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Headshot of Don Crocker, CDO of Smalls Sliders Photo courtesy of Smalls Sliders
Don Crocker has been named chief development officer of Smalls Sliders.

Inspire Brands’ Don Crocker joins Smalls Sliders to lead development

Crocker, whose resume includes Inspire Brands and Chick-fil-A, joins Smalls Sliders as the restaurant company ramps up its growth.

Smalls Sliders’ growth ambitions have caught plenty of attention and now the company is taking a major step toward bringing those goals to fruition. The company announced today the appointment of Don Crocker as its new chief development officer, responsible for its development strategy, including identifying opportunities for expansion, partnership and enhanced market penetration.

Crocker’s industry pedigree is impressive, with 30 years of development experience at brands that may sound familiar. He most recently served in the same role at Inspire Brands, parent company of Arby’s, Dunkin’, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John’s, Sonic, and Baskin-Robbins. While there, he led new company and franchise openings, capital reinvestment and property assets for the company, which has more than 32,000 locations worldwide.

Prior, he spent 20 years at Chick-fil-A, helping the company grow from a regional player to a national concept while adding more than 65 new designated marketing areas (DMAs).

With both experiences, he felt it was “not mission complete, but mission accomplished” and he was drawn to Smalls Sliders because it presented an opportunity to embark upon a new mission.

“Inspire when I joined in 2018 was like a startup. It was large, but its multi-brand scenario was new, and it acted like a startup. When I was with Chick-fil-A, it was under the radar in terms of doing our thing and growing. That is now how I feel about Smalls,” Crocker said during a recent interview. “There are always a lot of new, hot brands, but something about Smalls just resonated with me. I was intrigued.”

What exactly intrigued him was the ownership – 10 Point Capital, which also holds investments in Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux and Slim Chickens. CEO Maria Rivera also stood out to him, as he “took notice of her work” when she was president of Krispy Kreme. He liked some of the decisions being made about how the brand was being set up for growth, such as relocating its headquarters from Baton Rouge to Atlanta to be in closer proximity to talent and resources.

And, he liked its differentiation, how the company is growing through a modular format where “cans” are manufactured off-site, then transported and dropped on site, truncating the time it takes to get a location open, creating a tighter labor line and generating lower startup costs overall.

“It’s a crowded landscape in our industry. Some are growing, some are shrinking,” Crocker said. “In Smalls, I see something distinctive and disruptive – a brand that resonates but also has a strong operating model with a limited menu, streamlined guest experience, smaller footprint, smaller site.”

He also likes the unit economics, with average unit volumes over $2 million and lower operating costs from the smaller, about 800-square-foot prototype. Further, Crocker believes Smalls’ drive-thru/walk-up model is a competitive advantage.

“Most QSRs have drive-thrus, but not all of them emphasize the drive-thru or are accelerating it and that seems to be where we’re headed,” Crocker said. “It’s a different game post-pandemic – operationally there are more difficulties, development is more complex. If you can start with the idea of a smaller footprint and then a smaller site, you’re going to see a lot of landlords, brokers, and franchisees very interested.”

Crocker’s strategy is to share these points of interest with others while also taking learnings from his heavyweight experience, which includes modular development, and applying it to Smalls.

“Modular is still evolving and there’s various degrees of success and pros and cons. But what I love about Smalls is how they’re working with franchisees, saying ‘here’s the footprint, here’s the game plan, go execute it.’ It’s not this limitless menu of different designs and buildings and I think it’s brilliant to keep things simple, so franchisees know exactly what they need to do,” Crocker said. “At the end of the day, the lifeblood of our industry and success is understanding and being connected with franchisees, knowing what obstacles are in front of them and what their needs are.”

The company now has 200 units open or under development just 10 months after expanding into franchising. It is currently focused on 16 states and, by next year, will add more while continuing to expand in “an organized way,” according to Rivera.

“We wouldn’t be bringing Don on if we didn’t have big aspirations for Smalls. We want to build this together and take Smalls to its rightful place. This is a pivotal moment,” she said.

Indeed, Crocker is part of the company’s executive hiring news – which also includes the recent onboarding of Julie Hauser-Blanner as its chief operating officer – to execute its plans.

“As we go from taking the brand to full implementation at the regional level and then scale to a national level, which is difficult, it is incredibly important to bring the right partners to the table,” Rivera said. “Those who aren’t just going to just help drive the right decisions, but also lead the teams to this incredible aspiration.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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