Walk into any of Diablo’s Southwest Grill’s four locations for the first time and a customer would be forgiven for thinking it’s a national chain. The décor is impeccable, the food is fantastic and the restaurant itself is filled with thoughtful touches like cell phone charging stations at each booth.
“A lot of people in the community don’t realize that we are a local business,” laughed Carl Wallace, one of the three partners in a venture that opened three years ago. “We just serve good food, quietly. We don’t preach that it’s locally grown, we just provide a great product.”
Wallace and Brad Wall were already business partners in Augusta Granite when, six years ago, they decided to open a restaurant.
“I started cooking a little bit and learned that I had a passion for cooking,” Wallace explained. “That led to cooking for some friends and then that led to people joking that I should do a restaurant.”
Once the thought was planted and Brad brought his brother Brandon Wall on board, the potential restaurant owners spent years researching the idea.
“We spent three years studying and recipe-ing and planning out the restaurant before we even swung the first hammer,” Brandon Wall said.
Though they are passionate about food, the three are also businessmen who knew that they wanted Diablo’s to be something much bigger than one restaurant: a franchise based in the south was the goal.
“We always set out to be a franchise model, but to do that is very difficult and you have to be very successful running a restaurant before you can even consider a franchise,” Wallace explained. “That’s why it took three years to get to where we were ready to open. But that’s what a franchisee is paying for: if you follow this arrangement, if you follow this recipe, this is typically the success you should have. If you go to the Wheeler Road store and then go down to Walton Way, that food should taste just like the food at the Wheeler Road store because the procedures and the recipes are the same.”
Wallace and the Walls must be doing something right because, since opening their first location on Wheeler Road three years and three months ago, they now have four locations: corporate store Wheeler Road and franchises Walton Way, Aiken and Athens. There are several more on the way, including Washington Road in Augusta, North Augusta, Grovetown and Evans, as well as ones in Braselton, Thomasville, Statesboro and possibly even Jacksonville, Florida.
“When we turned three years old we had three stores that were open, which is unheard of,” Brandon Wall said. “And two of those are franchise stores.”
How did that happen?
“We don’t know,” Wallace laughed before admitting that he had a pretty good idea. “Well, it just happens that if you build a model based on it looking like a franchise, then people show up asking how they become a franchise. And they think, ‘Who do I get in touch with about opening a franchise?’ and it’s us. That’s what we do.”
Their focus is to remain in the south for many years to come, and they give all the credit for their “overnight” success to the extensive preparation they did before opening their doors. Talk to any of the three owners — Wallace who handles franchises, marketing and culinary direction; Brandon Wall, who handles operations; and Brad Wall, who handles construction — and they can spout off anything you want to know about any part of Diablo’s operations.
They can tell you why they bother to chop their own cilantro and shred their own cheese instead of buying it pre-prepared. They can tell you where their beef (or any of their proteins) come from and what their specifications for buying it is because they’ve visited all of the manufacturers. Heck, they can probably even recite the marinade recipe off the top of their heads. They can explain why their tortilla chips are so much lighter, fluffier and crunchier than some of their competitions’ are. They can even tell you why they give customers who want water a 16-ounce cup, much bigger than other places do.
“Why should a customer spend $8 or $9 for a meal and then you give them this 8-ounce water cup?” Wallace said. “It’s pretty much embarrassing the customer. You’ve got this little kiddie cup and you’ve got to keep getting up and going back and forth just so the restaurant can save two cents on that order.”
Similarly, soda cups are one size — 24 ounces — so customers won’t have to make a decision at the counter and then spend time going back and forth to the drink station.
The three owners don’t brag about these things, but customers do notice. They like having a choice between regular or spicy sour cream and either Spanish or cilantro lime rice with their chicken burrito bowl, the most popular item on the Diablo’s menu. They love the salsa bar, the ghost pepper cheese (which started out as a special that customers demanded be made available all the time) and the homemade peach habanero hot sauce. And the fact that the proteins are marinated and cooked at each location makes a difference.
“All of our proteins are marinated and cooked in house. We have a dual grill that’s gas fired and wood fired,” Wallace explained. “There’s a transparency here with the food. You can see your food on the grill.”
In fact, the only thing the folks at Diablo’s don’t make in house is the cookies.
They may not brag about all their hard work, but it has paid off. On Yelp, Diablo’s is No. 4 on the list of Augusta’s best restaurants and they’re the only fast-casual spot in the Top 5. And they have a following.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have the following we do. It’s almost a cult following on the local level,” Wallace said. “When we announced the Grovetown location, I think it had 28,000 views on Facebook, and that wasn’t even a share to win. It was just announcing that we were opening in Grovetown, so that’s a lot of love for a restaurant.”
They credit their customers’ loyalty to the fact that they stick to their core values and are as authentic as they can be.
“We actually do things extremely authentic to our concept, but we’re not as vocal about that as we should be,” Brandon Wall said. “That’s why we have so many customers. They just know it’s good food. We care about the product and we care about what we’re serving our people.”
Diablo’s Southwest Grill currently has four locations open — on Wheeler Road and Walton Way in Augusta and in Aiken and Athens — from 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on Sunday. Other locations currently under construction include ones in Grovetown, North Augusta, Evans, Washington Road in Augusta, Braselton, Thomasville and Statesboro.