When John Rigos and Andy Stern crossed paths while working at a technology incubator called IdeaLab in 1999, they weren’t exactly fast friends. “It’s funny, because actually when we first met, we didn’t like each other,” Rigos (above right) says, laughing. “And we are so opposite in every way, it’s remarkable.” But the two soon realized they were the perfect business counterparts: “I’m very financially and numbers driven,” Rigos says. “Andy is much more sensitive to the creative—the look and feel of things. Our disciplines work very well together.”
And having complementary styles has paid off. Rigos and Stern began passively investing in restaurant franchises—specifically, Subway and Dunkin Donuts—and eventually bought the rights for Five Guys in 2007. After building a significant franchise portfolio, they created their first original concept, MeltShop, in 2011. “We saw the fast casual movement exploding, and we thought, why are we going to be franchisees when we can own the intellectual property?” In 2013, Aurify Brands was born—with Rigos and Stern as co-CEOs—and it quickly grew into several popular brands, including Fields Good Chicken, Five Guys, MAKE Sandwich, MeltShop, The Little Beet and The Little Beet Table. Today, they comprise nearly 40 locations, and each focuses on using fresh, elevated, better-for-your-body ingredients.
While Aurify has grown at a fast pace, it hasn’t been without minor hiccups. “We thought by having franchise experience, we could take all that learning and put it into starting our own business,” Rigos says. “But the truth is, even when you do that, there are still missteps. It takes awhile before you really fine-tune a concept to where it can be grown rapidly. And that’s the plan for each one of our brands.”
To make that happen, Rigos, a Queens native who lives in Manhattan, and Stern, a Greenwich resident, drew upon their experience at IdeaLab to create a business incubator-type model with all the support structures in-office (e.g. construction, HR, marketing, accounting). “We provide [operating partners] with all the tools they need to be successful—everything from the design to the marketing to our training program. We’ll handle all the financials, and we oversee all these businesses, but day-to-day, each of these businesses is run by our operating partner.” And the goal is, ultimately, to take each fast casual name national. (Currently, Aurify brands are predominantly in Manhattan, but also have stores in Long Island, Chicago and Washington, D.C. and its environs.)
As each one of their brands grows, Rigos and Stern are determined to maintain a positive, inspiring company culture. “It’s a fun team dynamic and there’s a great energy in the office and in our stores,” Rigos says. “You know you’re doing something good each day, and not necessarily just creating value monetarily, but in terms of satisfying our customer, and our team members feel like they’re part of an important movement.” Rigos and Stern also intend to keep business personal. Rigos frequently works the food serving line at The Little Beet near Aurify’s 22nd Street headquarters. “I’m the old dude with my glasses on because I can’t read the slips,” he says. “People will ask me what to try, and I love hearing what customers have to say.”
As it turns out, Rigos and Stern’s yin and yang business styles have proven to be one of their biggest assets. “Andy literally sees something as black and I see it as white,” Rigos says. “While at times it causes some friction, it’s never unhealthy friction. It’s always that healthy friction that forces us to really consider stuff. People around us are constantly saying nobody knows a co-CEO arrangement that actually works. But each of us gets to make the call on certain things, and some things we need to collaborate on.”
For now, the two are laser-focused on growth. “We want to create value for our brand leaders, our teams and our shareholders,” says Rigos. “And we want to build brands and have a national presence because we think they’re built to compete with the best out there.” There’s also a sense of social responsibility for Aurify. “Everybody needs to eat better, and it’s really important for the health of individuals and our country in general. This is a really exciting space—it may be ‘fast casual 2.0,’ but it’s still early days.” For instance, there are still approximately 40,000 Subway sandwich shops and 30,000 McDonald’s. “That’s going to be disrupted over time with better offerings,” says Rigos. “The opportunity is tremendous and means a lot to us. We want to be pioneers in building out this whole new industry.”