Chicken Salad Chick CEO Scott Deviney says the chain takes a three-pillar approach to taking care of employees and customers—spread joy, enrich lives, and serve others.
Those core values are what have catapulted the chicken salad concept to a regional brand in nearly 150 locations and 16 states. The company, founded by Stacy and Kevin Brown in 2008, opened 40 locations in 2019, which translates to a 38.5 percent increase in units. The growth coincides with 16 consecutive quarters of positive comp sales. Last year, Chicken Salad Chick saw a year-over-year jump of 4.4 percent and hit $153.3 million in system sales.
The ultimate goal is to reach 400 units by 2025. That’s about a 270-percent increase in units over the next five years. And there’s good reason to believe Chicken Salad Chick can meet those targets. The brand has more than quadrupled in size in the last four years, with systemwide sales increasing 40.1 percent in just 2019 alone.
Chicken Salad Chick is forging ahead under new ownership as well. The company was acquired by private-equity firm Brentwood Associates in November for an undisclosed amount. Brentwood bought the brand from Eagle Merchant Partners, which purchased a majority stake in Chicken Salad Chick in 2015 and helped it blossom past 100 locations. Brentwood is also an investor in fast casuals Blaze Pizza and Veggie Grill, as well as full-service brands Lazy Dog and Pacific Catch.
Deviney joined Chicken Salad Chick as part of the Eagle Merchant Partners acquisition and continued as CEO with the Brentwood move.
The fast casual has more than a dozen flavors of made-from-scratch chicken salad—from the traditional to the spicy and savory—and serves it by the scoop. The chicken salad is complemented by side salads, signature sandwiches, soups, and desserts.
“Our brand is certainly unique,” Deviney says. “It’s not another—no offense to the burger or the pizza—but it’s not another brand that we’re fighting for the same consumer. So we do certainly have a unique offering because we have fresh-made chicken salad that tastes excellent. We serve it with a smile on our face.”
Coming off the most impactful year in the company’s history, Deviney says the brand will increase the pace to 50 openings in 2020, which will be the standard going forward. This year, the growth will occur in the Midwest and South in state like North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Florida and the 17th state, Indiana. Later in the year, Chicken Salad Chick will add a handful of states in which to sell territory so it can plant seeds for growth in the next few years.
The brand also signed 26 franchise agreements in 2019 to develop 60 new restaurants.
Chicken Salad Chick uses a concentric model to grow. Logically speaking, the next expansion circle should extend to areas like New Mexico, Colorado, and Maryland on the East Coast.
“Then once that happens you just start selling franchises and they start opening and it just grows the brand awareness state by state,” Deviney says. “That’s the plan.”
Deviney notes that Chicken Salad Chicks hasn’t had major obstacles to growth partly because it remains disciplined in growing concentrically and not moving too fast for the team to handle.
Of course, there are some challenges, but ones that every other growing brand is facing—finding reasonably priced real estate, acquiring and retaining talent, and building brand awareness.
“We’ve been extremely focused on [the concentric model] and that has helped us without having some of the pitfalls that other companies might have,” Deviney says. “We haven’t stretched distribution, we haven’t stretched the brand really too far. And that’s what we’ve been so focused on is making sure we’re doing it the right way. Could we have grown faster? Possibly, yes. We felt like when we opened 24 restaurants in 2018, we opened 40 restaurants in ’19, and open 50 this year, we’ve been building to this.”’
Regarding brand awareness specifically, the concept does require some explanation. The CEO says chicken salad is a common item on many menus across the country, so the food is familiar. However, none have an entire brand based around it—especially not at Chicken Salad Chick’s current scale.
Additionally, the chain boasts a flavor profile that fits everyone’s palate, Deviney says. In other words, the company is uniquely suited to provide a variety of chicken salads that cater to customers who “like their chicken salad the way they like it.”
“This is what we’re about—we make fresh chicken salad and here’s the different chicken salad profiles that we have,” Deviney says. “And then when you come into the restaurant and you get to feel the energy and love and enthusiasm that we have in the restaurant so you feel so happy when you leave, that’s what’s infectious and brings people back with friends.”
The company is actively looking for franchisees to help grow the brand. Chicken Salad Chick requires applicants to have a minimum net worth of $600,000 and liquid assets of at least $150,000. The initial investment ranges from $515,000 to $683,000 with a $50,000 franchise fee.
Seventy percent of the units are franchised, but Deviney says the goal is to reach about 80 percent. Among the 50 or so openings each year, about 10 to 15 will be company stores. Of the company’s 64 franchise ownership groups, about half are husband and wife. The other half is split between female and male ownership.
Deviney says the brand seeks applicants who have had previous successful ventures, regardless of whether the experience was in the restaurant industry. But the bigger priority is finding those who appreciate the values.
“What we really love—first and foremost—is franchise owners that believe and love our culture,” Deviney said. “And that’s No. 1. They have to believe in the spread joy, enrich others, and really want to help people and serve others and take care of their team and take care of their guests.”
Going forward, Deviney says Chicken Salad Chick will work to build its catering efforts and continue innovation by providing quarterly LTOs.
Barring any major economic changes or geopolitical incidents, Deviney sees a clear path to the company’s goal of 400 stores in 2025.
“Within our control, we think we’re poised to open at least 50 restaurants a year,” Deviney says. “We have franchise owners excited about it. As long as we keep our unit level economics well, then we’ll continue to open restaurants in good real estate.”