As seen on The Florida Times-Union Jacksonville.

Written By: Ann Friedman | March 9th, 2018


Metro Diner is going national while staying local.

The Jacksonville-based restaurant concept that will open its 50th location next week in Sarasota is gearing up to open more than 35 locations in 13 states this year.

“I’m dedicated to defining Metro Diner as the total family dining experience,” said Mark Davoli, who took over Metro Diner in 2000 along with his father, John Sr., and his brother John Jr. “With my partners Chris Sullivan, a founder of Outback Steakhouse; Hugh Connerty Jr.; and Carl Sahlsten, we made fun, family and exciting the words to live by at Metro Diner and are dedicating our attention to growth.”

Metro Diner, which says it offers “comfort food with flair,” has breakfast menu items that include biscuits and gravy, breakfast pie and a 12-inch pancake. Lunch and dinner options include meatloaf, chicken pot pie and a Holy Davoli Burger.

It already has locations in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This year the company will open its first locations in New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina.

“We’re adding 35 locations this year, so it’s conceivable that we’ll add 45 next year and 50 the following year,” Mark Davoli said. “I could see us having 400 to 500 diners.

“If we continue to do things the way we’re doing, take care of guests, and serve great food, the sky’s the limit.”

University of North Florida Coggin College of Business Professor Paul Fadil said Metro Diner seems to have found a formula that works well in many areas.

“Their unique items, large servings and good service work pretty well with most people, especially in the South,” he said. “It would surprise me if they didn’t expand.”

Plenty of restaurant chains are expanding these days, but some face rough going based on reports in the industry trades and investor publications. New locations are less efficient and have lower sales, which reportedly led Zoe’s Kitchen to slow its expansion rate last year from 20 percent down to 10 percent. BJ’s Brewhouse said in the fall it would scale back its expansion rate from 10 new locations a year to four to six. Chipotle Mexican Grill is said to be opening fewer new stores in order to focus on improving outdated ones it already has.

Fadil said the biggest thing restaurants have to pay attention to when expanding is maintaining the level of quality.

“They really have to have good people in place who maintain the culture and train the staff well,” he said. “They need people who understand the Metro Diner culture and can’t differ from what’s made them successful.”

Davoli said, “We have a joint-venture partner in each area and a managing partner who runs the location. … The managing partners are local owners from the communities the diners open in.”

Each manager will open up two to four locations per year, he said, “so they have time to develop their diner prior to opening up another one.”

Finding good employees is a challenge, Davoli said, and that’s where the local partners come in.

“It’s crucial to have a great team in place,” he said. “When you have the right managing partner in place, they’re local, so they often have people who have worked with them in the past.”

During the training week prior to the restaurant opening its doors, Davoli said, the company’s culture is instilled in the 100 employees who are trained at each Metro Diner location.

“We do a full week of hands-on training and classroom training for employees,” he said. “Our managers go through a 12-week training program in another diner with an experienced team.

“We also have food experts who handle a group of eight diners and will go in to watch over what’s going on, which is how we’re able to ensure consistency.”

As Metro Diner continues to expand, Fadil said, he hopes it’s selective about growth opportunities.

“I hope they have a strategy that will allow for sustained growth as opposed to an explosion followed by a decline,” he said. “I also hope they do Jacksonville proud.”