Chicken continues to rule the roost among the top 500 restaurant chains in the United States, and Emily Gray and her business partner Hudson Sandefur are poised to make the most of that trend with their Chicken Salad Chick development deal for Arkansas.
The chicken menu category outpaced all others in sales growth in 2021, experiencing double-digit sales increases last year for the third consecutive year, according to Technomic, a food industry consulting firm and data provider.
Chicken Salad Chick, the 220-store fast-casual chain based in Auburn, Alabama, saw its sales rise 45.6% in 2021 to $255 million. It added 30 restaurants last year and had average unit volumes of $1.32 million.
On May 11, Gray and Sandafur’s company, North Little Rocking Chick, added another: at 3901 Warden Road in North Little Rock. It was the fifth Chicken Salad Chick in Arkansas, and Gray and Sandefur’s second. They opened their first store June 9, 2020, in Benton. (The other Chicken Salad Chicks are in Fayetteville, Jonesboro and Conway.)
Gray and Sandefur have now signed the lease for their third, at 17406 Chenal Parkway in the Shoppes at Chenal in west Little Rock, Gray told me last week. They hope to open that location this year, depending on what have come to be inevitable supply-chain issues felt by restaurants throughout the state and country.
The partners, who signed a multi-store deal for the Little Rock area, are also eyeing Hot Springs and, if sales warrant, a potential location in midtown Little Rock. Gray said they’ve also added Texarkana to their map, once they’ve built up the Little Rock area.
Business at the new restaurant in North Little Rock has been busy, Gray, of Hot Springs, said. “Our drive-through business has been great. Dine-in, catering have all taken off,” she said. “Last week, for the company, out of 220 restaurants, we were No. 2 in sales.”
Opening the Benton store during a pandemic was a challenge. “But the community in Benton and out of Little Rock and really just the whole area has been so supportive, so excited for us to come to the area.”
In the spring of 2020, before Gray and Sandefur, of Daphne, Alabama, opened the Benton location, Gray hosted “community drops,” during which area residents ordered chicken salad online from the Memphis Chicken Salad Chick. She then would drive a refrigerated truck from Memphis to Benton to deliver the orders. “We probably had a hundred people in a car line for those delivery dates for chicken salad in anticipation of the restaurant opening,” she said.
Gray, who graduated from Auburn University, began working at Chicken Salad Chick in 2011 at its first restaurant in Auburn, owned by the chain’s founder, Stacy Brown, “before it was a franchise or anything.”
“I’ve always been drawn to the family-friendly atmosphere,” Gray said. “It’s a really positive culture here. The fresh food. The made-from-scratch recipes. Just a real dedication to nurturing both our guests and our team members.”
She went on to work in the corporate office as a trainer and a new store opener, and “then this opportunity came to move to central Arkansas,” which, Gray said, she had visited often for vacations. “I love the area and had a lot of friends here.”
J&S Italian Villa at 4332 Central Ave. in Hot Springs is under new ownership. Saddiq Mir, previously vice president of hospitality at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, and his wife, Jeannie, bought the restaurant in April.
Mir, who has a 30-year-plus career in the hospitality industry, helped oversee the resort’s recent expansion, including the spa and its food and beverage operations.
The name of the restaurant will remain the same, Mir said in a news release, but he promised “a series of improvements,” including renovations.
“The restaurant will continue to focus on Italian cuisine, but new dishes and regional delicacies will be added,” the release said. “Their hope is that guests will come for a fun, trendy, and unforgettable experience in addition to the food, wine, and cocktails.”
The Mirs hope to reopen the restaurant this summer.