Julie Hauser-Blanner’s draw to Smalls Sliders as new COO was undeniable from the moment she first encountered the fast casual. What she found was a brand that someone wouldn’t come across every day—compelling engagement, a loyal customer base, and a leadership team stacked with talent.

Emphasizing simplicity of the menu as a key attraction, Hauser-Blanner points out how Smalls Sliders offers a respite from decision overload. Customers have the option of getting a combo with one, two, three, or four sliders, or going for a bigger option like Biggie Smalls and Biggie Smalls with Bacon. That’s supplemented with three milkshake options. Last year, the chain sold 3.5 million cheeseburger sliders.

Hauser-Blanner also notes the various convenient ways guests can access the brand, including walking up, digital ordering, and delivery, which have resonated with a diverse range of customers, from multigenerational families to trend-conscious millennials. Hauser-Blanner also praises the brand’s popularity among Gen Z customers, who frequently utilize off-premises channels for ordering, loyalty rewards, and bulk purchases. In February, the brand revealed that it released a new mobile app with its first loyalty program, Smalls Rewards, and a digital ordering experience boosted by Thanx and Olo.

Additionally, Hauser-Blanner highlights how younger customers often order large quantities of sliders for tailgating events, parties, and gatherings with friends, showcasing Smalls’ versatility.

“This is actually evident in every aspect of the brand’s operations today,” Hauser-Blanner says. “And really, what excites me the most is the promising growth trajectory that Smalls has. The potential for further expansion, obviously, and market penetration is truly vast, but I’m eager to contribute my expertise to help steer the brand toward what is already successful.”

Hauser-Blanner joins a brand with 13 active locations in Louisiana and Mississippi, but 200-plus units in development across 16 states primarily in the Southwest and Southeast. The goal this year is to reach 40 locations systemwide, which would triple the footprint. All of the focus will be on new markets as Smalls’ home state of Louisiana is sold out. Keep in mind, Smalls achieved this after re-opening franchising in May 2023. The expansion is accompanied by a new logo, website, and the unveiling of “Smorange” as an official Pantone color. The brand has developed a reputation for its uniquely sized restaurants, which are shipping containers with a built-in drive-thru window. The company lovingly refers to their stores as “cans.”

A crucial part of Hauser-Blanner’s role will be finding the right franchise partners, optimizing operational efficiency, and fostering what she calls a “culture of excellence.” She understands that ensuring growth while maintaining high standards is a challenge, but it’s one that customers expect. The fast casual has made it a point to sign with well-equipped operators. For instance, it inked a 22-unit deal in Arizona with Purple Square Management, which operates more than 250 franchise locations in the U.S. The same organization agreed to a nine-unit deal in Tampa and a six-unit deal in Atlanta.

“The support we’re getting from the franchisees that we are attracting, these individuals are not only highly experienced within the franchise industry but also possess impressive portfolios to support us and their respective markets,” Hauser-Blanner says. “They’re community-minded, operationally bound business leaders, and right now demonstrate a genuine passion for running what I consider a world-class brand.”

Hauser-Blanner has a strategic vision of prioritizing the customer experience and fostering innovation across all aspects of the business. Central to her vision is the expansion of Smalls’ footprint and alignment with the brand’s core values. She has a passion for implementing sustainable practices and technology to enhance convenience and underscores the importance of investing in the company’s workforce for long-term success.

Along with Hauser-Blanner, Smalls has spent the past year bolstering its leadership team, including Michael Alberici as SVP and head of marketing, David McAllister as VP of finance, and Greg Swafford as VP of supply chain. Altogether, the executives have experience from Darden Restaurants, GoTo Foods (formerly Focus Brands), Texas Roadhouse, Fogo de Chão, and Landry’s.

Hauser-Blanner spent about 4.5 years at European Wax Center, most recently as chief franchise officer and executive sponsor of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Prior to that, she worked at Front Burner Restaurants, Outback Steakhouse, and Bonefish Grill. At European Wax Center, she spearheaded growth strategies and supported functions across a network of 1,000-plus units nationwide. While there, the executive was immersed in the intricacies of franchising. Her prior experiences at Bonefish Grill and Outback, domestically and internationally, gave her insights into operations.

Overall, the Smalls front office comprises 48 percent women, 29 percent people of color, and 14 percent LGBTIA+, all of whom span over four generations. Hauser-Blanner appreciates the executive team’s push for teamwork and describes the workplace environment as supportive and dynamic. She believes all of them have a collective drive to enact tangible change within the restaurant industry.

“We’re fast on decision-making—super nimble professional gymnasts per se,” Hauser-Blanner says. “And there’s a strong focus on open communication and trust of our team members. We support each other. The culture so far, it’s small, it’s passionate, it’s collaborative, it’s forward-looking and thinking, making it unique for me among the brands I’ve experienced in the past.”

Employee Management, Fast Casual, Franchising, Growth, Story, Web Exclusives, Smalls Sliders