Laz Montoto cut his hospitality teeth cutting carrots in a world-class restaurant in his native Miami. Now, even through the coronavirus crisis, he’s dishing out expansion plans for his Greenville-based chain of Cuban-flavored restaurants — a long way from his days washing dishes at age 14.
Montoto, who moved to Greenville in 2007 and launched Tropical Chicken Grille with his wife, Shadid, in 2010, recalls his training from a five-star chef who took on Montoto as a 15-year-old protégé. That teacher later went on to become Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s personal cuisinier.
“I would chop up these hundred pounds of carrots, and when I was halfway through, if it wasn’t perfect, he’d throw the whole thing away, and I had to start over,” says Montoto, now 38 and CEO and founder of the fast-casual chain now simply called Tropical Grille.
Today, his restaurant group comprises seven Upstate stores, one in Charleston and at least two scheduled — if all goes well — in Charlotte and on property he purchased recently at Verdae Boulevard and Woodruff Road.
In early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered restaurants, his stores started offering pickup service. And the first week after closing to walk-in customers, Montoto’s operation, with about 300 employees, served some 3,000 Greenville schoolchildren.
“I grew up very poor, and school lunch was extremely vital to my success growing up,” he says. “That’s where I got my meals.”
On a Thursday in mid-March, the second-generation-Cuban entrepreneur closed a deal with a franchisee in Columbia. And a few weeks before that, Montoto joined franchise business consultant Brian Shelton, 48, and pizza restaurateur Tony King, 37, to purchase the entirety of Tipsy Taco’s operations: six corporate stores and two franchises.
“That’s bittersweet,” says Roger Carlton, Tipsy Taco’s co-founder and now-former co-owner. “We went to the closing March 9, and I got my money in my account on March 10, and those guys got closed down the next Tuesday. That’s not the way we wanted it.”
His meal ticket now comes from an ambitious plan to put upwards of 100 stores in neighboring states — and beyond — in the coming few years.
Meantime, Montoto, who had already bought his own Tipsy Taco franchise in late 2019, says he shares that company’s same aggressive vision for growing Tropical Grille’s brand.
“He wants the Tropical Grille to be as big as it possibly can be and be very strategic about it — same as Tipsy,” Shelton says. “As we grow Tipsy Taco, I think Tropical Grille’s going to grow as organically as it already has.”
Chris Martin, district manager of Tipsy Taco, says he has known Montoto for years. After all, the two establishments sit opposite each other in Pelham Commons.
“I love working for Roger and Trish,” he says, referring to Carlton’s business partner, Trish Balentine, “but I’ll be fine working for these guys, too. I’m used to change in the restaurant business.”Montoto is, too, although he says deciding to move into franchising was difficult.
“It’s still not an easy decision, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I’ve heard horror stories of franchising, and I still want to grow more aggressively on the corporate side than I do on the franchise side.”
Likening the franchisor-franchisee relationship to a marriage, he says he has accepted just two of 20 applicants who want to open a Tropical Grille and to pay the $35,000 franchise fee and monthly royalties. He declines to name the newest franchisee in Columbia, a 20-year restaurant veteran.
“The demand’s been there for a long time, but the only reason we don’t have more Tropicals right now is because I wasn’t comfortable taking on people’s money until I felt like I had the right policies, procedures [and] proof of concept down,” he says. “I feel like now is the time to go ahead and do that.”
TROPICAL GRILLE through the years
- 1996 — Laz Montoto, just turned 14 years old, starts as a dishwasher at a Miami restaurant
- 2003 — Marries Shadid, who becomes his business partner
- 2005 — Takes a management position at Smith & Wollensky, a high-end steakhouse now with nine restaurants in Las Vegas, Chicago, London and Taipei, Taiwan, among others
- 2007 — Moves to Greenville with his wife and family after visiting an aunt here and attending Brookwood Church. “Honestly, I wanted to have a place to raise my kids that was friendlier than Miami,” he says. “You have to have very, very thick skin to grow up in Miami. You cannot let your guard down for a second in Miami. I wanted them to grow up with peace.”
- Mid-2000s — Manages a Ruby Tuesday restaurant
- 2009 — Begins planning a Cuban restaurant with Shadid, along with his mother and stepfather, Susie and Jimmy Zabala
- 2010 — Opens Tropical Chicken Grille on Pelham Road
- 2011 — Changes name to Tropical Grille, opens store at Highway 14 and Woodruff Road
- 2018 — Opens in Mauldin, the largest location at the time
- 2019 — Purchases 3,200-square-foot building at 1628 Woodruff Road, site of longtime J.L. Toppers restaurant, for $950,000 and relocates Tropical Grille from 1941 Woodruff Road
- Midsummer 2019 — Construction begins on Spartanburg store
- 2019 — Purchases Tipsy Taco franchise on Woodruff Road
- March 2020 — Purchases entire Tipsy Taco chain with fellow hospitality-industry veterans Brian Shelton and Tony King for an undisclosed sum
- Sources: Greenville Journal, Colliers and Facebook
“I love fine dining to my core. I despised fast-casual, but it was the opportunity I had at the time, and I felt like it was the right move, and I wanted something that was scalable. I knew that if I did a true fine-dining establishment, I practically have to live there.”