As a youngster, Mattito’s Tex-Mex CEO Jeff Frankel became miffed at his sister, Cindy. So he went into her room, gathered up her toys, and set up a sidewalk toy stand in front of the family home. “I was selling them until I was stopped,” he says.
It was an early hint of the path the young entrepreneur’s life would take. While still in high school, Frankel started a lawn care business that grew to four employees. At age 18, he opened a yogurt shop on Forest Lane in Dallas. The company grew to 35 stores in eight states before he sold it to Brice Foods in 1990.
Today, it’s all about Tex-Mex. Frankel has Mattito’s restaurants in Frisco, Las Colinas, on Forest Lane in Dallas, and a new location in The Centrum in Uptown. The newest 13,000-square-foot, two-story Mattito’s, at the corner of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs, opened in early December. (The Routh Street site it had been at for 15 years was sold to an apartment developer.) When weather permits, huge glass “garage doors” can be opened between interior dining areas and 3,000 square feet of patio space.
Mattito’s was born after a 1991 lunch meeting between Frankel and the late “king of Tex-Mex” Matt Martinez Jr. At the time, Frankel and his wife were living in Aspen, Colo. Martinez suggested they partner on a new restaurant venture, and Frankel, intrigued, agreed. He and his wife moved back to Dallas, and the first Mattito’s opened on Oak Lawn in 1992. Jim Lannom later joined as a manager. He became a partner after running the business while Frankel took a bicycle trip across the United States.
“I spent a year getting ready, and my promise to Jim was that when I got back, I wasn’t taking my old job back,” Frankel says. “I bought him a bike and we’d ride and strategize.”
Lannom, who worked at Dakota’s and Mi Piachi restaurants before joining forces with Frankel, says relationships are important to his partner and friend. About 10 employees have been with Mattito’s since it was formed. Lannom describes Frankel as a risk taker and a visionary: “He can look at something and see the possibility.”
That certainly was the case on Frankel’s 18th birthday (also the day he graduated from high school), when his parents took him to a yogurt shop. “My dad was eating a lot of frozen yogurt as a way to diet at the time,” he says, “I didn’t have any interest in trying it.”
Frankel discovered he loved the concoction, though, and decided to open his own frozen yogurt store. He wasted no time in getting the ball rolling. He spotted a vacant space in a shopping center on Forest near Coit Road in North Dallas and called the real estate company handling the property the next day.
“After that, I was smilin’ and dialin’, ” he says. “I called someone about a freezer and I called Sweetheart Cups, and everyone else. I got everything lined up in about five days.”
Frankel created a business plan and took it to his dad, who co-signed a bank loan. The first I Love Yogurt store opened on Aug. 2, 1980. After hiring managers and putting his mom in charge of the business, he left for college at the University of Texas in Austin. He attended school in the fall and opened new frozen yogurt locations during his summer breaks. Eventually, he returned to Dallas to run his company.
Mattito’s has grown to have about 280 employees, mostly full-time. 2013 revenue was up 23 percent over 2012; Frankel says he expects to see similar results in 2014. He and Lannom plan to add at least one new Mattito’s location, possibly two, this year. They’re also considering venturing into new restaurant concepts.
“We don’t have any outside investors,” Frankel says. “It’s just me and Jim, with maybe a little help from the bank and the Small Business Administration. If we can’t afford to do it ourselves, we don’t do it.”