Slim Chickens has at least one thing in common with the likes of Apple, Google, and Nike: It can trace its roots to a garage. President and CEO Tom Gordon concocted the idea for the fast-casual chicken concept in CMO Greg Smart’s garage.

“We got the idea that no one was doing fresh chicken tenders in Northwest Arkansas, and we knew it was a great and growing area of the country,” Gordon says.

There were some chains doing tenders nationally, Gordon adds, but he and Smart thought they could do them better. The pair focused on delivering a better product with premium service to make Slim Chickens stand out from other limited-service concepts in Arkansas.

What makes the chain’s tenders different is that he and Smart “didn’t formulate our recipe based on cost,” Gordon says. “We formulated our recipe with absolute disregard for cost and total regard for quality and taste profile.”

Slim Chickens, named by Gordon’s mother, has a menu of tenders and wings, plus sandwiches, salads, and wraps all designed around grilled and fried chicken.

The grilled offerings are especially important in capturing more health-conscious customers. “We sell a few more fried than grilled, but the grilled grows every year,” Gordon says.

Slim Chickens

President and CEO: Tom Gordon

HQ: Fayetteville, Arkansas

Year Started: 2003

Annual Sales: $20 million

Total Units: 14

Franchise Units: 5

The $6.99 Chick’s Plate with three tenders and one dipping sauce and the $8.49 Slim’s Plate with five tenders and two dipping sauces are the chain’s best sellers. These signature plates also include Texas toast, a drink, and a choice of fries, potato salad, coleslaw, or mac and cheese. Delta Classic Sides like fried mushrooms, fried pickles, or fried okra can be substituted for an additional cost.

“The majority of our dipping sauces are made in-house at each restaurant; our breading and our seasonings are proprietary blends, and our wing sauces are our own blends,” Gordon says.

Iced tea is brewed in all stores and sweetened with cane sugar, and beer and wine are also available in most locations. For a sweet tooth that sweet tea can’t satisfy, there’s another Southern classic on the menu: fried pie. Flavors include chocolate, apple, and peach.

“In the summer season, we also started selling strawberry cheesecake in a mason jar,” Gordon says. “We were targeting it as a seasonal item, but it’s so popular we’re sticking with it.”

Slim Chickens also aims to elevate service beyond what’s offered at a traditional fast-food restaurant by bringing meals to the table after customers order at the counter, Gordon says.

The first Slim Chickens opened in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2003 and the second followed two years later in Rogers, Arkansas. Gordon says the third store opening in Conway, Arkansas, was the game changer.

“It opened strong and put us on the map. After that we started growing fast,” he says. That isn’t to say growth wasn’t without its challenges. Gordon and his team had to form their own leasing company for equipment after “the group we were working with just cut off the bottom half of their client list,” Gordon says.

But after that third location opened, Slim Chickens began opening multiple stores every year and started organizing the franchising business. To keep the momentum going strong, the existing Slim Chickens team brought on Sam Rothschild as chief operating officer in 2014. Prior to coming onboard Slim Chicken’s fast-moving ship, Rothschild had served as a consultant for the brand and was the senior vice president of operations for Applebee’s International.

Now with the infrastructure in place for aggressive franchising, brand executives set a goal of 600 stores by 2025. “We have over 20 franchise commitments signed now for multiple units,” Gordon says. “And we expect commitments for 30 additional franchises by the end of the year.”

Slim Chickens is coming soon to the Kansas City area, as well as Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; Des Moines, Iowa; and both East and West Texas. “We put [Slim Chickens] out in the marketplace, and people began raving about our product,” Gordon says.

Brand executives will aim to grow the chicken chain in concentric circles and are looking for operators who will commit to at least three units. Gordon adds that Slim Chickens has a flexible real estate program with inline, end-cap, and freestanding options available.

“Site and demographics are much more important,” he says. “We look for that mid- to upper-income demographic in a newer trade area with other brands that appeal to our customers. We want visible access in a nice part of town.”

There is one Slim Chickens unit that also operates a drive thru, and it’s an element Slim Chickens would like to feature in more future locations, Gordon says. Existing restaurants also offer catering, which brings in big business.

“Bulk orders of 100 tenders or 100 wings are common. People order them for parties, offices, and school events—you name it,” Gordon says.

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Growth, Story, Slim Chickens