At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, QSR chatted with restaurant executives to get their take on 2024’s biggest topics. We’ll share their insights and observations from the floor, thoughts on the state of the industry, and predictions for the future. 


How MAD Greens is Redefining Customer Engagement

This edition features Sam Stanovich, SVP of franchising at Big Chicken.

What’s the most innovative thing Big Chicken has done lately? 

As we continue to grow and scale, we’ve been able to reduce our footprint cost in the last 12 months by working with our vendors and our supplier partners. That’s been big. We’ve also got an amazing innovation funnel coming. We’ve got some new flavor profiles that we’re going to be launching later on this year. 

One of the coolest things we’ve done—because of our culture and how we talk about it being a team and being a family—is launch an LTO shake that was created by one of our trainers in the restaurant. She thought of this idea, tested it, and then gave it to our chef to refine. The person who created the shake actually started with us as a line level employee while she was going to school. Now, she’s one of our head trainers. 

Sam Stanovich, SVP of franchising at Big Chicken

That’s the culture we have that inspires me everyday. Our philosophy is that it’s not about silos. It’s about working collaboratively. We don’t work in some tower and we have no office. For Big Chicken, it’s all about expanding that culture as we grow. As we increase our team member size, we’re doing a lot around creating opportunities from within. Those who’ve been with us on the team level are getting these opportunities to grow. That’s been pretty exciting to see this year. 

Give me an update on Big Chicken’s expansion efforts. Are there any recent milestones or upcoming plans you’d like to highlight?

Not only are we growing and opening quite a few restaurants here domestically, but now we’re going international. We’ve opened our first international location in Manchester, England, and we’ve signed our first brick-and-mortar franchise agreement for Central America. We’re doing five countries with a great partner down there, starting with Honduras. 

Stadiums and arenas have played a big part in Big Chicken’s growth story. Will that continue with your international expansion plans? 

Yes, we’re adding additional stadiums. We have a strong presence there because of our great partnership with Oakview Group, and of course, because Shaquille O’Neal is a founder. At the end of the day, it gives us the opportunity to expose people faster, especially for a growing and emerging brand. You have to remember that we’ve only been franchising for under three years. Getting the deal and building the store is an 18-month process. As that’s being developed and there’s all of the hype, we’re able to implement in-market sooner with nontraditional locations where we have brick-and-mortars going. We’re able to let people taste our food and give us some feedback and data. Then they get the full experience when we open to traditional locations, and we’re able to just continuously improve. 

The nontraditional locations have been very supportive and helpful to our growth and to our exposure in terms of marketing. And on the concessions side, they’re trying to elevate the game so that the people going to a sporting event or whatever type of activity is going on have the opportunity to get a premium experience. 

What’s piquing your interest at this year’s show? Are there any trends or innovations you’re keeping an eye on?

The development of AI is fascinating. It’s being more and more integrated into our business. Voice, email, text, drive-thru—it’s all come leaps and bounds even since last year. So, we’re always looking at the updates on AI and how it can integrate. 

The other thing is robotics, which continues to get better and better. It used to be one single-item focused. Now, the robotics that we’re seeing are taking products from a refrigerator through the cooking process and all the way to packaging. You’re getting a complete system and really starting to see full automation versus robotics 1.0 for the industry. 

Practically, I think we’re a couple of years away from higher adoption. But look at things like LED monitors. They were very expensive when they started. Now, you can buy a 55-inch monitor for $250. The same thing is going to happen to robotics as they start manufacturing more parts. And it won’t take up as much space. That’s a big thing with restaurants and the cost of the space. The old robotics took up so much square footage that they weren’t easily adaptable. The new version is becoming a lot easier to implement. Give it another 12 months, and we’ll see how much tighter the robotics footprint is and how much better the AI has gotten. 

I’m curious, what topics do you think deserve more attention right now? What should the industry be discussing more?

We definitely need to continue to talk louder about the government bureaucracy that’s coming down for the industry. When you’re looking at the state of Illinois trying to abolish the tip credit, it’s going to hurt a lot of people in our business.

That’s something we’re already seeing play out in Washington, DC. 

The data is showing it’s a disaster and they’re still trying to move ahead. As an operator, you never want to play in politics, right? It can hurt your business. But we’ve got a powerhouse group of associations, nationally and locally, that are fighting to preserve our business model and protect us. They need everyone’s help. I’d encourage anybody that touches this business to find out what the issues are and stay up to speed with what’s going on, because there might be a point in time where you could be under attack. 

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Story, Web Exclusives, Big Chicken