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SALSARITA'S CANTINA COMING TO AREA

Another Tex-Mex restaurant chain is looking to open locations in the Buffalo area.

Salsarita's Fresh Cantina is looking to open 25 restaurants from Buffalo to Syracuse during the next three to five years.

The master franchisee for this region is Joseph F. Case, who has experience opening Quiznos Subs franchises in Georgia and South Carolina. Case is currently looking for franchise owners and expects to open the first Salsarita's in Buffalo or Rochester next year.

"Down in the south, the real estate is extremely tight," said Case, a Rochester native who plans to move from South Carolina to either Buffalo or Rochester. "Here, prime real estate locations are available and you have no players within this market segment."

Salsarita's isn't the only Tex-Mex chain that sees Buffalo as an enticing market because of the lack of competition and affordable real estate.

Earlier this year, Moe's Southwest Grill announced it would open its first restaurant early next year at 3195 Southwestern Blvd. in the Town of Orchard Park, in the same shopping center as Tops Markets and the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse under construction. Two other locations are planned for Buffalo and Amherst.

The fast-casual, Tex-Mex segment generates sales of $850 million a year for the restaurant industry, according to QSR, a trade publication for quick-service restaurants.

Salsarita's, based in Charlotte, N.C., has 12 restaurants now and will have 18 by the end of this year. Forty more restaurants are planned for 2005. Restaurants are under construction in New Jersey, Maryland, northern Virginia and Minneapolis.

"We think that the product will do very well in the Buffalo area," said Bruce Willette, who founded Salsarita's in 1999 and serves as president and CEO. "We have an opportunity to go into business with some very good operators. They feel that this segment is somewhat new to the area."

Salsarita's has a festive, cantina atmosphere. Guests can sit at a bar and order margaritas and tacos, much like they would at a sushi bar.

"You saddle up to the bar, fill out your form and we make your food right in front of you," Willette said.

The restaurants are 2,000 square feet to 3,000 square feet and seat 50 to 90. Same-store sales have risen 15 percent this year, Willette said.

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com

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