Slim Chickens turns 20 this year, and it’s safe to say the chicken-tenders concept that was started by two friends in Fayetteville, Ark., is all grown up. The company now has over 200 locations open, mostly in the South, with 1,100 restaurants in various stages of development.
Chief operating officer Sam Rothschild joined founders Tom Gordon and Greg Smart a little over nine years ago as the company was opening its ninth restaurant. At the time, Slim Chickens was just starting to franchise and generated about $12 million in annual revenue.
“This year, we’ll eclipse over half a billion,” Rothschild said during a recent interview.
Also in that time, the company has gone from one franchise group to 65, and seven support center employees to over 65. Rothschild attributes this swift clip to Slim Chickens’ core product — hand-breaded, Southern-style, buttermilk-marinated chicken tenders.
“The foundation of our core product, which is the specialty chicken category — there weren’t many people out there doing what we do. There was a tremendous amount of white space and for us, we had a lot of confidence,” he said.
That confidence came from more than just its signature product, however. Once the company began ramping up its growth, it expanded its menu to include wings and craft chicken sandwiches, salads, wraps, chicken and waffles and mason jar desserts. Also, its atmosphere is unique, which Rothschild says helps the concept stand out amid an increasingly crowded space.
“We are a restaurant where people enjoy coming in and hanging out. We have great music — blues, Southern rock. We have televisions where you can watch sports,” Rothschild said. “We call the environment contemporary Southern. And people are enjoying themselves. They are there to share a meal and have some fun — not typically what you get in QSR/fast casual experience, and I think that’s a differentiated experience for us.”
That said, Slim Chickens also has a strong drive-thru, to-go and third-party delivery business. The drive-thru business has always generated more than 50% of the chain’s sales mix, while its delivery and curbside business ramped up during Covid. The company had an app and online ordering prior to the onset of the pandemic, so curbside was added relatively quickly.
“I think that gave us a strategic advantage over some of our competitors because they were behind the 8-ball,” Rothschild said. “All of those to-go parts of the business grew exponentially.”
And when dine-in traffic returned, the company’s to-go business actually increased.
“What happened was all boats rose and our average restaurant volumes in the last year and a half have gone up exponentially,” Rothschild said.
Slim Chickens’ AUVs are now around $3.8 million, driven by strong performances from its new restaurant openings and customer retention, which Rothschild calls “significant.” He attributes this retention to having proven operators, an efficient building, resonate marketing, well-positioned locations, and the quality of the food — “which is what we stand on the most.”
That said, Rothschild doesn’t ignore the confluence of challenges hindering the restaurant industry, and Slim Chickens has not been immune. The company is comp-positive on sales, but down a little on traffic, for instance. That said, the chain’s average consumer is higher income, which has provided some insulation.
Challenges aside, Rothschild expects the brand’s tailwinds to continue and, in the near-term, the company plans to open one restaurant or more a week this year.
“We’re not fighting burgers and pizzas and sandwiches, which have a lot of big players [and are] really saturated. This better chicken category, there’s still a lot of white space. … I see a very long runway for us,” Rothschild said. “As long as the topline sales keep moving, the business model works, our current franchisees will build more restaurants and we’re continuing to attract more franchisees. We’re going to continue to stay very focused and do what we do and get better at what we do.”
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Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]