For a relatively small state, Arkansas is home to an impressively high number of nationally-recognized brands. The presence of Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt in the northwest corner of the state are obvious examples, with Dillards, Acxiom, and others holding things down in central Arkansas.
There are also rising stars, like Acumen Brands’ Country Outfitters making a name for themselves in recent years as well.
To this point, though, there hasn’t been an Arkansas-based restaurant that has really caught on nationally.
Fayetteville-based Slim Chickens, however, is vying to become that iconic Arkansas restaurant chain.
The company currently operates locations in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and will soon open its 14th restaurant on Wedington Drive in Fayetteville.
With franchise commitments already signed for 21 additional restaurants across the midwest and Texas, the company is well on its way to becoming the first nationally-known fast food chain from The Natural State.
Slim Chickens opened their first location in February 2003 inside a somewhat run-down building formerly home to a sushi restaurant on College Avenue in Fayetteville.
Before that, though, the restaurant concept was developed – as so many small businesses are – in someone’s garage.
“Basically, our so-called ‘focus groups’ were beer drinking parties,” said co-founder Greg Smart. “We started with a turkey fryer and a bunch of friends trying out recipes.”
“That’s really where we developed our dipping sauces and our breading and our cook times,” Smart said. “Once we got that down, we thought, ‘OK, we’re ready. Let’s find a place to start.”
Smart and fellow co-founder Ryan Hodson (who left the company in 2012), did not have restaurant experience, but enlisted the help of their friend Tom Gordon.
Gordon was a former financial planner who, in a slumping economy, had abandoned his profession and spent the previous four years running restaurants in Little Rock and Los Angeles.
Gordon had just enough experience at the time to help Smart and Hodson create processes for things like running the kitchen, creating customer service policies, and scheduling employees to get the place off the ground.
Both Smart and Gordon admitted it was slow going at first.
“Sales were slow as molasses,” Smart said. “But the light at the end of the tunnel was, they were going up about 5 percent every month. We were so focused on customer service that people kept coming back, and word of mouth started to spread.”
Through its first year in business, the company built the foundation of the menu based on fresh chicken tenders that had never been frozen. They cooked everything to order, including appetizers, wings, salads and wraps. They even made all their dipping sauces from scratch. Serving fresh, made-to-order food is still central to the philosophy of Slim Chickens, and that original menu is still largely the same today.
After about 18 months and many long hours, Smart and Gordon both said they remembered the first month the company turned a profit.
“I remember in our tiny office, Greg came back with a piece of paper and said, ‘Hey man. I think we made a little bit of money this month,” Gordon said.
It was only $237, but the company was in the black.
The company continued to grow a cult-like following in Fayetteville, and in 2005 Slim Chickens was ready to open a second location in Rogers.
“Our goal from day one was always to have multiple locations,” Smart said. “The scope was probably smaller then. We wanted to become a regional brand.”
Smart said opening the second store was one of the most difficult as far as a learning curve. “We found out with multiple locations, you can make double the money, or you can lose twice as much, twice as fast,” he said.
Opening the Rogers store was an important milestone for other reasons as well.
“The second store really gave us legitimacy,” Gordon said. “And I think it taught us how to run efficiently.”
Smart said the company used their learnings to begin creating a scalable package for other markets. In 2008, the company opened its first store outside of Northwest Arkansas in Conway, followed in quick succession with a restaurant in Jonesboro and three more in Oklahoma.
And once the restaurant was able to demonstrate success outside their home-base, the potential franchisees began calling.
Another level of growth
Longtime employee Rob Byford opened the first Slim Chickens franchise in Little Rock in mid-2013. South Arkansas businessman Greg McKay opened a store in Texarkana shortly after that. Since then, Byford has opened a second Little Rock location and another in Hot Springs, and university restaurant group Chartwells opened a franchise on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.
The company this year hired veteran restaurant executive Sam Rothschild to take franchising to an even higher level. Rothschild, who has worked with national brands like Applebees and Hooters, liked what he saw in the Fayetteville-based company.
“Not only does Slim Chickens have a superior product, but the brand is also incredibly franchisee-friendly,” Rothschild said. “From the facility and construction, to the labor required and the positive revenue stream, entrepreneurs who are in food service will want to be a part of our franchise family.”
Rothschild hit the ground running, locking down multi-unit deals for new Slim Chickens stores in Texas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa, with additional deals forthcoming.
“Sam has brought more mature, larger restaurant franchising groups to us,” Smart said. “They chose to invest in us in several different regions, in West Texas, Kansas City, Omaha, Lincoln and Des Moines. We also have eyes on Nashville, Chatanooga, Dallas, Houston, and some markets in Florida, to the Middle East and the United Kingdom.”
Rothschild’s early success has led to some lofty goals for the company.
Gordon said the store plans to have commitments for more than 600 restaurants by 2025 – a goal he thinks is achievable with the feedback the company is getting from some of the large franchising groups they are in talks with.
“Sam is the tip of the spear, and we’re going to build a team around him to make sure we can accomplish that number,” Gordon said.
Smart added that the company is currently in 2014 ahead of schedule for that goal, and that he thinks Slim Chickens could be the next big thing in the restaurant world.
“We’ve seen over the last few years the rise of the better burger segment,” Smart said, referring to chains like Five Guys, Smash Burgers, and others. “We feel that the better chicken segment will be the next wave. The better burger segment is becoming over saturated, and people are looking for the next up and coming brand to get in on.
“That’s where we feel like we are best positioned to achieve our national footprint, to be the leaders in that movement,” he said.
Representing Fayetteville, The Natural State
Slim Chickens last year was listed as the most iconic fast food brand in the state of Arkansas by popular website, Thrillist.com, something that Gordon and Smart say is a point of pride for the company.
Gordon said that being from Arkansas – and Fayetteville in particular – has been good for Slim Chickens.
“It’s been great for us,” he said. “It’s a great place to live, it’s a great place to recruit people. It’s a great place for our business.”
Smart added that the prominence of the regional poultry industry has obviously contributed to that success.
“There are plenty of local contacts in Northwest Arkansas, and there is a wealth of knowledge in that business on how to help us achieve our goals.
“Fayetteville has been good to us, and I don’t see us going anywhere,” Smart said.
The company recently affirmed its commitment to the area after moving into a newly renovated 10,000-square-foot office complex on East Millsap Road, complete with a test kitchen and training facility to bring in store managers for future franchisees.
The company is also set to open a fourth Fayetteville restaurant at 3562 Wedington Drive on June 16. The new store is the most advanced prototype for future stores the company has opened to date, Smart said.
“It’s a really nice store,” he said. “It’s going to be cool for people in our hometown to see how far we’ve come.”