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For Slim Chickens, Key Words Now Are React, Adjust

4 min read

If there was one verb that defined what businesses that successfully weathered the COVID-19 pandemic learned to do it was “pivot.”

But Tom Gordon, CEO and co-founder of the fast-casual restaurant chain Slim Chickens of Fayetteville, used other verbs in a recent interview that describe the same strategy: “react and adjust.” He deployed the phrase in response to a question about how he, as an executive, had been changed by the pandemic. 

Tom Gordon

“As a leadership team, we have gotten better at believing in what our people are telling us,” Gordon said. “We have gotten better at adjusting every day versus trying to stick to a plan quarter by quarter. 

“Now it’s hand-to-hand combat every day. And we try to go down that road and think about the business in that way now, so we can react and adjust and take care of not only our guests, but our team members, and make sure that we have the right plan day by day, week by week, month by month now.

“COVID kind of taught us how to do that. It was, ‘What’s getting thrown at us today?’ And we’ve kind of stuck to that.”

Slim Chickens’ strategy for riding out the pandemic worked. “From 2019 to now, we will at least double our global revenues,” Gordon said.

Slim Chickens now has 210 restaurants, 34 of those in the United Kingdom. One of the chain’s most recent is a second location in Springdale, at 401 S. Thompson St. It is the 26th location in Arkansas. 

As for how the pandemic affected the restaurant chain, Gordon said, “Well, as you might imagine, the exterior channels of sales — meaning drive-through, online, pickup and third party — it’s gone through the roof. And it’s really changed the percentage of the mix. 

“But in total, our total sales have continued to grow, with new restaurants. The dining room is still an important piece of the P and L, but the exterior channels have just really grown a lot.”

The emphasis on listening has continued, Gordon said. “We still have some of the roundtable meetings where there’s no agenda, but everybody gets to talk about what’s going on in their department. And those things have stayed with us because it was good business. It was good practice. And it allowed our folks to really do their jobs and inform upper-level leadership about what was going on.”

Inflation and labor shortages remain a challenge for the chain, as they do for restaurants nationwide.

Slim Chickens has raised menu prices, with the size of the increases depending on the part of the country in which the stores are located, Gordon said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t overshoot that mark, and make sure that when commodity prices regulated and moderated, that we would not be too expensive for guests,” he said. “We don’t want to be so expensive that people don’t want to come see us.”

Soaring poultry prices in particular caused consternation. “There was a long, protracted time period last year where poultry prices were higher than they ever were for the last 20 years,” Gordon said. “They finally started going down in December,” he said.

“But that’s not the only thing. Construction materials are still very high. Construction labor is high,” he said.

And, of course, the supply chain posed problems. “We had a hard time finding light poles for parking lots for a while,” Gordon said. “The supply chain COVID hangover really showed its ugly head last year, and we had to manage it. It was tough.”

But these issues have somewhat abated. Poultry prices have dropped. “Construction pricing has moderated a bit, but I think that most of the construction pricing, stainless steel pricing, I think the majority of that is here to stay for a while because demand is still high, and labor to do construction projects is still scarce,” he said. “And that’s just going to be a piece of the puzzle we have to manage, I think, this entire year.”

Staffing restaurants has become easier, Gordon said. Last summer was difficult, “but we can see it moderating a bit now. But look, we’ve adjusted some pay rates, and we want to try to attract great talent and we’re willing to pay for it.”

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