Arkansas figures prominently in Newk’s Eatery’s expansion plans, said co-founder and CEO Chris Newcomb, as the chain continues to ride the crest of the fast-casual wave.
“Arkansas is the gateway to the Midwest for us as we continue to grow — Oklahoma, Kansas, on out,” Newcomb told Arkansas Business last week.
Newk’s, based in Jackson, Mississippi, currently has 86 locations in 13 states, with the heaviest concentration in the South and Southeast. The company’s goal is about 234 restaurants by the end of 2018, first of 2019, Newcomb said, with 66 of those company-owned.
To accomplish that, Newk’s, which offers salads, sandwiches and pizzas, plans to extend down into central and southern Florida and push up through Arkansas into Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Newk’s has six locations in Arkansas but plans at least a dozen, the company said. Its first Arkansas location opened in 2011 in Hot Springs. Newk’s now has two locations in Little Rock — one in Midtown and the other out west on Pleasant Ridge Road — as well as outlets in North Little Rock, Jonesboro and Fayetteville.
Next in Newk’s sights are northwest Arkansas and another store in Little Rock, Newcomb said, with Conway and Fort Smith also potential locations. He expects to see the stores in northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith opening next year.
Newk’s plans are ambitious, but Newcomb — the “Newk” in Newk’s — is confident. He said the chain plans to open a total of 26 restaurants this year.
Newk’s, founded in 2004, is that variety of fast-casual restaurant emphasizing fresh, even local ingredients — think Chipotle and Del Frisco’s Grille, which opened a location in the Promenade at Chenal earlier this month.
Fast-casual restaurants increased annual sales 12.8 percent to $30 billion last year, “nearly double the next-largest increase from any other restaurant segment,” according to Technomic Inc. of Chicago, a market research firm.
Newcomb touted Newk’s use of fresh foods. “We do everything from scratch here,” he said. “We brine our chicken and grill it. We grill our steak, salmon. We broil our shrimp and make our salad dressings. All our produce is cut in house.”
The CEO also emphasized the chain’s service and hospitality, as well as two signature features of Newk’s: its open kitchen and its centrally located “roundtable” providing capers, roasted garlic, Parmesan cheese, etc., allowing diners to customize their meals.
Newcomb said Newk’s sales-to-investment ratio of about 2.3-to-1, compared with an industry average of 1.1-to-1, sets the company apart as a franchisor, and he praised the franchise’s ease of operation.
Average annual sales are $2.4 million, Newcomb said. The average size of a Newk’s is 4,400 SF and the restaurants usually have four to five managers per location and 40 to 46 hourly workers.
Of its 86 stores, 14 are company-owned, Newcomb said. And as Newk’s expands, “We’re going to stay around 15 to 20 percent corporate-owned,” he said.
The founders of Newk’s — Chris Newcomb, his father, Don Newcomb, and Debra Bryson — have a solid franchise restaurant track record. The team also founded McAlister’s Deli, which they began in 1989 and sold in 2001.
Don Newcomb, of Oxford, Mississippi, was a dentist by trade, and Bryson once managed his practice.
In spring 2014, the partners sold a majority interest in Newk’s to private equity firm Sentinel Capital Partners. Chris Newcomb called the sale “an opportunity for my father and Debra Bryson to basically exit and retire.” The sale “also allowed us to grow the concept with Sentinel a lot faster and help us attract some more talent as well.”