The Untold Truth Of Keke's Breakfast Cafe

If you are from Florida, then you must have heard of it, if you are not, then you must hear of it. Not just because the restaurant has an intriguing piña colada stuffed french toast on its menu, but because Keke's Breakfast Cafe has been reported to serve one of the best breakfasts in Florida. So good, in fact, that Denny's paid a whopping sum to acquire them (via Orlando Weekly). Here's probably what Denny's knows that you don't: Keke's portrays itself as one level up from the usual diners that you have hoarded all those packets of ketchup from. Keke wants you to think of it like "your hometown diner grew up and went to the city." Each restaurant is about 5,000 ft, and includes around 150 seats. Art adorns the walls, and classic instrumental tunes (by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Patsy Cline) play in the background (via Tampa Bay).

The place flips the signboards to "Closed" by 2.30 pm. If you, like us, are wondering who even rolls up their blinds before noon? Here's a shocker: a lot do, Keke's is pretty crowded during the weekends (via Tampa Bay). Keke's doesn't accept reservations (via The Famuan) — so it really boils down to how badly you want to have the restaurant's Greek omelet. And while you decide that, here's all that you need to know about the chain.

Keke is not a person's name

No, it's not actor Keke Palmer's, or Drake's ex's cafe. Like the once-popular name blends Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) or Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez), the founders of Keke's Cafe, the brother duo Kevin and Keith Mahen, mashed up their names to form a word that sounds like a chuckle: Keke. Though they started the breakfast venture in the sunshine state of Florida, the siblings had spent their childhood in Central Pennsylvania, enjoying the greasy comfort food served year-round in the diners there, reports Tampa Bay Times

As Kevin told the publication, he and his brother loved everything about those diners including the smell that wafted out of the kitchen and the sound of utensils. They didn't even mind the worn-looking furniture or the rather inelegant plasticware. Kevin Mahen said, "The northeast diner was really in the back of our mind when we came down here [to Florida]". But you wouldn't find chipped tables, or plasticware at Keke's. The brothers did take inspiration from the quintessential diners of the Northeast, but when it came to starting their own, they made sure it didn't have a hint of that beat up or decrepit look, which most diners were unfortunately defined by back in the day (via Epicurious).

The chain was not always called Keke's though

Before Keith and Kevin Mahen had the brilliant idea of gluing their names together, their cafe had a straightforward name: Florida Waffle Shop. In fact, when the first location opened in 2006, on Conroy Road, in Millenia, Orlando, the diner was just a blip on Google Maps with a generic name. The name lacked a sense of uniqueness — and this became clear when they weren't able to nag a trademark for it because there was another eatery with a similar name, reports Orlando Sentinel. Not a bit surprising. So after four years of operating as (what's that name?) Florida Waffle Shop, in 2010, the brothers came up with the much peppier sounding Keke's (pronounced Key-Keys).

By this time, per Orlando Sentinel, the store had expanded to another location, Winter Park, a suburb in Orlando. So, just two locations had to bring down the Florida Waffle House signage, and replace it with Keke's Breakfast Cafe.

All of the chain's stores are in one state

A breakfast of mimosas and Cuban sandwiches while in Miami is enough for some of us to consider turning the vacation into a permanent stay. So, we totally get it when Keke's owners say that they are absolutely content just being in Florida. By 2022, that's almost 14 years after the chain was founded, there were 52 Keke's, and not one crossed the borders of the peninsula State. Kevin Mahen, one of the founders of the chain, told Forbes that there is a reason for what seems like a deep love for Florida. "We're grown in concentrated circles within Florida to maintain the quality we want. We started in Orlando and went to Melbourne and down to Tampa. We haven't saturated Florida yet so there's no reason to leave. We can put 80 stores in Florida, without going to another state," he said.

Fair enough. The chain's ultimate priority is to be a community-focused eatery, and not to frantically multiply like baby Jack-Jack from "Incredibles." "We go into neighborhoods so we can get the customers we may see 50 or 60 times a year, as opposed to coming into a shopping district," said Mahen. "We know many people on a first-name basis. Not only do we know them, but they're starting to get to know each other."

It's an upscale version of a diner

Diners have come a long way from what they used to be. As history goes, the concept of a diner first started out of a wagon (via Paste Magazine); they weren't exactly the spots you would make a reservation for your 10-year anniversary. Somewhere between the late 1800s and early 1900s, they lost their wheels and became stationary joints, but they were still known for low-cost menus, which naturally made them super popular during the Great Depression era. Eventually, they turned into an American cultural icon, and also got a ton of screen time in cult movies like "Pulp Fiction." 

When Keith and Kevin Mahen started their own diner in 2006, they wanted it to look more chic than other diners that people were used to. "I think it's a more upscale experience now, with real glass and granite. It's not the same where you stand at the counter. We've taken breakfast to a different level," Kevin told Forbes. While Keke's serves typical diner menu items like waffles, pancakes and omelets, it does so using China plates and actual silverware, unlike other diners. As per Tampa Bay Times, the tables have granite tops, and the floor, ceramic tiles. "We're not a sausage biscuit, gravy and grits kind of place. We want to take the quality food, fresh made-to-order products and dress it up a little bit and give it a nicer atmosphere than what you might find at a Northeast diner," Mahen said.

The chain was not the founders' first business venture

When Keith and Kevin Mahen had decided to start Keke's Breakfast Cafe, they already had years (about 20 years, per FSR Magazine) of working experience — though in an industry that had nothing to do with Greek omelets, cheesesteak paninis and the Buffalo chicken wraps that Keke's is known for. The brothers were, in fact, in the mortgage business. 

According to Tampa Bay Times, the brothers had operated seven other business ventures in mortgage, land development, and title company industries, before boldly launching a diner business. As per FSR Magazine, the brothers had switched to the restaurant industry after foreseeing a change in the mortgage market. The discussion went something like this: "Keith said, 'Let's get in the breakfast business.' And I said, 'What do we know about that?' [...] He said, 'The same thing we knew about the mortgage business 20 years ago'," Kevin Mahen told the Magazine.

Clearly, the brother duo takes lesser time to make key life decisions than some of us take to settle on a pizza topping. Even their decision to uproot their lives from Pennsylvania and move to Florida happened over a casual conversation, which went like this: Kevin told Keith (while they were still in Pennsylvania running the mortgage company) that he was tired of shoveling the snow. Keith suggested that they move to Florida and open a restaurant (via Orlando Business Journal). So, they did — as easy as flipping a pancake.

Keke's Breakfast Cafe relies heavily on franchising

Four years after starting their restaurant, Keith and Kevin Mahen decided to sell their first franchise, in 2010 (via Tampa Bay Times). With just two members managing the whole show, naturally, the expanding business was too much to handle, they told Forbes. This, despite them having clear segregation of duties: Kevin took care of new store development and finances, and Keith stayed on top of the day-to-day operations and brand standards. But, as Kevin explained to FSR Magazine, "Our plan was to have four or five units of our own, but the demand from our guests was so great that we didn't feel we could accomplish that with just the two of us — at least not to the standard that we were looking for. That's why we decided to sell franchises." Franchising suited them well, they found that the more stores they opened, the more sales shot up for all the stores, Kevin Mahen told Tampa Bay Times.

Franchising restaurants, as per a Forbes article, is an efficient way to grow a restaurant business, given the franchisor doesn't have to invest any money on the location, or recruiting employees, and gets to exponentially grow in multiple markets. Until 2019, 40 of the 43 Keke's Breakfast Cafes were franchised (via Forbes); by 2022, that number grew to 44 out of the 52 locations (via Orlando Weekly).

Breakfast alone brings in over 90% of the revenue

It's there in the name; Keke's Cafe is partial to breakfast. Though it serves paninis, burgers, sandwiches and wraps as part of its lunch, breakfast brings in 93% of its revenue, as co-founder Kevin Mahen told Forbes. "[...] our kitchens are set up to prepare breakfast. They're very efficient," said Mahen. You (addressing all those who are at their grumpiest in the morning) can walk into a Keke's at 2 p.m., and order a pancake combo and a large coffee. Breakfast is available the whole day, and the menu includes about 20 varieties of waffles and pancakes, besides French toast, stuffed French toast, omelets, poached egg meals, egg wraps, and more.

Having an eatery dedicated to breakfast has been good for business, per Mahen. "Many people don't have the discretionary income to go out to a nighttime restaurant so they focus on a more affordable meal. When the economy was bad, our business was growing. And when the economy is good, money is spread across all the restaurants," he said in the 2019 interview.

Everything is made fresh at Keke's Breakfast Cafe

Keke's Cafe is quite strict about serving only freshly made food to its customers. "We don't deal with frozen products. We do things the old-fashioned way. When our 50 pound bags of potatoes come in, we boil them, slice them and prepare them on the griddle," co-founder Kevin Mahen told Forbes. A restaurant critic noted in The Gainesville Sun that the chain's home fries were cooked golden and crunchy, unlike the greasy ones that one associated with a diner. But let's call it as we see it, Keke's strength is not an inventive menu. As mentioned in The Gainesville Sun, the chain seemed content with offering traditional eggs benedict, and the usual waffles and pancakes, unlike other restaurants in the area which had brought out the rather unusual breakfast pizzas and biscuit benedicts.

Keke's strength is probably its barnacle-hold on the old diner ways. For example, co-founder Kevin Mahen told Tampa Bay Times that their omelets are "cooked the way they used to be." Unlike the French way of making an omelet that involves scrambling the egg a bit, and then rolling it into a uniformly colored super soft, even runny, omelet, per Epicurious, the American diner way is to first sauté select veggies and meat (like onions, ham, etc,) in a pan, before pouring the eggs (mixed with milk, salt, and pepper) over the mix, and cooking it until it browns a little. 

The staff wrap up by 4 pm

What's the next best thing to working from home? Coming back home early to watch episodes of "Bridgerton" of course. When most restaurants are shining up their cutlery for the dinner crowd at 4 p.m., Keke's staff are dropping their aprons and calling it a day. The working hours at the breakfast cafe are between 7 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Add to that, some end-of-the-day cleaning work, and the employees are off by high tea (or wine, whichever). "The thing that you hear from everybody else in the hospitality business is that they're getting burned out, and we don't have that in our operation," Kevin Mahen told FSR Magazine.

As one employee wrote on the job listings and employment website Indeed, "decent job that required a lot of side work and cleaning after shift was over. the money was not bad considering the hours[.] you are normally off before 4." Another employee added that Keke's was a good gig especially if you wanted to juggle multiple jobs and schooling. As per yet another employee, the only positive side to working at Keke's was the working hours (really? Who wakes at 7 a.m.?). Otherwise, the work environment was pretty dismal, with no sense of teamwork, poor management, and exhausting work, the employee said.

The brother duo owned the entire company until Denny's acquired it

The brothers Kevin and Keith Mahen called all the shots at Keke's, till 2022. As reported in FSR Magazine, they had led the company with zero debt since 2006, making all decisions by themselves as there were no shareholders, or board of directors in the way. Fast forward to 2022, and the entire fleet of Keke's cafes is now owned by the more mature diner, Denny's. The 1953-founded diner, which operates over 1,600 restaurants around the world, gobbled up all the 52 Keke's cafes by shelling out $82 million (via Nation's Restaurant News).

How significantly does this change things for Florida's own breakfast cafe? As per Nation's Restaurant News, Keke's will be allowed to run independently, but will report to Denny's CEO. All that Denny's wants from its expensive buy, is a little help to become the "A.M. eatery franchisor of choice," said John Miller, Denny's CEO. With Keke's under its wing, Denny's will capture the pool of millennial and Gen Z customers whose average household income is about $75,000, and who are willing to buy entrees that cost 20% more than the ones at Denny's. Plus, the fact that Keke's and Denny's locations are in different trading areas means there is no way one restaurant will cannibalize the crowd of another, Miller noted. The deal seems sweeter than Keke's French toast, but will it finally push Keke's to take its first steps out of its Florida birthplace? Hopefully, yes.