Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux expects to open 20 or more new restaurants this year as it retains some of the operational pivots it made during the COVID-19 pandemic and looks to a future that includes smaller units, the company CEO says.
The Baton Rouge, La.-based casual-dining brand will open its 52nd restaurant at the end of May in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as it continues its expansion in the Southeast and South, said Brandon Landry, Walk-On’s CEO and co-founder, in an interview as COVID0-19 vaccines rolled out.
“We had to pivot right at first into the take-out and to-go world as hard as we possibly could,” Landry said, “but we ended up finishing 2020 less than 5% down in same-store sales, which we feel very fortunate, very blessed.”
The pandemic did give the Walk-On’s management team time for some introspection and to take a look at the business with fresh eyes, Landry said.
“We learned a lot about ourselves,” he said. “Pre-COVID smallest footprint that we had designed was still around 8,000 square feet.” But with sales holding up in off-premise channels after dining rooms closed in March 2020, Walk-On’s reconsidered the size of its footprint.
“Maybe we don't need these huge buildings,” Landry said the team realized. “Maybe we can reduce the square footage and the seating capacity and still do the same sales volumes that we were before.”
As a result, a Walk-On’s franchisee is building a smaller unit prototype that will open in Lakeland, Fla., in June that is 7,000 square feet, or about 1,000 fewer square feet than before COVID-19.
“We got a little bit more efficient with the space design,” Landry said. “We didn't take out many seats, but we did get a little bit more efficient with it.”
Landry said this prototype, called the “Bulldog” design, maintains the “wow factor” of Walk-On’s many televisions and beers on tap and did not reduce the size of the kitchen. The slightly smaller unit appeals to franchisees because of lower construction and real estate costs, which in some states could reduce those by 25%, he said.
Walk-On’s will likely continue other pandemic pivots, such as closed-circuit cameras on the parking lot that help facilitate curbside take-out orders, and safety protocols, Landry said.
Earlier in May, Walk-On’s expanded its athlete-linked investors when Dak Prescott, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, took a 20% stake in the franchise group that owns four restaurant units in the Dallas and Waco, Texas, areas.
Drew Brees, a former New Orleans Saints quarterback, co-owns Walk-On’s Enterprises, the brand’s parent company, with Landry.
“We weren't actively searching for a celebrity or pro athletes to be partners or be part of the team,” Landry said, “but when our goals and our vision and our core values align with a potential investor, then it makes it easy.”
Prescott understands Walk-On’s mission, Landry added.
“Walk-ons are underdogs,” said Landry. “Our vision is to be more than a restaurant, you know, but a really inspired lifestyle that celebrates the underdog mindset — and everyone has experienced an underdog moment in their lives. I think Dak is a testament to that as well.”
Landry started Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in 2003 after playing as a walk-on for Louisiana State University’s basketball team.
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