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Daphne's California Greek CEO: 'Jury's out' on social media

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Young, active people have been a desirable demographic for Daphne’s California Greek ever since the Mediterranean-style restaurant emerged from bankruptcy two years ago and launched a hefty revamp effort.

The company hires “cool high school kids,” said Chief Executive Bill Trefethen, a mountain biker, surfer, tennis player, snowboarder and guitar player who seems much younger than his 47 years. Daphne’s also backs a youth surf team mentored by star Kelly Slater and features up-and-coming musicians.

When asked why Carlsbad-based Daphne’s is holding off on an initial public offering, Trefethen explains: “We’re only in junior high. We need to get to prom.”

But for a company so dedicated to being young-at-heart, Daphne’s is extremely ambivalent about one of the fresh-faced set’s favorite pastimes -- using social media.

“Everything now is about social media, but the jury’s out,” Trefethen said. “We won’t spend any more money on Facebook advertising to get more fans -- we’re not sure what kind of returns we’re getting out of it. It’s like paying someone to set you up on dates.”

Instead, Daphne’s is more inclined toward hand-to-hand consumer engagement: using local print publications, sending out mailers, showing up at events such as the U.S. Open and driving word of mouth, Trefethen said.

Trefethen also tries “not to pound the drum as much” when it comes to sourcing ingredients. The company tries to buy locally and attempts to keep its menus under 700 calories a serving, but realizes that sometimes it can’t.

And using organic goods is expensive and “doesn’t always taste better,” Trefethen said.

Making such determinations has been part of Trefethen’s experience since he and a group of investors bought Daphne’s in 2010.

With 55 restaurants, most in California, “we have a long way to go before we’re Chipotle,” he said. He considers the chain, along with quick service companies such as Pei Wei and Panera, to be Daphne’s true competitors, rather than Mediterranean-style restaurants such as Cava Mezze Grill and Zoes Kitchen.

In the 2000s, Daphne’s -- then known as Daphne’s Greek Cafe -- “was a hot concept”, Trefethen said.

But the chain expanded too fast, following the real estate boom through California and slightly beyond. Executives ignored the rise of other fast-casual competitors, which began poaching away customers and workers.

The arrival of the recession caused “a perfect storm,” Trefethen said.

“They never invested in the brand and couldn’t hold their own ground,” he said. “The company was outdated. But there’s nothing wrong with the core concept.”

Now, Trefethen and his crew are working on getting Daphne’s “fine tuned.” The team added “California” to the chain’s name to overcome the “big level of unfamiliarity with Greek food” and to work healthful options into the menu.

Trefethen is “still optimizing portfolio size,” working on franchising options and trying to claim a foothold in the crowded commercial real estate market.

“We’ll see how successful it ultimately is,” he said. ‘The track is slower than I initially thought. California isn’t the easiest place to do business. But the concept could easily go national.”

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