Tom Gordon dreamed of becoming a stockbroker when he graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with a degree in finance and accounting. Greg Smart, 41, started law school after graduating from the University of Mississippi with a degree in English. He quit after two days.
The men, who have been fast friends since they were 16 in their hometown of Little Rock, were destined to become fry cooks and cashiers, forming a partnership that started Slim Chickens, a popular fast casual restaurant chain in the upper and lower Midwest.
The first Slim Chickens opened in 2003 at 2120 N. College Ave. in Fayetteville to a slim start, Gordon, now 40, recalled.
“It took a long time to educate customers,” Gordon said of the restaurant’s key menu items — chicken tenders and Buffalo wings, lightly hand breaded and battered from scratch.
“It was a concept we felt was a need in this market,” said Smart, chief marketing officer.
Gordon, chief executive officer, added, “A hand breaded chicken product.”
He moved to Fayetteville from California to join the start up.
Soon after, a restaurant was opened in Rogers and “we became multi-unit operators,” Smart said. That was the original goal: To have more than one location. The third location was in Conway which “opened to overwhelming success in 2008 and continues to be one of the high performing stores,” Gordon said.
Today, the Slim Chickens' brand can be found in 23 stores with nine more planned this year. The stores extend from Lubbock, Texas, to Lincoln, Neb., to Tennessee to Cincinnati, Ohio. Of those 23 stores, 13 are corporate owned and the rest are franchise stores. The franchise segment began about three years ago when the first franchised location opened in Texarkana. The company employs about 600 team members system wide including 26 at the home office and about 75 to 80 at each store.
LOCAL SEED MONEY, GROWTH PLAN
The Tonic Fund, supported by StartUp Junkies Consulting in Fayetteville, recent led an investment of $250,000 in Slim Chickens, said Brett Amerine, operations director of StartUp Junkies.
“They have a world class management team and they have a huge market potential, to be the Whataburger of chicken,” Amerine said.
They have a good business plan and can grow and be successful, he added.
“Franchising is the next wave of our growth,” Smart said.
Two corporate stores are expected to open this year and another six next year. Additionally, 20 to 25 franchise stores are expected open next year, he said. They look for large scale developers and target those who are interested in opening five to 18 stores. Smart said that is for the efficiency of operating more than one or two locations. In return for buying into the company, the franchise buyers receive “all the service and support for a viable brand and viable product,” Gordon said.
That includes five to seven weeks of training at the corporate headquarters on Millsap Road in Fayetteville, complete with its own kitchen, where they learn the secret recipe and how to lightly bread the chicken in the preparation. Additionally, Slim Chickens sends a full training team to the new franchise store for the first two weeks of its operation, Gordon said.
“We always wanted bigger,” Gordon said.
He said there are 94 franchise units in the pipeline at the present time.
“We’re growing very fast,” Smart added. “Franchisers are coming to us. We’re a unique brand.”
Potential franchisers mostly learn about the company through word of mouth and the company’s presence at trade show.
“The restaurant competition has always been hard,” Smart said. “Fast casual restaurants are one of he the fastest growing segments of the restaurant industry.”
The restaurant industry’s share of the food dollar is currently 47%, compared to only 25% in 1955, according to the National Restaurant Association. Restaurant industry sales are projected to total $709.2 billion in 2015, the association projects. That includes sales in all segments of the restaurant industry, including Slim Chickens' category as a fast casual restaurant.
The friends and partners attribute their success because of the vast talent pool in Northwest Arkansas, the company’s broad appeal, extensive screening for locations and franchisers.
“We’re the largest restaurant franchiser and the fastest growing chain in Arkansas. We’re glad to be based in Arkansas. It’s a good success story for us,” Gordon said.
“It’s been a 12-year long road,” Smart added.