and then beyond that we are thinking of Massachusetts.
IDH: So you’re thinking you will branch out to other states?
RAVIV: Definitely. We would like to be in every state.
Our concept is duplicable. We have all the systems in place in terms of inventory and ordering. We can really be anywhere because we don’t have hot kitchens, which gives us a lot of flexibility. Toasted could be in an airport, a bus or train station, or even a kiosk.
That’s what motivates us—figuring out where we’ll have our next store. The one at UConn is going to be bigger and different, we need to think about what we’ll change compared to the Hartford store. With each location, you get a little better.
IDH: It’s sort of how you innovate.
IDH: How many employees do you have?
RAVIV: Currently, we have about 10. I was director of the Hartford Culinary Arts Academy in 2009. I ran an internship program there with Capital Workforce Partners, where I groomed seniors and placed them in local restaurants. Some of those interns now work at Toasted.
Our staff will probably double or triple with the UConn store opening. Hartford is very corporate, so we’re Monday through Friday, nothing on the weekends except for the truck. UConn will be seven days a week, with late-night hours, and we’re going to do deliveries. So, it looks very different in terms of staffing.
IDH: You mentioned Hartford and how you wanted to have a presence here, why was that important to you?
RAVIV: Hartford fit our demographic. We wanted to be in a corporate, urban, downtown location.
I was born and raised a few miles from here. It felt like this draw to be in Hartford. It just felt like the city needed more local options. And we’re very involved with the city.
IDH: How so?
RAVIV: For example, we’ve had the food truck at Envisionfest Hartford. We help out with non-profits including the Jordan Porco Foundation, The Caliber Foundation, and the Hartford Police Athletic League (PAL)—we feed all the PAL kids during the season.
We are also charitable to organizations in Hartford, for instance we donate gifts to Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE). We’re working to promote the city in any way we can. Any time we can do something in Hartford that’s either helping the city or donating back to the city, we try to be involved.
IDH: And that’s important to you because?
RAVIV: It’s absolutely important because you need to support the community where you have a business. About 90% of our employees come from Hartford. The more we can do to help increase the economic development in the city, the better we feel about it. We feel like we’re helping to contribute to the reviving of the city.
IDH: How do you define success?
RAVIV: The definition of success is not always financial. I think that’s part of it—you definitely want to be financially successful or else your business won’t stay open.
But success for me also means that every day I go to work I feel good about what I do. I like to come to work. It’s also important that our employees like to come to work. So success is having people who work for you feel satisfied and happy to come to work, too.
IDH: Any advice for people starting their own companies?
RAVIV: I didn’t know this when I opened my first restaurant, but my advice would be: You cannot expect success overnight. You have to be patient. And you have to know that it’s a lot of hard work.
I’m a hustler. Last summer we were in the final cut for Shark Tank. In order to do that, you have to be a hustler. You have to be out there every day pounding the pavement, finding the new customers, figuring out what you can do to increase your sales, and also always looking at what’s next.
If you’re not looking at what’s next, your company is not growing. If you’re not growing as a company, you’re dragging. You have to find ways to increase your sales every day. You can’t just sit back and say: I hope people come in. You always have to be out there. It’s constantly changing, there’s always more competition, prices are always going up, and you have to find new ways to reinvent yourself. And that’s a challenge.
Learn more about Toasted by visiting getittoasted.com.