Newk’s is carving out a niche for itself as an upscale fast-casual restaurant, rebranding from Newk’s Express to Newk’s Eatery to emphasize its position.

“The word express didn’t resonate with upscale food,” says Newk’s president and CEO Chris Newcomb.

The rebranding began in 2013, and Newcomb expects its completion by the end of 2014. He says he and founding partners Don Newcomb and Debra Bryson designed Newk’s to be culinary focused. The three previously grew McAlister’s Deli into a nationwide chain, selling their interests in the company in 2002. They followed up two years later with the first Newk’s in Oxford, Mississippi.

“We make everything from scratch, from the salad dressings and croutons to our homemade chicken salad,” Newcomb says.

The service is also slightly upscale. As with other fast casuals, customers order at the counter, but following that, the experience becomes a bit more like full-service dining. Guests can watch as food is prepared in an exhibition kitchen. Orders are brought to the tables by dining-room attendants who also check in to make sure guests are satisfied and bus the tables after meals—there are no garbage receptacles in the dining room. The upscale menu also features adult beverages like beer and wine by the glass.

Guests can stay occupied while they are waiting for their food, Newcomb says.

“We have a round table with condiments and extra toppings like pickles and banana peppers, as well as breadsticks, so people can get what they want,” he says.

Newk's Eatery

President/CEO: Chris Newcomb

HQ: Jackson, Mississippi

Year Started: 2004

Annual Sales: $115 million

Total Units: 66

Franchise units: 57

Newcomb says one thing Newk’s is doing differently than McAlister’s Deli is holding down the number of menu items.

“At McAlister’s, we had about 140 menu items,” he says. “For Newk’s, we’ve scaled back to between 64 and 70 menu items. That makes training easier, and it makes it easier for customers to order.”

Those items include soups, salads, baked sandwiches, and 10-inch thin-crust California-style pizzas. All Newk’s locations are open for lunch and dinner, with the sales split being about 65 percent lunch, 35 percent dinner.

Popular sandwiches on the menu include Newk’s Signature Chicken Salad made with grapes and pecans and dressed with Provolone cheese, spicy Creole mustard, lettuce, and tomato. The Shrimp Po’boy is made with a dozen broiled shrimp, olive oil, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and sliced red onion. Sandwiches range in price from $7 to $9.85 and include two sides.

Best-selling salads include Newk’s Favorite, made with mixed greens, grilled chicken, Gorgonzola cheese, dried cranberries, grapes, artichoke hearts, pecans, croutons, and sherry vinaigrette. The Shrimp Remoulade salad combines mixed greens, a dozen broiled shrimp, eggs, grape tomatoes, and remoulade dressing. Salads are priced from $5.75 to $10.45.

As for the individual pizzas, the Margherita, which features tomato sauce, Mozzarella cheese, and sliced Roma tomatoes, and The Debra, which features basil pesto sauce, grilled chicken, Mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, and Roma tomatoes, are big sellers.

In addition, there are four soup choices available each day. “We sell a ton of soup,” Newcomb says. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand making it from scratch in-house, so we found a company that makes it to our recipe.”

In fact, some of the recipes are originally Don Newcomb’s, including Newk’s Signature Beef Chili, which is made with mushrooms and a hint of sherry.

While the soups and sandwiches may be the items that bring people in, it’s the desserts that grab their attention. Newcomb estimates that 25–30 percent of customers order dessert, like the brand’s layer cake, which comes in flavors like banana, red velvet, and caramel.

“We wanted to stand out and do something different,” Newcomb says. “And people love cake. They grew up on cake and have nostalgia for cake.”

The cakes and other dessert offerings, like brownies and crispy treats, are made at Newk’s Bakery Company in Oxford, Mississippi. About 1,000 cakes are baked for the restaurants each week, Newcomb says. Whole cakes are available for carryout at every Newk’s Eatery, as are other grab-and-go items.

Newcomb estimates dine-in orders account for 50 percent of sales, while call-in and to-go orders are 30–35 percent, catering is 10–12 percent, and grab-and-go items make up 5–6 percent.

In one decade, Newk’s Eatery has expanded into 13 states across the Southeast. “As franchisees came on board, we continued pushing the boundaries and growing in a big expanding circle, Newcomb says.

Newk’s will continue to fill in that circle in 2014, he says, as well as widen it to include Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky.

“We have 16 stores under development already, and we think we’ll hit 20 new stores in 2014,” he says.

Newcomb says only two of the stores opening in 2014 will be company stores. The rest will be franchised.

Consumer Trends, Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Fast Casual, Growth, Menu Innovations, Story, Newk's Eatery