(March 13) There’s a market for fresh Mexican food, and produce can play a vital role in propelling the format to success.

That’s the idea behind Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, a Charlotte, N.C.-based restaurant chain that is gaining steam in the casual-dining category.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are a big part of that for the company, which opened its first restaurant in 2000 in Charlotte and now has 35 in 16 states plus Washington, D.C.

“Our goal is to have 200 stores open in five years,” said Bruce Willette, founder and president of the company.

At a time when many restaurant ventures fail after hiring marketing firms, testing product concepts and executing demographic studies, Willette says simplicity is the cornerstone of his business model.

“Good stores breed more stores,” he said. “People, word of mouth, credit in the real estate world and a good, sound operating system are the keys here.”

Produce is also a key, he said.

“I often tell people you can have the best tasting food every created, but if it doesn’t look good, it’s not happening,” he said. “When you have nice, crisp, fresh romaine lettuce sitting out there, juicy red tomatoes, nice red onions, people see the food before they taste it. Good, colorful fresh produce is almost a design element in the way our stores are set up because of the way they’re set up in front of the customer.”

Good quality produce enhances the chain’s focus on freshness, Willette said, adding that the company sources product from national and local suppliers.

“We have two different types of lettuce displayed,” he said. “There’s a nutritional value to romaine lettuce and there’s a great look. We also use iceberg lettuce for our burritos and our tacos because people are more comfortable with that type of lettuce on their burrito and taco. And, romaine lettuce in a salad, it looks better. If you don’t have good looking vegetables up your line, that’s an instant turnoff. People have a bad feeling before they even try the product. That’s almost your first impression.”

The company brought in Angelo Kyriacou, former chief financial officer for the 155-unit Atlanta Bread chain. His job is to cut franchisee costs, from startup to continued operation, Willette said.

But that’s all part of the infrastructure of the business. Willette said none of that would matter unless the food was good enough to draw customers and keep them coming back for more.

“We’re doing some entree dishes,” he said. “We have a pizza coming out and a stacked enchilada coming out after that. So, people come there and can have an entire experience, as opposed to an assembly line.”

The company isn’t fixated just on growth in major markets, Willette said.

“We want to go where we’re well-received. Not every store has to be in Midtown Manhattan. We like the Knoxvilles, the Bristols in Tennessee; the Kissimmees in Florida. It’s appreciated in the smaller markets more so than another burrito place. That’s fine with us.”