Few people know the chicken business more than Andy Howard. He got his start in the industry working for Kenny Rogers Roasters, a casual-dining concept focused on wood-fired rotisserie chicken. From there, he went to a small concept called Ranch One, a quick-service restaurant focused on chicken breast sandwiches.
Then he had an opportunity, along with his Ranch One partners, to buy a “little chain in Texas called Wingstop.”
Howard got on a plane from his home in Florida and flew to Texas to try the wings and quickly came on board, joining a group that bought the chain from its founders. At the time, there were about 60 Wingstop locations. Howard commuted from his home to Texas every week and, after 10 years — “when it was time for me to get off an airplane” — began looking for his next venture. By then, Wingstop had grown to about 600 stores in 35 states.
While he was looking, he gravitated toward boneless, mindful of the success he had at Wingstop in launching nuggets and tenders to hedge against volatile wing prices. That boneless platform raised topline sales and was profitable.
“When I go from the whole chicken to the chicken breast to the chicken wings, I said, ‘What’s left in the chicken?’ I knew the success with what we had at Wingstop and was looking for the world’s greatest chicken tender with a Wingstop business model, and that’s what I really found at Huey Magoo’s,” Howard said, adding that he “tried every tender in America” to find what he was looking for.
Huey Magoo’s bills itself as the “filet mignon of chicken.” The chicken is made from scratch, battered and breaded with a secret recipe, and served with a secret Magoo’s sauce. Beyond the tenders, the menu is relatively simple — sandwiches, wraps, salads, fries and coleslaw.
Howard bought the chain, established in 2004, from its founders about seven years ago, when there were three stores in Orlando. Today, there are 43 stores open in eight different states and rights sold for another 200 units. Howard expects to open over 20 new restaurants and to be in 12 states by the end of this year.
What is driving this ambitious growth plan? Howard credits the company’s team and also boomerangs back to the product.
“Having scoured every chicken tender there is … a tender is not a tender is not a tender. You can’t just buy the tender we serve off the shelf. We look for the exact spec and turn down more chicken suppliers until we find the right spec,” Howard said.
He feels confident that those standards differentiate Huey Magoo’s and will be maintained as the brand scales, crediting the connections he has built from having longevity in the chicken space and the chain’s supply chain department.
“I admire all the other big boys. They’ve set a lot of the groundwork for the consumer (who) loves a good chicken tender. We think ours is a great chicken tender,” Howard said. “I know that everybody says their secret recipe is better than the next. We really believe ours is — from the way we serve it, the way we operate, the way we train, the way we pick our franchisees, the building design that we have, the real estate that we pick.”
On that latter point, Huey Magoo’s, which is mostly franchised, has “four or five” different prototypes from which to choose. The company only opened small, neighborhood strip center locations in the beginning, but has since added drive-thrus and non-traditional locations. This has helped attract a deeper franchise base to support its expansion.
“There’s something for everybody and franchisees like the variety and versatility,” Howard said.
The company is also leveraging more technology solutions as it grows, for instance adding a new point-of-sale system that integrates inventory management and labor management. All of these pieces are part of a much bigger puzzle that Howard is enthusiastically putting together for what he calls his last stop in the chicken business.
“I’ve definitely saved the best for last,” he said. “We’ve got so much excitement in place. Nothing’s easy, but with the great team we have to have doubled our growth this past year and increase by 50-60% this year, we’ve got so much momentum. … We’re having fun.”
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Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]