ROAST CHICKEN, FRENCH STYLE Towson eatery to be model for franchises


Thirteen years ago, French immigrant Jonathan Soudry was waiter hustling chicken to tables at an upscale restaurant in the Morris Mechanic Theater building in downtown Baltimore.

"I used to see these businessmen come in the dining room and have lunch, and I always felt that someday my turn would come andhopefully I will be in that position," he recalled.

Now that spot is occupied by La Provence, and its owner-chef, Jonathan Soudry, is laying plans to put his recipe for rotisserie chicken on tables across the United States.

Next month, the 42-year-old entrepreneur will open a full-service restaurant called Poulet U.S.A. in a former dinner theater next to Towson State University.

Poulet U.S.A. will be the prototype for one of two new concepts that Mr. Soudry intends to turn into chains of franchised restaurants built around his recipe for poulet (chicken), seasoned in the manner of his native Marseilles and roasted on a spit. The other concept, a fast food-style restaurant called Poulet/Jonathan's Rotisserie-Deli, opened a year ago in Pikesville. Sales there have been "fabulous," said Mr. Soudry.

There is nothing chicken-hearted about Mr. Soudry's ambitions for the twin concepts. He wants to be big. He wants to go nationwide. And he thinks he can do it.

"I have a definite shot to be on the New York Stock Exchange," he said.

Obviously, Mr. Soudry is a man with big dreams. But he also has a track record that inspired enough confidence that he has been able to recruit a partner with deep pockets, the state of Maryland.

Through the Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority, the state has guaranteed a $650,000 loan from Maryland National Bank to start Poulet U.S.A. The state program is also taking a $100,000 equity position in Mr. Soudry's company, giving the state a 5 percent share in the franchise venture's future profits.

That means that if the venture turns out to be the next Kentucky Fried Chicken, Maryland would share in the wealth. If it goes bust, the state is potentially out $600,000.

Mr. Soudry said the state's participation was crucial to raising the $1.5 million needed to launch Poulet U.S.A., which is also backed by $250,000 of his own money. Without some form of protection against default, banks are reluctant to make loans to small restaurant companies, he said.

Randy Croxton, program manager for the authority's Equity Participation Investment Program, is convinced the state has made a wise decision.

"Jonathan has a very strong entrepreneurial drive, yet he's very sensitive to individuals and people within his organization," said Mr. Croxton. He added that Mr. Soudry has been consistently profitable and was able to generate traffic at a location that posed problems for its previous owner. Besides La Provence and the two Poulets, Mr. Soudry also owns the Food Bazaar and Grandslam Deli at Hopkins Plaza.

Mr. Croxton isn't counting on Poulet's becoming a national powerhouse, but he thinks it has a good shot at becoming a strong regional company that will fulfill the goal of the program by creating a lot of jobs in Maryland. The Towson Poulet, for instance, is expected to employ about 150 people.

Mr. Soudry has yet to launch his first franchise, though he said he has registered his legally required disclosure statement and has one franchisee in training. For now, the main task is to open Poulet U.S.A. on York Road, which he will own.

Poulet U.S.A. will offer the same rotisserie chicken that Mr. Soudry sells at the Jonathan's Rotisserie/Deli in Pikesville, but it will also have a full restaurant menu.

Poulet U.S.A. and Poulet/Jonathan's join a burgeoning number of restaurants specializing in rotisserie chicken, including Boston Chicken and Kenny Rogers. Some fast-food chains, including Roy Rogers and KFC, also have added roast chicken to their menus.

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