Tom Gordon and Greg Smart, the founders of restaurant chain Slim Chickens, shared a single-minded vision when they started the company in, yes, Smart’s garage in 2002: “The vision was always to have a big company,” said Gordon.
“The vision was always to populate Slim Chickens throughout the region and then eventually nationally.”
Slim Chickens, based in Fayetteville, is making its debut on the list of 75 Largest Private Companies in Arkansas at No. 75, with $100 million in revenue in 2018. Gordon, CEO, and Smart, chief brand officer, opened their first Slim Chickens in 2003 in Fayetteville. The company now has 83 stores — 64 of those franchises and 19 corporate stores — in 15 states, the United Kingdom and Kuwait. The U.K. is home to three Slim Chickens restaurants and two are located in Kuwait. Gordon and Smart plan to open another three this year in the U.K., where the restaurant has been particularly popular.
The fast-casual “better chicken” concept seemed a natural for northwest Arkansas in the early 2000s, which then, as now, was booming.
The pair, keeping the goal of growth before them, were even able to leverage the Great Recession to their advantage. “It actually opened some opportunities for us from a real estate perspective with different landlords and developers that were needing tenants for some of their centers,” Smart said. “A lot of the larger restaurant chains had slowed or stopped development due to the recession. We were in growth mode so it was serendipitous for us.”
“We didn’t get derailed by banking or credit because no one had ever taken a chance on us anyway,” Gordon said. “We funded the business and the growth out of our own pockets [and] with credit cards and then eventually, as we got to scale, some traditional banking lines of credit. That was all.”
And now? “Largely the same,” he said. “Mostly organic.”
From that garage start, the Slim Chickens headquarters now occupies a 10,000-SF building at 1088 Millsap Road. Gordon and Smart predict 2019 revenue of $160 million.
► 75 Largest Private Companies
Ranked by fiscal 2018 revenue of Arkansas-based, Arkansas-owned private companies.
The company has embraced technology on its road to growth, including the successful launch last year of a single sign-on Slim Chickens app to ease mobile ordering and featuring a digital loyalty component. “It’s all about reducing barriers for the guest,” Smart said. As of late April, the company had about 170,000 app users, a number that was growing by 2% or 3% a week, the pair said.
Gordon and Smart expect to have 101 Slim Chickens restaurants by the end of this year, and the ambitious goal they shared with Arkansas Business five years ago remains the same: 600 restaurants by the end of 2025.
There’s a definite reason for that goal. “Six hundred stores will take us over $1 billion in global revenue,” Gordon said, “and that’s the first target we had on the wall.” Gordon and Smart looked at the potential of the entire United States. “Just 12 restaurants a state gets us to that [600 figure],” Smart said.
As for the possibility of going public, “That’s a long way off,” Gordon said. “Not in our immediate future” was Smart’s response.