January 2019 Magazine

Playing Chicken: Fayetteville’s Slim Chickens Takes on the Big Boys

chickens

By Dwain Hebda | Photography Courtesy of Slim Chickens

Five years ago, Thrillist.com posted a graphic in the shape of the U.S. identifying the most iconic fast food brands from each state. Just to the right of Texas (Whataburger), south of Illinois (McDonald’s) and catty-corner from Kentucky (KFC) sat Arkansas, emblazoned with the Slim Chickens logo.

The pick raised eyebrows, given that the Fayetteville-based company was operating all of 10 years and had yet to enjoy a nationwide following, operating just 10 stores. Nonetheless, the site was on to something.

“That was a big moment for us,” says Greg Smart, co-founder and chief brand officer. “That was not something we saw coming or really went out and solicited to try to get. That was directly from the consumer, so that was a proud moment for us. We have a picture of that on the wall in our office that we can walk by and look at.

“I don’t know if there’s any aspiration for U.S. or global dominance. But we’re an Arkansas company, so we’re very proud to be listed as an iconic restaurant brand in Arkansas.”

Smart and company CEO Tom Gordon, a fellow co-founder, may have their aw-shucks routine down pat, but the growth of the company over the five years following that designation has been nothing short of a juggernaut. Store headcount has grown by leaps and bounds – 79 at last count – including international locations in Kuwait and London.

Franchising has helped fuel this rapid expansion. In 2014, the brand’s first year of franchising, six franchise partners signed on, all who developed multiple units in their respective markets. Today, Slim Chickens has 24 franchise partners, more than 249 franchise unit commitments and nearly 70 open units in 19 states.

But all that’s, well, chicken feed compared to the thinking around Slim Chickens’ sparkling new corporate headquarters. The company is driving toward 600 locations by 2025, something Gordon nonchalantly calls “a target on the wall.”

“It took about a decade to get the pump primed and ready to go,” Gordon says. “Once we got our foundation of restaurants set, we started assembling the team because we believed that you cannot attract good quality franchisees without proving to them that you can service them, take care of them and support them.”

Smart adds, “Assembling that team is really the behind-the-curtains work we’ve been doing. It’s everyone, from our head of operations to our training departments to human resources to IT. The people we brought on have vast experience in the restaurant business; they came to us from other concepts, large brands and chains. They jumped at the opportunity to work with an up-and-coming brand such as Slim Chickens.”

Like all great success stories, Slim Chickens rose from the humblest of beginnings. Smart and fellow co-founder Ryan Hodson (who left the company in 2012) bandied around the concept of fried chicken tenders and wings with their circle of friends, tinkering with recipes and developing the company’s signature line of dipping sauces.
Lacking any restaurant experience, they called on their pal Gordon who’d dumped a career in financial planning to run restaurants in Arkansas and California. He leveraged what he knew to move the operation from the test garage to its first location on College Avenue in Fayetteville.

Smart & Gordon in the early days.

“When we started in Northwest Arkansas, there weren’t any other competitors that were doing fresh chicken tenders and wings and sides,” Gordon said. “There were the KFCs of the world, and 16 years ago that was about it.

“We had seen some concepts coming up around the country, and we had also taken notice of the better burger category with Five Guys and Smash Burger and those. We felt like we could apply that fast casual, upper-level service and create a better chicken category.”

The strategy sounded good, but the concept took some time to find its legs – 18 months to be exact – before turning in its first month-end profit of $237.

Today, sales have achieved the same eye-popping growth as the number of stores. A 2014 profile on the company revealed top performing restaurants generated between $1.7 and $2 million annually. By the time the company was 10 years old, annual revenue was somewhere between $15 and $20 million; three years later, Gordon told the press the company would surpass $100 million in revenue by the end of their 2017 second quarter.

For all of that growth and change, the core of the menu – fresh chicken tenders and wings – has remained remarkably consistent from the very first location. Instead of broadening into related items, for instance, fried fish, subsequent entrée items such as salads and wraps are built around the core product.

“We’ve always felt like it’s better to be the best at something rather than be diversified to the point where we’re not really mastering anything,” Gordon says. “We’ve had tremendous success with that. We’ve explored some different flavor profiles around chicken, but we have stayed true to that main protein.”

Even branching out internationally hasn’t dislodged the yard bird from its central place of honor on every menu and every plate, Smart says.

“What we have found internationally is some of our side items might work in some areas and not in others, such as fried okra or fried pickles. Those items are not, for example, in London,” he says.

“The biggest issue we’ve seen is around the sauce flavor profiles,” Smart says. “The sauces you’ll find in London will be different from the ones you’ll find in Kuwait and also different at Cantrell and Mississippi (in Little Rock). But the main look and feel of the brand, the ordering experience, the dining experience is the same as you’re familiar with. You’ll just see some different flavors on the menu.”

Sauce variations notwithstanding, maintaining absolute consistency from one market to the next is a priority for Gordon and Smart, to the point of obsession.

“Everyone here is constantly working on consistency from restaurant to restaurant. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that any brand faces,” Smart says. “We want the same dining experience in Fayetteville to Little Rock to Jonesboro. The biggest component of that is the people component, having the right people, training properly, following the same processes and systems. It’s how we can deliver consistency. That’s one of the biggest things we work on daily.”

As well, company execs log thousands of miles to inspect, coach and evaluate locations coast to coast personally.

“We’re traveling a whole lot, and we also have layers of management that have responsibilities in different geographies for the restaurants,” Gordon says. “For the corporate stores, we have a vice president of operations, and he’s responsible for all 18 corporate stores and the next several that’ll get built next year.

“On the franchise side, we have a VP of franchise operations that is responsible for all the franchise stores out there in the field, and he has area directors that report to him that have different parts of geographies. But that doesn’t substitute trips that Greg and I take. We’re probably on the road the most, checking open restaurants, looking at new territories and helping franchisees grow their business.”

This relentless focus on consistency extends from the kitchen to the wait staff to the very environment the company strives to create.

“For us, traditional Southern hospitality is really what carries well, in all markets,” Smart says. “It’s that higher level of service that we train to and try to achieve that really translates into Southern.”

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