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    With Help from Walk-On's, Smalls Sliders Cooks Up Big Plan

  • The upcoming fast casual has backing from NFL star Drew Brees.

    Web Exclusive March 25, 2019 By Danny Klein
    Smalls Sliders
    The concept is a shipping-container design, complete with a drive-thru window.

    If there’s one thing Jacob Dugas learned from his uncle, Brandon Landry, it’s that the small things matter in a restaurant. When Landry conceived the idea for Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, a rapidly expanding sports-bar concept out of Louisiana, he took one of the most cliché early steps to entrepreneurship: he jotted a floor plan on the back of a napkin. The walk-on basketball player at LSU submitted his business plan to a professor and received a C in response. Six banks denied him and then-business partner Jack Warner a loan. The seventh agreed and the franchise, which has 24 units and more than 100 stores in development, was born.

    From the outset, Landry focused on elements he could control. Humble ownership. A commitment to employees. Customer service. Quality food. And a culture that feeds the organization from the top down and never lets up, no matter how fast it grows.

    Dugas plans to do the same. “We know that it takes a lot more than a product to make a quick-service restaurant,” he says. “In particular, the culture of a brand. Who you are as a company. We crossed every T and dotted every I to make sure we got that message across.”

    Dugas’ Smalls Sliders, created with Scott Fargason, a senior instructor in LSU’s Flores MBA Program, will debut this summer across from Tigerland in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As the same suggests, it’s a sliders-themed restaurant that doesn’t overcomplicate things. It’s a brand drawn up with simplicity in mind. Take the name for instance. Beyond just representing Smalls Sliders’ food, Dugas says, it’s supposed to illustrate how the company plans to focus on the operational basics. “If you take care of the small things,” Dugas says, “and celebrate the small things in life, everything else will take care of itself.”

    Small or not, Dugas’ brand has some big-time backers. Landry, along with NFL star Drew Brees, who is also a longtime Walk-On’s investor, support the concept. Like the full-service brand, Smalls Sliders has national growth potential. One indicator of what’s to come: it’s a 950-square-foot shipping container building. Similar to one of Checkers & Rally’s top growth vehicles, the construction is built off-site, at a controlled cost, and shipped to location. It makes for a quicker and more operator-friendly approach to start-up fees. Many restaurateurs are not construction geeks. Dugas is. After getting his MBA, Dugas worked in the business. “You could be doing your site work while the building is being built,” he says. “It’s a really cool process. And you can ship it anywhere in the country.”

    The idea was actually hatched by Landry, Dugas says. But it was one of those kismet suggestions. As soon as he saw it, Dugas knew it lent credibility to Smalls Sliders’ bigger targets—a focus on customers and culinary, throughput, and labor.

    Smalls Sliders won’t have a dining room. Customers walk up to the window in a very nostalgic setup akin to the roadside burger shacks of old, order, and then grab an outdoor seat. The patio will have bench-style tables and seating for 25–30 people. It will stay open late, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight, later on weekend nights, to accommodate football crowds. There will also be an open kitchen to look inside. But the No. 1 ordering option will be a drive-thru window. 

    “We came in just knowing that the quick-service drive thru is king,” Dugas says. “Having the ability to focus more on that [than dine-in service] was really attractive to us.”

    The customer service element is critical in this design. Dugas says employees only have a short window of time to connect with guests and inspire them to return. This is doubly true in a drive-thru focused restaurant. And that’s one place hiring and execution will come into place—all examples to follow from the team-first dynamic Landry’s and Walk-On’s promote. After setting up Smalls Sliders’ culture, and making sure personalities fit the mission, Dugas says, a simplistic and easily executable operating model should help. Employees won’t be confused by a lengthy menu. And they shouldn’t be overworked.

    “There’s more to it,” he adds. “We said from the beginning. You’ve got to have cool buildings and cool designs, but you have got to have great food. You’ve got to have that customer experience. We’re focusing on a few items and tasks, and just doing it better.”

    The menu is under wraps for now. Expect to see premium sliders, fries, and shakes, among other staples. Dugas says more details will leak out as the grand opening nears, and that he wants guests to come in person to figure out what Smalls Sliders has to offer.

    Regardless, though, it will be a well-executed group of items, he says. It will focus on core products and perfecting those. It won’t ever grow into a Cheesecake Factory-like encyclopedia of options.

    Dugas says the concept, at its heart, harkens back to what makes quick service so recognizable across the country’s roadmap. “The burger is kind of an America pastime, right? We think we can bring that extra quality to it and be really competitive in the smaller-slider world. We saw a need, and it’s a recognizable item. It was just an instant great response to it.”

    The slider game is dominated by two larger players—Krystal and White Castle. Krystal has a couple of stores in Louisiana but has never quite been able to flood the market.

    Dugas says the first Smalls Sliders is a proof-of-concept store, and it could grow around its center or expand out. But it’s easy to see the national potential, he says. Especially if it remains a tight operation that focuses on simplicity and doesn’t stray from the culture-first mission.

    The first store shouldn't lack foot traffic given it's about a mile from LSU's Tiger Stadium. Dugas says community involvement will be a key day one initiative, and one the company will foster as it enters fresh markets.

    Smalls Sliders is also the culmination of an entrepreneurial bug Dugas nurtured ever since running a catering business in college. “[Brandon] knew I was hungry and ready to roll,” he says. “So it’s been a perfect fit. With all of us—Drew and Scott—it’s just everyone bringing their expertise to the table.”