Out with the scrambled eggs, in with the chicken tenders. Liberty University has replaced its long-standing diner concept with a popular chicken franchise—and business is booming.
Last fall Liberty's dining services, which is managed by Sodexo, partnered with the Arkansas-based chain Slim Chickens to open a location on the Lynchburg, Virginia campus. District Manager Duane Davis and his team had been on the hunt for a concept to replace Doc's Diner, where sales were sagging. "It functioned as a diner for a while but recently had turned into a mini dining hall. We weren't getting as much satisfaction from students. It had started to lose its luster," says Abraham Zahabi, Sodexo General Manager of Retail Operations at Liberty.
The dining services team suspected they'd found their new concept when they came across the Slim Chickens brand at a conference. "It seemed like the right fit for campus," Zahabi says. "We already had another chicken concept [a Chik-Fil-A] that was super busy. Adding another one would help us with capturing what was needed to make students happy."
Putting Slim Chickens in the old Doc's location also solved the problem of adding new dining options on the east side of campus, where services were limited. "Doc's had been the only dining option on that side of route 460, which is a four-lane highway through town. So we wanted to put something there," Zahabi says. The east side location also created an opportunity to get more business from community residents. "We wanted it to be able to run when the students aren't around," he adds.
Retrofitting the freestanding building required a major overhaul. "We tore out all the insides, redid everything, and added new lighting," says Zahabi. The old dining hall-style setup was scrapped for a register and digital ordering kiosk, creating more space for seating. A patio was installed for outdoor dining, while a drive-through was put in for takeout dining. The overhaul took a full three months. "We closed after graduation in May of 2021 and didn't reopen until September 15 [after the fall semester had started]," Zahabi says.
While the restaurant was being updated, dining services was training to learn the ins and outs of running a Slim Chickens franchise. Sodexo senior managers and supervisors spent several weeks at training stores in Arkansas, learning everything from how to bread the chicken, how hire and train employees, and how to report sales. When Liberty's location opened, Slim Chickens staffers came up to train hourly employees. "They worked side by side with us every day, for about 10 days, until they were comfortable with what we were doing," recalls Zahabi. The brand still comes up for monthly visits and external audits are performed to confirm that the Liberty location is meeting Slim Chickens' standards. "They follow up on employee training and make sure we have what we need," he says.
Slim Chickens at Liberty follows the same menu as the other franchise locations: Fried and grilled chicken tenders, wraps, chicken sandwiches, and chicken and waffles, plus sides, milk shakes, and desserts. "The tenders are their core item and they're the most popular, and mac and cheese is by far the most popular side," says Zahabi, who notes that the shakes contribute significantly to add-on sales. Mason jar desserts like strawberry cheesecake, Oreo cheesecake, or brownie pudding layered with whipped cream are big hits too. Students can pay with dining dollars but not meal swipes, a design feature implemented to make it the restaurant more accessible to community residents.
Liberty's franchise is among the largest in the Slim Chickens portfolio, with seating for over 220 customers. And it's consistently busy, especially on weekends and during dinner hours. (The location is open from 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM every day of the week.) "Not only has it fulfilled the needs of people on the east side of campus, it's been so popular that we have folks coming over from the main campus as well. It's become a destination," Zahabi says.
And the proof is in the numbers: Slim Chickens averages 735 more customers per day compared to the old Doc's Diner, and meal swipe data shows that it's also significantly outperforming the existing Chik-Fil-A. "The traffic flow has been a direct reflection in the quality of the products and the overall dining experience," says District Manager Davis. "The environment is more inviting and the food is delivered more quickly."