What began as a single mother’s solution to support her children through an at-home business selling chicken salad door to door is now a 115-unit brand with a thriving in-store and to-go business. The secret sauce? A little bit of Southern charm and a whole lot of care that founder Stacy Brown has put into growing the business the right way. Here, Brown shares the brand origin story and a few standout learning moments.
I graduated from Auburn University just in time to be a stay-at-home mom. My husband and I agreed that I would raise the kids and he would pursue a career. But after 10 years of marriage and three children, the marriage ended in divorce. Because I had been a stay-at-home mom, I really did not want to disrupt that stability after a divorce. My goal was to do something from home, so I could continue to be with them.
I was truly obsessed with chicken salad. I was a Southern cook, not a chef, but I enjoyed cooking. I thought, “Well, if I can come up with a really good recipe, other people would value that.” It was something that I was always in search of.
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I went to work in the kitchen and would take recipes to friends, neighbors, and people in town. I’d get their feedback and go back and tweak. Finally I came up with this recipe that blew everybody away. I was going to start delivering one recipe door to door, and, in the middle of that process, it hit me that the reason everybody’s chicken salad is so different is because everybody likes different things. So, I started out with about four flavors.
Because word grew about the business so quickly, the health department caught wind of it. They called and told me what I was doing was illegal and I had to shut down immediately. That was the end of the at-home business.
I had previously reached out to my friend, Kevin Brown, for business advice. When the at-home business got shut down, we decided to go into business together. We partnered on paper, became an LLC, and opened up the very first restaurant with 12 flavors in Auburn, Alabama. It was just a little takeout-only spot. Neither of us had any money to put into the business, so we laid our own floors, hung sheetrock, and painted the walls.
At that first location, there was no place to park. It was just a madhouse. I always said it looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It just went crazy. We added a dining room to the take-out spot, but that just made traffic worse. We opened two other restaurants in Auburn to pull the chaos away from this little bitty take-out spot and make the business manageable. That worked.
In the meantime, we’re in Auburn near the university, and all of the students were bringing their families to Chicken Salad Chick. Parents started saying, “Well, what do I have to do to get one of these in our hometown?” We were so busy with three restaurants, but we said, “Put your name on the list. We’ll get to it if we get to it.” Once that list grew to over 100 names, we franchised the concept.
Just like Grandma’s
A super Southern, traditional chicken salad that we do is called Olivia’s Old South with sweet pickles and eggs. I have watched someone take a bite of that, close their eyes, and a tear run down their cheek, saying, “That is my grandmother.”
Chicken salad conjures up feelings of nostalgia. People tell us what it has meant to them and what their mother made.
They also relate to us through the names of the chicken salad, like Fancy Nancy or Sassy Scotty. They’ll come in and prance up to the counter and say, “I’m feeling pretty sassy, so I’ll take the Sassy Scotty today.” It brings out personality in everybody.
All the chicken salads have namesakes of real chicks that mean the world to me, who have shaped my life. Olivia’s Old South is named after my late husband and business partner Kevin’s daughter. Jalapeño Holly is a close friend. Sassy Scotty is my best friend since kindergarten. Kickin’ Kay Lynne is my aunt. Nutty Nana is my mother.
The biggest challenge is just to make sure, as the protector of the brand, that our culture stays pure. Every person that we bring into the brand—whether it is a franchise owner, a corporate team member, or restaurant-level team member—is an addition to our dynamic. Keeping that dynamic balanced is the biggest challenge, but it also makes me feel like we’re stronger. We look for people who have a servant’s heart, who feel that need to serve. I’m so blown away by our team members. Whether you are here to work or to dine, you feel uplifted and valued.