Slim Chickens founders Greg Smart and Tom Gordon / Photo: Novo Studio
It has been another year of milestones for Fayetteville-based restaurant chain, Slim Chickens.
The company, which got its start in 2003 inside an old seafood restaurant at 2120 N. College Ave. in Fayetteville, has continued its expansion both domestically and abroad this year.
The chain celebrated opening its 100th restaurant at a new location in Little Rock in December, and will open its seventh UK eatery this weekend in the Bluewater Shopping Center in Stone, Kent, England.
The company also secured a minority-stake equity investment from 10 Point Capital last summer, which promises to propel the restaurant further toward its goal of 600 restaurants and $1 billion in annual sales in the next 10 years.
The company now operates locations in 15 states, and will enter four others this year with openings planned in new territories in Florida, New Jersey, Maryland and Utah.
In all, Slim Chickens will open 30 locations in 2020, of more than 360 that the company or franchisees have already committed to open in the future.
That’s a lot of growth for a company that has only been in existence for less than two decades. Its founders plan to celebrate their 17th anniversary next week on Feb. 17.
We checked in with founders Greg Smart and Tom Gordon, who were nice enough to give us an update on all the activity underway for one of Fayetteville’s most promising companies.
The 100th restaurant officially opened at 16105 Chenal Parkway in Little Rock on Dec. 18.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was in attendance for the opening along with Lt. Governor Tim Griffin, local press, and dignitaries from the Chamber of Commerce and several state economic development officials.
Smart and Gordon said reaching the 100th location milestone has opened a lot of doors for the brand.
“From a business perspective, it really has had an impact on inbound franchisee inquiries, national press, interest from trade magazines,” said Gordon. “100 stores is a big demarcation line for folks. It makes people take notice, to say, ‘They’re legit. They aren’t going anywhere. Maybe I should buy franchises. Maybe I should sell them products. Maybe I should be a part of what they do.”
Opening of the 100th Slim Chickens restaurant in Little Rock / Photo: Novo Studio
“And from a personal perspective, when you start with very little money and a dream with one restaurant, to make it to 100, it’s definitely a milestone that we celebrate,” Smart said.
Gordon said that support from the state where he and Smart grew up has been huge for the brand.
“This state has been an important part of who we are, where we come from, our DNA,” Gordon said. “Arkansas is a huge sense of pride for us. It’s our home.
“I’d like to think the state is proud of us too,” he added.
Gordon and Smart were unsure of where the company currently ranks amongst the largest employers in the state of Arkansas, but Slim Chickens is definitely on the rise.
Smart said the brand as a whole currently employs more than 5,000 individuals around the world, with around 600 of those working directly for one of the restaurant’s 21 company-owned locations.
The company also employs more than 40 people at their corporate headquarters in Fayetteville.
They also contract with several of the poultry suppliers in the region to supply chicken to their restaurants.
“We definitely try to use Arkansas vendors whenever possible,” Smart said.
A shot in the arm
Slim Chickens received their first large private equity investment last year from Atlanta-based firm, 10 Point Capital, in a deal that was announced last July.
10 Point is best known for their work with brands like Tropical Smoothie Cafe, who recently opened their 750th location, thanks in part to their work with 10 Point.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Gordon said that it was for a minority equity investment in the company, and one that will allow the brand to continue to grow on their own terms.
“For us, it really gives us some peace of mind,” he said. “We don’t have any debt. It really cleared out the old cobwebs from the beginning of the brand, and it will allow us to do whatever we think is right to grow the way we want to grow.”
Gordon said he and Smart held out for a long time on accepting this type of investment, though there was no shortage of suitors. 10 Point, he said, was unique in that they didn’t for major changes to the brand, and how the business is run.
“They are riding with us,” he said. “They said, ‘We love what you are doing, let’s just keep it rolling.'”
For Gordon and Smart, some of the highest highs of their time with the brand have happened in the last few years.
Gordon cited visiting the staff at their first international location in Kuwait as one of the most surreal experiences he can remember.
“We went over there, and saw our training team in Kuwait, and there were giving us hugs in Kuwait City,” he said. “That was quite a moment for us.”
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson speaks in Little Rock / Photo: Novo Studio
Recent accomplishments like the 100th location, and the 10 Point investment also registered among some of the highlights of running the company for Gordon.
For Smart, some moments from the early days stand out.
“Opening our third restaurant in Conway, with no marketing, no advertising, and then having a line out the door to the point that we could not keep up with the volume, that was big,” he said. “I think we realized then that we have a tiger by the tail, so we better figure this thing out. We knew we had a product that the customers wanted.”
Signing the first franchise deal for the Texarakana restaurant with local businessman Greg McKay was also important, Smart said.
“For someone to look at us and say, I’m willing to invest my hard earned money into your brand, and help you develop it, that was another big one for me,” he said.
Gordon also remembered some important moments from the early days.
“I remember Greg coming to us to say, hey look, we made our first profit of $236,” he said. “That first P&L with black at the end of the page. Or when we decided we could afford to pay ourself a salary, or at least get on the payroll at minimum wage. Or the first time a bank was willing to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll loan you a dollar.'”
There were low points, too.
“When we opened in Conway, I remember going to Walmart to purchase some spatulas,” Gordon said. “I ran the corporate card, but it was declined. So I got out my personal credit card. Declined. Pulled out my personal debit card. Declined. Three strikes, and you’re out. I left the store without any spatulas.
“But then, like Greg said, that store went crazy. It allowed us to catch up a little bit, and the rest is history,” he said.
Things are quite a bit different now for the restaurant founders. For one, someone else is in charge of the spatulas.
Even 10 years ago, Smart and Gordon were filling in on shifts in their restaurants a few days a week, alternating on weekends.
These days, they are more responsible for leading the brand, and making decisions that affect the entire system they have created.
“Now we are thinking about global growth, the best things for franchisees, how to manage capital, are the right people being supported, do they have what they need to be successful,” Gordon said.
Photo: Courtesy, Slim Chickens
And though the founders aren’t working shifts in the restaurants these days, they are still heavily involved with the brand.
“We still test chicken tenders,” Smart said. “We’re still very involved in the menu, so there aren’t changes made unless we approve it. The food doesn’t change unless we eat it.”
“It seems like we do end up with the hardest of problems now,” Gordon added. “The easy stuff doesn’t get to us anymore.
“‘I ran out of paper towels in the bathroom.’ Easy stuff like that, we don’t get anymore,” he laughed.
Gordon attributed the company’s success to their persistence, but also said the best business decisions he ever made were all about hiring, and empowering, the right people to help lead his restaurant.
“We hired some very specialized talent that really helped us grow,” Gordon said.
“We realized you are really better off to spend your limited capital to hire strategic thinking, scalpel precision people from a finance set, to opps, and on down,” Smart said. “Letting go of the ego, to say, now it’s time to bring people in to help take it to the next level.”
Gordon said he hopes Slim Chickens can one day join the likes of Walmart, Tyson, and JB Hunt as one of the companies that NWA is known for.
“If we can do that, it means we were successful, but it also means that we made a lot of other people successful,” Gordon said. “We built careers. We’ve taken care of our team members who have grown through the system. I hope that can be our legacy.”