When Shila Morris was 17 and her younger sister Kay Young was 10, their parents cashed in all of their savings and retirement funds to buy a tiny concept called Squeeze In in Truckee, Calif. “Tiny” isn’t overstated, by the way – the restaurant that sold omelets and bloody Marys to locals and tourists was (and still is) just 10 feet wide and 62 feet long, seating just 39 guests. Hence the name.
“You have to squeeze in to have your experience,” Kay said during a recent interview. Shila added that the reason their family fell in love with it is because of its food (the 1-liter “Hail Mary” blood Marys are served with a grilled cheese sandwich garnish, for example) and that unique experience created by the restaurant’s footprint, as well as its environment.
“It’s energizing, fun, the music is bumping, a surfboard is hanging from the ceiling, so is a beach cruiser bicycle,” Kay added. “You can sign a wall with a Sharpie. The walls are bright yellow to orange gradient. It’s very textural. You can small French toast and bacon and see the omelets coming up to the window. It’s all part of that familial, community feeling.”
That community is part of the reason the sisters say Squeeze In, which they call their third sister, is finally all grown up heading into its 50th year. It hasn’t been an easy journey by any stretch of the imagination – though the sisters frequently note that’s the drama of American entrepreneurship.
“It sounds fun and kind of exciting, but the reality of that drama is a roller coaster of ups and downs and lessons and challenges and wins,” Kay said.
To illustrate the drama from Squeeze In’s story, consider the sisters learned the ropes of the business under their parents’ tutelage for five years and were finally ready to grow to a second location, but the timing was less than ideal.
“You might remember the rich economic climate of 2008. It was the perfect time to open up a high-end breakfast restaurant in the middle of one of the hardest hit communities in the nation in Reno (Nevada),” Kay joked.
Because of the recessionary macroeconomic environment, funding dried up and the family leveraged everything again. They then leveraged everything again to open location number three. Then location number four. The sisters eventually got creative with fundraising, tapping into guest financing to help with some of this early growth. Brand loyalists, called “EggHeads,” purchased large gift cards in return for special perks, and that helped Squeeze In get to number five. This early growth was a lesson in scrappiness, agility and creativity, but the sisters wanted more.
“We got to a point we needed to grow in a leadership sense, so we really started investing in people, growth and culture, and also in a way that’s scalable for the business,” Shila said.
So, Squeeze In started to franchise about 10 years ago and has since opened six franchised locations (notably, these locations are much bigger than the original location). A seventh franchised location was just announced and will open in early 2024 in Fernley, Nev. It will mark the concept’s 10th overall location in three states.
Not only does Squeeze In now have a franchising playbook and cadence, but it also has dedicated leadership in place; the sisters brought on industry veteran Amir Sabetian in 2021 to focus specifically on growth.
“We got to go from owners-operators to just owners and chairs of the board, which helps us with this strategy. And to put someone in their strengths zone like Amir, who has taken two previous brands from 10 to 100 (California Pizza Kitchen and zpizza) … the opportunity is there,” Kay said. “Having him in place, having us in place, you can expect Squeeze In to really come onto the franchising scene and being talked about.
“We hope to see 100 units come pretty quickly. We have some ambitious plans and goals and, frankly, every community deserves a Squeeze In.”
Those ambitious plans and goals come even as the sisters acknowledge increasing competition in the breakfast and brunch space, citing both emerging players like First Watch and Snooze, and legacy players like IHOP and Denny’s. Shila said what differentiates Squeeze In is its double-digit alcohol sales, its community involvement and its “vibe and a half.”
“Breakfast … is still pretty wide open for a few more players to come on the field and what we see is that there is room for brunch without pretention,” Kay said. “It’s fun, hearty portions, it’s loud enough so when your 3-year-old screams, it’s ok, we’ll bring them a basket of cool toys. This isn’t a wrapped crayon situation. We’ve got this environment that says ‘mom and dad, relax, have a hearty mimosa, have a meal. We’re going to help take care of your kids. You’re going to celebrate and have fun. This becomes part of that fabric of the community.”
“We hope to see the concept spread and have a positive impact,” Shila added. “It’s exciting to see our sister live to her full potential.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]