Starbird, created by Aaron Noveshen’s consultancy, The Culinary Edge, was destined for scale since formation. The group wanted a concept simple enough for a qualified operator to run if, sometime down the line, franchising made sense as a growth vehicle.
Six years into the chicken chain’s story, the restaurant has reached that point. Starbird’s seen north of 25 percent same-store sales growth three years in a row, and Noveshen says the company’s AUV is pushing “industry-leading” levels, especially in terms of sales per square foot. The private investment field believes in the brand’s trajectory as well; late last year, the company closed a $12 million funding round led by KarpReilly. The capital injection intends to fuel corporate growth, ghost kitchens, licensing deals, and yes, the launch of a franchise offering.
“We’re actually doing what I like to consider a hybrid model,” says Noveshen, who serves as CEO. “We are continuing to open and operate our own restaurants while partnering with sophisticated current multi-unit franchise operators throughout the country. And so we feel like we can accelerate our growth at this time by doing both of those approaches.”
Noveshen describes Starbird’s corporate pipeline as “tremendous,” but he acknowledges that long-term, franchising is likely to outpace company expansion. As it stands now, the brand has 11 locations in California, including a pop-up kitchen, two ghost kitchens, and two other nontraditional stores in Levi’s Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers, and the San Francisco International Airport. A 12th store in Hermosa Beach, California, will open in early October, marking Starbird’s first streetside location in Southern California. In 2023, there are plans to grow in Marina Del Rey, West Hollywood, and South Bay.
The restaurant wants to double its unit count in the next 18 months.
In addition to receiving assistance from outside consultants to ensure it was fully franchisable, the concept hired Daniel Lecocq as vice president of franchise development. The industry veteran previously held positions at Potbelly, Applebee’s and IHOP parent Dine Brands, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and Krispy Kreme. The restaurant also built a full public relations team to help franchisees spread awareness, formed a new video training system that holds operators accountable, partnered with national vendors in and around supply chain, and prepped its IT team to support franchisees in their omnichannel approach. All of this is in conjunction with The Culinary Edge continuing to strategize food and beverage innovation.
Starbird is registering in as many states as it can. The first areas of growth will primarily be in western regions, including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. However, there are some major markets in Texas, Florida, and Illinois that Starbird is also interested in pursuing—pending the chain can find the right partner.
“We don’t want to close off any opportunities. We’d rather have a great partner in an area that might be a little further away than be close to home with someone who may not be the best of the best,” Noveshen says. “It’s all about finding the great partners first and foremost. That will really ultimately drive our growth and the territories we choose to open up first. Although likely if we’ve got the great partner and they’re right next door, that’s probably the best win-win scenario.”
The chain is franchising its streetside restaurants, which are either standalone or endcap buildings between 1,800 and 2,300 square feet. Starbird also runs a suite of virtual brands— Starbird Wings, Starbird Salads, Starbird Bowls, and plant-based brand Gardenbird. Franchisees will have access to those concepts after proving they can oversee the core menu up to the company’s standards. The restaurant attracts more of an upscale, educated consumer with a higher-than-average income. Noveshen believes Starbird can cater to that demographic in both suburb and urban “A” real estate.
Each of the company’s available prototypes comes without a drive-thru, but Noveshen isn’t opposed to exploring the ordering channel in the future. It would be more of a digital drive-thru where customers pick up their order instead of using a speaker box, similar to what Chipotle is doing with its Chipotlanes. Beyond that, Starbird is working on the ability for guests to order inside their car while driving. The system would pick up their voice, direct them to the nearest location, and the order would be ready when they arrive.
“I mean the great thing about Starbird is that we’ve really reinvented convenience in terms of being able to do sales levels utilizing our technology platform without a drive-thru in the past,” Noveshen says. “It doesn’t mean that we aren’t open to a drive-thru of the future. What differentiates us from so many of the other brands and our competitive advantage is that the real estate required today to build a drive-thru and the competitive nature of finding that type of real estate is very prohibitive. And so we have not been dependent on it and so we feel like we do have quite an advantage in that arena today.”
Even though Starbird is on the cusp of franchising, it’s already received hundreds of inquiries over the past couple of years. The chain has kept all of those messages in a database and has been screening them for those who fit the right profile. The initial push has been with operators who have previously partnered with Noveshen; The Culinary Edge has worked with 30 percent of the top 200 restaurant companies in the past 20 years. Additionally, Starbird will rely on the resources and connections of KarpReilly and initial investor Greg Dollarhyde.
The brand has multiple Discovery Days lined up with qualified candidates. Noveshen hopes to have several deals signed before the end of the year and open franchise restaurants by mid-2023. Starbird is seeking area development deals in which the operator must open a minimum of five stores across no more than three years. Noveshen says the company requires this level of a commitment because of its “high-volume, extremely high-sales” status and the fact that it needs more of an investment than a typical quick-service restaurant.
“Usually it takes a more established group, and we also want the experience and operating,” the CEO says. “We have unbelievably high standards, we’re very culinary-driven, and although we have exceptional systems in place to drive that consistency, we’re chef-driven food. The quality level needs a certain level of understanding, attention, and experience to making super premium fast-food. This is not freezer-to-fryer product. Fresh products, no antibiotic ever. We brine it in-house, we small-batch produce it. There’s a high level of methodology to creating our positively delicious chicken.”