Ezell’s Famous Chicken, a seven-unit fast-casual chain based in Seattle, is planning national growth as a brick-and-mortar and food truck brand with the launch of a franchising program.
Ezell’s is known for its scratch preparations of fried chicken in original and Creole-marinated “spicy” flavors, along with mashed potatoes and gravy, freshly baked rolls, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Esquire magazine are among those who have touted the brand.
Last month, the company announced a partnership with industry veteran Dennis Waldron, president and chief executive of Ezell’s franchising arm, Delighted Guests Inc. Waldron was formerly chief executive of Cinnabon and grew the Seattle-based chain to 400 units nationwide.
Waldron, a Seattle resident, said he was an Ezell’s fan and took a tour of the kitchen a few years ago. He was struck by the care and preparation that went into the food as he watched staffers peel potatoes and yams for the potato salad and pies, and bake the rolls, he said. “No one does that in this segment, and that’s why the food is fantastic,” Waldron said. “It’s real food and real cooking, not assembly and reheating.”
While the franchising program is just starting, Waldron said two franchise agreements have already been signed. The company plans to open a prototype unit this summer.
Franchisee Charles Horn has committed to opening three locations in the Rainier Valley area of Washington State. The company has also signed an agreement for one unit in Dubai. The international location will be operated by a Seattle businessman with other interests in the Middle East, Waldron said.
The company is also launching three food trucks in the Seattle area this year that will offer a modified menu of boneless chicken drumsticks and tenders, Waldron said.
Co-founded in 1984 by Lewis Rudd, Ezell’s includes two franchise locations in Seattle with operators that signed on before Waldron came on board. Though the company will look at tweaking its menu, like adding sandwiches and more healthful options, Rudd said the emphasis on from-scratch cooking will not change with franchise growth. “That’s one of the things we appreciate about Dennis,” said Rudd, president and chief executive of Ezell’s Fried Chicken Inc. “He truly believes you don’t change a winning formula.”
Rudd declined to specify systemwide sales for the five company-owned locations, but he said same-store sales have increased by 4 percent or more annually over the past five years.
The average check is about $12, and typically units are about 1,500-square feet, though the new prototype opening this summer will be slightly larger, at 1,700 square feet.
Rudd estimates build-out costs for franchisees of about $400,000 to $600,000. The franchise fee is $20,000, plus 5 percent in royalties.
Rudd originally founded the chain with boyhood friend Ezell Stephens. The partners later ended up in court after Stephens was fired from the company. The dispute was later settled, with Ezell’s allowed to keep its name. Stephens went on to launch his own chicken brand called Heaven Sent Fried Chicken.
Rudd declined to comment, saying, “That’s old news now. We don’t talk about that anymore.”