PepperJax is ‘Cooking with Gas’Mar 17, 2023 12:25PM ● By Joel Stevens
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
In 2002, Gary Rohwer started PepperJax Grill as a modern twist on classic fast food. The entrepreneur and innovator envisioned fresh, made-to-order Philly cheesesteaks prepared for customers as a grill-side experience.
Two decades later, the quick and casual Philly shop that started in Omaha is still going strong—thriving in a highly competitive, always-changing market. They’ve managed to not only stay relevant but also grow in a labor-challenged, supply chain-snagged post-COVID environment.
And they’re doing it exactly as Rohwer intended.
“For us, it’s about the freshness of what we do and coming up with LTOs [limited time offers] and new, fun things to try, and being brilliant at the basics,” said Erin Palladino, PepperJax chief operating officer. “We like to be that go-to, reliable source for customers.”
PepperJax celebrated its 20th anniversary last year with the opening of a new, freestanding store, just a stone’s throw from its original location near 132nd and West Center Road. Rohwer sold the chain in 2016 to a private equity firm; then Nebraska-native Brett Weis acquired the brand in 2017. The chain opened its new corporate headquarters in Omaha near 144th Street and Interstate 80 last fall. Rohwer is no longer involved with the business, but is still a vendor partner, selling his patented, pre-portioned frozen steak to the company.
In the last year, the chain of 33 corporately owned stores across Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota has undergone a brand makeover.
The original red and green pepper logo has been revamped, and the stores themselves are being remodeled for a more modern look. The chain has always featured a mix of freestanding and inline (aka strip mall) retail stores, but they are trending toward more drive-thru access. The new kitchen concept caters to both their takeout and the dine-in customers who consider seeing their food being made as part of the PepperJax experience. In the last year they’ve launched two food trucks—essentially micro-versions of the restaurant kitchens—serving the Omaha area, in addition to their own PepperJax app for easy online ordering.
“It took some trial and error and learning, but where we’re at now, we feel we have the best of both worlds,” Palladino said. “We have two lines; we grill to order whether you are in the drive-thru or in front of house.”
Staying relevant is a process that’s rarely stagnant in successful quick-casual chains. Company growth often hinges on brand growth and offerings matching, or even predicting, customer demand. The diverse menu that started with steak and chicken Phillies also now include smoked brisket and pulled pork, in addition to rice bowls, salads, and loaded fries.
PepperJax’s updated branding and menu dovetails with the pandemic pivot they and many restaurants undertook post-COVID. When staying relevant meant keeping the same freshness and customization customers want without having to get out of their car, PepperJax led the way.
“COVID made us pause and take a look at what we needed to do to adapt,” Palladino said.
Prior to COVID, PepperJax customers were 80% dine-in, 20% takeout. When restaurant dining rooms shut down, the company didn’t delay, overhauling its point-of-sale system and rolling out online ordering in less than 90 days.
“We’ve gotten sharper about our execution and consistency,” Palladino said. “The service level and finding ways to serve all guests in all ways. And perfecting our drive-thru. The one thing we’ve noticed since COVID is that the convenience factor is still relevant with our guests, so being able to add that and get that same freshness and customization but not have to get out of the car, it helps.”
The 80/20 dine-in to takeout ratio has not returned post-COVID, Palladino said. She estimates most stores are in the 50/50 range.
“It’s interesting because we thought that [shift] was pandemic-related only, but here we are a couple years later and we’re still seeing a pretty heavy mix of people who are on the convenience, take it home side,” she said.
Plans to phase in more take-home options, the brand refresh, and the store remodels in the outer markets in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota are all ongoing. Two new PepperJax locations have opened in Omaha since August 2022, and a third will open this summer. Sioux City will get the first freestanding, drive-thru location in the Iowa market later this year.
Palladino, who started at PepperJax as a part-time crew member 18 years ago, said the company goal is 50 corporate-owned locations in its Midwest footprint. But the chain doesn’t plan to stop there.
“Franchising is being considered,” Palladino said. “But its behind our growth goals we have internally. It’s nice to see people are interested in us coming to Arkansas and Arizona and places farther away. I do think there will be a point in time for us when […] franchising will be the next natural growth model for us and what we do.”