Savvy Sliders, a 35-unit fast casual based in Michigan, recently announced a goal to reach more than 500 restaurants in four years. But if chief development officer Bryon Stephens is being honest, he typically isn’t comfortable with publicizing those figures.
In one way, it can set unrealistic expectations. But it also places the brand in a box, he says. It’s a high figure, but maybe 500 isn’t the ceiling; Stephens is a believer in doing everything right, and if that occurs, opportunities have no bounds.
He recalls a recent conference where Yum! Brands CFO Chris Turner noted that Taco Bell has enough U.S. white space to reach the likes of McDonald’s. Stephens viewed it as a statement that nothing is going to stand in Taco Bell’s way.
“You could say we took and chose that [500-unit benchmark] because it’s a big bold audacious goal and it’s something worthy of setting ourselves up to,” Stephens says. “And it really pushes us to be focused on growth. I don’t focus on growth. I focus on doing everything right. Growth is a byproduct of doing everything right. And Taco Bell proves that. All the great brands prove that. And that’s what culture we’re going to have here at Savvy is that we’re going to have a culture of doing everything right. And that way there will be no limits on our growth.”
The perspective comes from 40 years of restaurant experience.
Stephens worked in franchise sales and development when A&W and Long John Silver’s joined forces in the 1990s and subsequently merged with Tricon Global Restaurants to form Yum! Brands. The industry veteran then spent nearly 14 years at Marco’s Pizza in various leadership roles. While there, unit count grew from 115 stores to more than 800, systemwide sales surpassed $500 million, and he was even featured on CBS TV show “Undercover Boss.” Stephens also co-founded Pivotal Growth Partners, a firm that backs Jeremiah’s Italian Ice, a chain that’s seen more than a 500 percent increase in unit count in fewer than four years.
So what would attract him to a small slider chain in the Midwest? Stephens points to the menu, which starts with 100 percent Angus beef sliders and brioche buns. He says it’s quality that’s reminiscent of casual dining, but in a quick-service segment that’s “extremely affordable” because of the slider’s miniature size. There’s also variety—fried chicken, grilled chicken, spicy falafel, steakhouse rib-eye, double patty, and English cod. If you’re not in the mood for a burger, Savvy has a chicken tender lineup and frozen custard.
“They’re just delivering a great quick-service experience,” Stephens says. “And I know it seems cliché because their slogan is ‘more to love.’ There’s just more to love about it. It’s a better [quick-service restaurant] experience and consumers are lining up for it. It’s just exciting.”
Stephens says Savvy’s menu allows the brand to expand anywhere in the country, and so do the company’s distribution and supply chain relationships. That’s why the chain has 30 units in development across Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. A recent San Antonio opening—the brand’s first location in the Lone Star State—witnessed the highest-volume debut in the company’s five-year history. The franchisees signed on to do five stores, but Stephens says they’re putting together funds to do another five restaurants. For the most part, that’s how Savvy intends to do business—larger area development agreements to build scale and brand equity.
In Texas, the fast casual is opening in spots formerly occupied by Project Pollo, a once-rising vegan chain that appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
Savvy will stick to the Southeast, Midwest, and Southwest as opposed to the more expensive operating environments on the West Coast and in the Northeast. For the viable markets, the fast casual plans to find the 10 best opportunities and plant flagships.
“What happens in all the other trade areas that maybe weren’t quite as ready for our brand, they become more ready with that time because the name, brand recognition, etc.,” Stephens says. “So the rising tide rises all the ships.”
Savvy prefers buildings that are 2,800 to 3,200 square feet in size, bucking a national quick-service trend to downsize. The brand wants enough room for its double drive-thru, kitchen, and 60-seat dining room. The restaurant shoots for freestanding locations, but it would consider an endcap drive-thru if it were the right situation. For instance, a drive-thru at the end of a strip mall likely wouldn’t give Savvy the public stature that it’s looking for. However, a two-bay pad in front of a Publix might.
Once the concept builds more awareness, it’ll start thinking about efficient prototypes.
“A lot of brands are doing that because they are well known,” Stephens says. “People don’t need to come in and check it out and say, ‘What is this new thing?’ once you’re known and they’re there for that transaction of the food. More and more our mature stores see more of the online ordering and drive-thru and things like that because now you’re a known, trusted entity. We’ll see that and I think we’ll have opportunities to scale back the footprint in strategic locations over time, which will cut down on development cost and still give us the ability for our customers to get the transaction that they want from us.”
Although Savvy has high growth expectations, Stephens acknowledges just how hard the development environment is, with capital and operational expenditures remaining high. So the brand will keep making sure margins stay favorable and that it’s frugal about everything it’s putting in stores, but Stephens’ confidence comes down to a much simpler level.
He once had a friend who told him to “never forget that people eat what they eat.” When Stephens asked what he meant, he was reminded that burgers, chicken, pizza, and tacos will always be the most popular food groups. You can count sliders and tenders among them—Savvy is selling what people eat.
“You can bet on a lot of them that don’t sell those things, but don’t ever count out those items because that’s what people are eating,” Stephens says.