A fast-food chain that’s named after a song about marijuana by “Wild Thing” rapper Tone Loc? That sells “blunt” sized sandwiches, each of them named for a different strain of ganja? And hemp brownies listed on the menu under “Incredible Munchies” (desserts)? It sounds like the makings of an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch, perhaps starring Horatio Sans or Jim Breuer. But the weed-themed sub chain Cheba Hut is no joke.
It’s been said that stoners have little ambition beyond getting high. If that’s true, then the owners of Cheba Hut, an Arizona-based sandwich chain named after the somewhat obscure ’80s rap song “Cheeba Cheeba,” aren’t exactly Jeff Spicolis.
Cheba Hut’s first location opened in 1998 in Tempe, near Arizona State University—ranked #17 on a recent “Higher Education: Top Colleges for Marijuana” list. Cheba Hut spread to a few other college towns over the years, and began taking franchising seriously about five years ago. It now has 14 locations, mostly in Arizona and Colorado, expects to have 18 stores by year’s end, and has signed agreements for 20 more openings. Same-store sales growth of 12% has occurred in recent years. If development plans prove successful, as many as 300 Cheba Huts could be selling “toasted” subs on garlic “herb” bread, topped with a “secret stash” of “home-grown” spices and sauces. (Yes, the menu really does use that many quotation marks, including every time “greens” are mentioned on salads.)
Can the tongue-in-cheek menu work on a broad level? Some would say that you’d have to be, well, high to think this idea would play in Peoria, so to speak. Matt Trethaway, Cheba Hut’s chief operating officer, certainly believes the expansion can work. Speaking with QSRWeb.com (Quick Service Restaurant) , Trethaway said that ChebaHut’s concept isn’t any more controversial or genuinely counterculture than the “breastaurant” trend begun by Hooters:
“Hooters is doing really well and you can make the same argument for them for having a controversial idea. This theme is a risk we’re willing to take. We don’t want people to think we’re pushing some agenda. We’re not,” he said. “We’re just having fun and being playful. And once you taste our food and experience our service, you’ll realize we’re more serious than our theme suggests.”
The company has come a long way from its early days, when founder Scott Jennings launched an unusual guerrilla marketing campaign: He occasionally just handed out $5 bills to customers and asked them to talk up the restaurant, figuring that was money better spent than dropping $500 on a newspaper ad. “I don’t do that as much anymore,” Jennings told Nation’s Restaurant News in 2009. “My accountant would flip out. But there are still people who talk about that.”
Even though Cheba Hut’s menu is loaded with items like the “Chronic” roast beef and “Jamaican Red” grilled chicken sandwiches, the people running the chain are “not trying to be activists,” Trethaway told MSNBC:
“We don’t think a plant should be regulated by the government. We’re restaurateurs and business people. What we do is feed people,” he said.
Trethaway also says that Cheba Hut doesn’t encourage people to break rules, especially this one when it comes to on-the-job professionalism: “There’s no place to be stoned at work.”