Maria Rivera joined Smalls Sliders as CEO in late November, just ahead of the brand’s sixth opening in Slidell, Louisiana.
It was a debut that exceeded expectations, with well over $105,000 in sliders sold over a week’s time. So you could say her tenure is off to a good start.
“We are moving fast and taking stock of the capabilities that we have and the things that we need to do to ensure that we can properly scale the brand, which is very much the collective action from both our investors and the ownership group,” Rivera says.
Smalls Sliders, featured on QSR’s annual 40/40 List for 2022, first opened in 2019 and is owned by Walk-On’s CEO Brandon Landry and former NFL great Drew Brees. Earlier this year, the budding fast casual secured an investment from 10 Point Capital, the same private equity firm that’s fueled growth at Slim Chickens, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, and Walk-On’s.
Rivera says it’s a brand that requires one to bring their “whole self to the table” in terms of community, values, and culture. It’s high praise for the young chain, especially coming from a CEO that’s previously held executive roles at Krispy Kreme, Logan’s Roadhouse, TGI Fridays, and Darden.
To her, Smalls’ biggest strength is its sliders, a product that she believes can carry weight locally, nationally, and globally. The menu is easy to navigate; customers can pair one, two, three, or four sliders with fries and a drink, or go for party packs of 25, 50, and 100, to create a tailgating atmosphere. All of these meals are prepped in a roughly 800-square-foot bright orange shipping container that Rivera fondly refers to as “the can.” The workers inside these converted containers represent the chain’s other strength. Rivera says Smalls attracts people “from all walks of life that are high energy and that really believe in what we do both at the franchise level and also at the can level.”
From an opportunity standpoint, Smalls is working to build its infrastructure. The company has leveraged Walk-On’s purchasing power to prevent interruptions during volatile times, but the chain is in the process of establishing its own distribution and supply network. That involves bringing in a capable team that can help Smalls source nationally.
Thus far, Rivera says the restaurant has avoided passing on significant costs to consumers because of its high volumes. That’s mostly because Smalls’ business is based around the drive-thru, an off-premises format that’s soared in popularity since the pandemic began. Also, with a streamlined design and lower labor requirements, the company isn’t dealing with the same overhead expenses as its peer set.
“I often say that Smalls Sliders is sitting on unicorn dust,” Rivera says. “We've been in this space—all of us—for a very long time. We see very cool brands that fizzle. This brand has the chops to not only be a national brand, but actually have relevance in the space. Burgers are very personal, but they also inspire love, nostalgia, and I think as we head into ‘23 with some of the trends we’re seeing with this whole space around nostalgia and one great product brands, I think we have something pretty special.”
In the early innings of the job, Rivera says the best learning lab has been inside the four walls talking to operators and employees. In her conversations she’s sensed passion, energy, and belief. It was a message she heard consistently and unprompted. That includes Joseph “Rocky” Gettys, the franchise owner of the new store in Slidell.
“The most recent opening, the franchisee called me the other day and he said, ‘I've been so busy, I haven't been able to return your call from the other day,’” Rivera recalls. “And he said, ‘This is incredible. It's so much work, but it's incredible.’ And I said, ‘I'm so happy for you. So happy for you. Let's go build three more!’”
Smalls will enter 2023 with more than 40 restaurants under development, and Rivera says additional deals will be finalized in the first quarter. The plan is to open 10–15 units annually over the next couple of years and eventually accelerate to 25-plus debuts per year. All six locations are based in Louisiana, and so will the next three in Marrero, Denham Springs, and Lafayette. Beyond that, future growth will at some point extend beyond the state and into Texas and the Southeast. Smalls developed a preliminary list of its top 75 DMAs where it would have the most brand relevance.
To better support growth, Smalls will move its headquarters from Louisiana to Atlanta, a city that Inspire Brands, Chick-fil-A, Focus Brands, Hooters, Zaxby’s, and so many others call home. But that’s not to say the brand will ever forget its roots.
“If you want to know how to make a great cheeseburger slider, you have to at some point come to Baton Rouge because trust me, they make a great cheeseburger slider,” Rivera says. “But it's a business decision that allows us to attract the best talent for this brand and allows us to really do the discipline work that needs to happen to be able to support 25-plus openings a year. And if we get to 40 openings a year, which is very much on our three-year pipeline, then we do need to make sure that we have the ability to scale responsibly.”
Rivera will lean heavily on her years in quick service to fuel Smalls’ growth journey. In her previous position, she worked as president of Krispy Kreme’s U.S. business after starting as vice president of retail. She played a significant role in overseeing the brand’s transition to its hub-and-spoke model in which doughnuts are delivered fresh daily to retail stores, convenience stores, and grocery stores. At Darden, she spent two years opening Olive Garden restaurants across the country.
Additionally, Rivera spent time with firms like McKinsey & Company, EY, and AlixPartners to restructure brands and perform transformational work. The situation is different at Smalls since it’s at the beginning of its expansion plans. But Rivera still believes she can use this background to ensure discipline along the way.
“I cannot begin to tell you how skeptical I am about brands in general—having been in the space for a long time—and how refreshing it was to find a brand that is so authentic and so in your face when it comes to this one great product,” Rivera says. “You don't find that often. So as a leader, as an operator, and coming from a one product brand that was incredibly, incredibly remarkable in the sweets category and sweet space, coming to the savory space and finding one—it's actually pretty, pretty special.”