In 2019, the founders of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux spun off a second concept called Smalls Sliders, which features a simple menu of cooked-to-order cheeseburger sliders, fries and milkshakes. The concept now has six locations open – all near its hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana – with over 40 more in development.
The further-out goal is to get beyond 400 units via franchising and Smalls Sliders is quickly putting the pieces into place to get there, starting with the hiring of industry veteran Maria Rivera as its CEO. Rivera has served as the U.S. president of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and has also held roles with TGI Fridays, Logan’s Roadhouse, Darden Restaurants and The Walt Disney Company.
Her first line of business in the role is to move to Atlanta, where Smalls Sliders is relocating its headquarters to scale more efficiently. That decision was made prior to Rivera’s announcement, however. Last year, 10 Point Capital – an investment company with a portfolio that includes Walk-On’s, Tropical Smoothie Café and Slim Chickens – added Smalls Sliders to its roster, joining fellow owners Drew Brees, future NFL Hall of Famer, and Brandon Landry, CEO of Walk-On’s.
“Once 10 Point came on and decided this could become a national dominant player, we really started to put together a franchise growth curve. The decision became clear about where we should scale from in order to get from the ground level to emerging and emerging to regional, and it was important to make this move to Atlanta sooner than later,” Rivera said during an interview earlier this week.
In other words, there is some urgency, though it isn’t without discipline, she notes. Rivera believes the burger space is primed for disruption and that Smalls Sliders is niche enough to be that player. Her optimism comes from falling in love at first bite.
“I wasn’t going to talk to anyone about joining the company until I tasted the burger. Burgers are personal,” she said. “Nobody had done exclusively cheeseburger sliders, so I was curious. I ate burgers for two-and-a-half days with zero expectations. There’s a reason I’m sitting here today – it is a slamming cheeseburger slider. It tastes like you’re making it at home every time.”
Rivera’s draw to the brand quickly became more than just personal, however. The model and the economics make sense as well, particularly in the current macroenvironment. Smalls Sliders menu is small and focused and food costs are kept down accordingly. Locations are 800-square-foot modular “cans” that are delivered in one piece and can be moved if necessary. Those locations are drive-thru and walk-up only.
“The brand unit economics are ridiculous. Our six openings opened at $110,000 the first week and are still doing over $85,000 a week. The sales numbers of these cans are well above what many brands in the space would like to do. It’s very efficient because you don’t have a lot of labor overhead and you have controlled food costs,” Rivera said.
It’s a good foundation from which to build, no doubt, and the company is putting several additional initiatives into place to go from there. In the next few months, for instance, Smalls Sliders will add advanced ordering and third-party delivery aggregators. It has also begun to develop its own supply chain, spinning off from Walk-Ons.
“To go national, we have to establish the right supply chain and spend some of our first big investments on technology. We are doing a full end-to-end review of what we need to be positioned to be attractive in the digital space and that includes a full redesign of our website that is integrated into the customer experience, an app that allows our core consumers to interact with us, a CRM – all of the touchpoints that support customer interaction,” Rivera said, adding that they should all be in place by the end of the first quarter.
Rivera also hopes to position the brand in a way that appeals with consumers across generations – “Instagrammable, nostalgic, clever, unassuming and a little bit in your face,” she said.
One of her first goals after moving to Atlanta will be to bring on a team that promotes this position before it’s full speed ahead.
“Something I’ve taken a lot of pride in during my career in this industry is building teams and I am absolutely looking forward to doing that here and bringing in best-in-class talent for this brand. I want people who are slightly obsessed with it, who like the brand and are a little disruptive and who are willing to have the discipline to scale this business,” she said. “We are going to make sure that before we start opening up the flood gates, we can reasonably support this growth without brand dilution and that we are having fun, too. We will prove ourselves fairly quickly.’
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]