Slim Chickens, the 11-year-old creation of a couple of Fayetteville restaurant entrepreneurs, appears poised to take advantage of diners’ increasing appetite for chicken.
“You’ve got to have a target on the wall,” Tom Gordon, president of the chain, told Arkansas Business recently. That target, said Gordon and his business partner Greg Smart, is 600 restaurants in 2025.
The chain, which opened its first location in Fayetteville on Feb. 17, 2003, now has 13 locations with a 14th scheduled to open June 16. That 14th outlet will be Slim Chickens’ third restaurant in Fayetteville. The chain has two locations in Little Rock and outlets in Rogers; Jonesboro; Conway; Hot Springs; and Texarkana, Texas; along with three in Oklahoma. Five of those are franchises; the other eight are company-owned, as will be the newest location.
Gordon and Smart, the company’s chief marketing officer, put Slim Chickens’ annual revenue in 2013 — counting every unit — at between $15 million and $20 million.
As for average annual sales of each location, Gordon, while declining to be specific, said, “We have a range that we like to see.” The restaurants “that perform exceptionally well” have annual sales of between $1.7 and $2 million, he said.
By that standard, the first Slim Chickens in Little Rock, at 4500 W. Markham, is on track to be among those performing exceptionally well: It didn’t open until May 2013 and yet racked up $1,296,143 in sales for the year and has had sales of $404,794 in the first three months of 2014.
A National Trend
The Slim Chickens chain is among a number of restaurants seeking to exploit Americans’ taste for chicken.
Food Business News, an online industry publication, reported earlier this month that Chick-fil-A, KFC, Domino’s Pizza and others were introducing new “chicken concepts.” And Technomic, which provides research for the food service industry, reported in March that chicken chains grew 5.1 percent in 2013, outpacing the 3.9 percent experienced by the overall limited-service restaurant market. Chick-fil-A was the category leader, increasing 9.3 percent with 2013 sales of $5.1 billion and surpassing KFC as the top chicken chain.
Yum Brands Inc., parent company of KFC, on April 9 opened Super Chix in Arlington, Texas, a test store focusing on chicken tenders and sandwiches, in what was seen as a potential challenge to the mighty Chick-fil-A.
Gordon and Smart appear to have seen the chicken wave coming. The two men met in high school in Little Rock but then went to separate colleges and drifted apart. Gordon was working in the restaurant industry in Los Angeles when he got a call from Smart in about 2002. The two discussed “the fresh chicken concept and how it was starting to gain some traction on the East Coast with a couple of little brands,” Gordon said.
“And Greg said that we need to go out there and look at them because northwest Arkansas was growing like crazy and it was very busy and we felt like we could expand our brand out from here efficiently,” he said.
However, Gordon said, “we weren’t satisfied with anything any of our competitors were doing at the time, so we just went out on our own and put together our own brand.” The partners started testing products in 2002 and opened their first restaurant the next year.
(The pair started out as a trio. Ryan Hodson was the third partner when Slim Chickens began. But in 2012, Hodson filed suit in Washington County Circuit Court claiming, among other things, that he was “pushed” out of the business and alleging breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. The suit was settled in May 2013 and dismissed with prejudice.)
Smart said Slim Chickens has signed commitments from franchisees for 20 more outlets. “Our plan is to be at 50 commitments by the end of this calendar year,” he said.
None of the chicken served at Slim Chickens is ever frozen, the partners said. “Fresh is better,” Smart said. “We cook everything to order.” Also setting the brand apart is its emphasis on customer service, Smart said.
The partners’ desire to grow to 600 is ambitious, they acknowledged. But “we are, to our knowledge, the fastest-growing restaurant company based in Arkansas,” Gordon said.
Smart and Gordon noted some recent good publicity from Thrillist, a lifestyle website, which mapped all 50 states’ “most significant chain restaurants” and listed Slim Chickens for Arkansas.
Said Gordon: “I think that while it took a few years to get it organized and effective, we are in a position now to really capture fast growth and we’re real excited about the future.”