Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries has grown to $70.8 million in systemwide sales largely by giving entry-level employees a boost in starting their own franchise business, the full-service restaurant’s founder says.
Kenney Moore, founder and CEO of Mount Olive, N.C.-based parent Little Mint Inc., said the 137-unit restaurant brand tries to practice his motto of “Love Your Neighbor” by helping its own staff members buy into the business.
By giving talented employees a chance to buy a franchise for $5,000 and get funding for the rest through the company, Moore said it offers employees a chance to become their own boss.
The 54-year-old restaurateur boot-strapped his own start in the business for $500 in 1991, opening his first Andy’s restaurant — named for his then-18-month-old son — after being fired as a manager at another restaurant.
When Moore decided to franchise outside North Carolina in 2012, the restaurant couldn’t get rights to the name “Andy’s” so it had to change it to “Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries,” he said. The name is borrowed from N.C. Highway 55, which goes through its hometown of Mount Olive, and enhanced the concept’s 1950s-themed décor.
“We have become the casual diner for the smaller communities,” Moore said in an interview. “Most of our competitors in the better-burger segment are still counter-service operations. We’ll refill glasses and build relationships with our guests at the table, which puts us in a unique position.”
Hwy 55 has restaurants in 17 states and three other countries, and it continues to grow through both internal investments as well as outside franchisees.
“We’ve made over 50 former cooks and waitresses and other hourly employees owners of their own stores under this plan of taking care of them first,” Moore said.
“In early days, we made the deals with just a handshake,” Moore recalled. “My chief operating officer, who has been with me 24 years, I sold him his first store with a handshake.”
The company has since, in Moore’s term, “lawyered up,” but of the company’s 81 separate ownership groups, 48 have come from among in-house employees. The company owns 15 restaurants and franchises the remainder.
“We’ve started to bring some outsiders into the family,” Moore said. “We are unique, and they know they can give opportunities.” A company spokesman said the average investment from outside-company franchisees is between $191,000 and $386,000.
The 2016 average unit volume was $570,000, and the brand’s Top 10 stores generally averaged $900,000, the spokesman said.
With an average per-person check of $10.60, Hwy 55’s best-selling menu item remains the five-and-a-half-ounce cheeseburger, with the cheesesteak sandwich coming in a close second.
Units generally cover about 2,200 square feet. “The vast majority of them are in-line,” Moore said. “We don’t have drive-thrus, we call them pick-up windows.”
The décor package has changed through the years, Moore added. “It has evolved quite a bit,” he said. “In the early days, we were a lot of blue and white. Now it’s more pink and teal. We let franchisees decorate in their own ‘50s theme, like a Wizard of Oz wall or a Mayberry-Andy Griffith wall.”
Moore said he’s most excited that the brand has remained relevant after more than 25 years.
“We are continuing to grow in what is a very tough industry,” he said. “Our mission is ‘Love Your Neighbor.’ All we are doing is expanding our family.”
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