Keeping a Handle on Oklahoma-Based City Bites: Brothers Developing New Franchise Concept While Keeping Control of Sandwich Chain

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For every Sonic drive-thru or Jimmy's Egg breakfast restaurant, there's bound to be a City Bites that comes so very close to crossing into franchise operations, but circumstances keep it from happening. Just ask any of the City Bites co-owners, Mark Blevins said.

The Oklahoma City-based sandwich cafe chain has toed the line several times, and the four brothers are planning to finally move forward with franchise opportunities later this year. But fate seems to want City Bites to stay in the family, Blevins said, so they're developing a new concept.

No, it's not the CowCalfHay. That hamburger shop is strong enough at its new location in Edmond to merit opening another downtown soon. But the restaurant is still forging an identity away from the unfortunate name it was born with - Mad Cow - itself an example of bad timing, Blevins said. About 10 years ago the beef industry struggled with outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which was given the shorthand name Mad Cow without asking the Blevins family first. That pretty much destroyed any chance of pitching the chain to other restaurateurs.

The new CowCalfHay (say it out loud: Cow Cafe) needs to be allowed to develop its menu in much the same way City Bites finally settled on sandwiches and cookies before franchise considerations, Blevins said. It may get there someday. For now, they're working on a third restaurant concept to sell to entrepreneurs. The details are still hush-hush, not ready for public consumption.

City Bites has 16 Oklahoma restaurants, all family-owned, and one in Wichita, Kan. Blevins said the latter has become more of a partnership than a true franchise.

The company was born in 1986 when Brad, Gary and Eric Blevins realized their landscaping business was going to take them only so far in an oil-bust economy. Sometimes they had to hold garage sales just to pay utility bills. Somehow the Blevinses scraped together enough borrowed capital to take over an 800-square-foot submarine sandwich shop in Bethany and started selling five different sandwiches and brownies.

The oldest brother, Mark Blevins, who formally joined a few years later, said that sort of sweat equity through difficult times can bond a family or drive them apart. The brothers were fortunate - they fought so much as children that now they actually enjoy each other's company, even to the point of being neighbors away from the shop. …