Small Fry Finds Success In the Big City

It's a hot, sticky late-summer Monday morning in New York City, and Suzanne Levinson has a lot on her mind.

An inspector from the Internal Revenue Service and a newspaper reporter are both waiting to see her, a shipment of the Russet Burbank potatoes is turning from starch to sugar, and the french fries are less than perfect today.

She waves a gorgeous, slightly browned, fragrant, mouth-watering temptation of a french fry in front of a visitor's face. "To you this looks like a french fry," Ms. Levinson explains. (Actually, to the visitor it looks like a slice of heaven.)

"To me, it's not quite right."

But don't imagine for a moment that Levinson, the owner of Pommes Frites (pronounced "pum freet"), a 500-square-foot french-fries-only take-out restaurant in New York's funky East Village, doesn't like her work. "I love my business," she enthuses. "When the french fries are great I'm the happiest person in the world."

Levinson has a lot to be happy about these days. In January 1997, she opened her highly original concept for business, and much of the world has beaten a path to her door ever since.

On a typical day, some 400 customers visit Levinson's tiny shop to purchase french fries.

On weekends, the tourists make a beeline for Pommes Frites, and the daily customer count zooms as high as 900, with the line often snaking down the block.

Sales at Pommes Frites average about $10,000 week, which works out to about three tons of spuds.

Levinson packs the potatoes into paper cones for $2.50, $3.85, and $5 - no charge for plain ketchup or mayonnaise. But besides being fussy about the finish quality of her fries, Levinson adds a flourish to the taters with exotic sauces. For another 50 cents, you can dab your fries in one of some 20 specialty sauces, from roasted garlic mayo to Dijon garlic mustard.

The idea for a fries-only business came to Levinson while she was working for a US-based tour company and traveling often to Europe for her work. She came to love the shops selling french fries or "frites" in Belgium and wondered, "Why can't Americans enjoy this great idea?"

She bought a fryer in Belgium and carried it home to the US, making fries for friends in the Belgian style - fried twice - and testing her idea for a shop.

Finally, in October 1995, she quit her tour job and started down the road to being an entrepreneur. She spent six months in the New York Public Library and today credits her research skills - she was a history major in college - with much of the success of her business.

In April 1996 she approached Chase Manhattan bank with a business plan and an application for a $100,000 loan. She says the bank, apparently amazed by her thoroughness, told her it was one of the best business plans they had seen and loaned her the money.

That research, Levinson says, convinced her that a fry shop could capitalize on several trends - specifically, consumers who are pressed for time, more interested in grazing than eating regular meals, and intrigued by made-from-scratch food items with a homey touch.

And she learned that Americans are increasingly interested in trying new food items and are intrigued by a foreign ambiance.

It was simply "the right idea at the right moment," says Levinson.

A few competitors have popped up in New York since Pommes Frites opened its doors, but Levinson says none have quite replicated her formula.

She is presently scouting a second site in Manhattan but doesn't envision more than two or three company-owned stores, all in New York.

Beyond that, she'd like to grow the concept through franchising and is currently talking to five potential franchisees, all of whom would like to carry the Pommes Frites concept to other parts of the US.

Some market observers, however, express doubt about Pommes Frites as a franchise vehicle.

"I fear single-product concepts," says franchising consultant Michael Seid of Michael Seid & Associates in West Hartford, Conn. "They don't leave a lot of wiggle room. If anything happens to the market, there's nothing to fall back on."

But Toronto-based New York Fries - with most units in Canada - has been making the fries-only concept work since 1983. Although the group recently added hot dogs to several of its 127 locations, executive vice president Warren Price says, "We didn't need to. We were doing fine with the fries alone."

Mr. Warren has seen Pommes Frites and acknowledges it's "like us" but the sauces make it "somewhat more sophisticated."

As for Levinson, she's already excited about her next business idea. It's going to be another single-item store and another European import, but it's not food.

She isn't ready to say what it is. All she'll say is, "They got such great stuff in Europe. I'm amazed no one's thought of doing this before."

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