Slim Chickens, founded 11 years ago in Fayetteville, Ark., is expanding this year into the Midwest, with openings planned in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.

The fast-casual operator began franchising a year ago, and will open its 14th restaurant on June 16 in its hometown. Slim Chickens currently has nine units in Arkansas, three in Oklahoma and one in Texas.

“Our tagline is ‘Life-Changing Chicken.’ It’s a beautiful product with great side items,” said Sam Rothschild, Slim Chickens’ chief operating officer. “I see fast casual in the restaurant space as the most attractive vehicle today for expansion.”

Slim Chickens’ core items are chicken tenders and wings served with a choice of eight sauces. Customers order at the counter and food is delivered to tables.

The limited-service chicken segment has shown sales growth in the past several years. In March, Chicago-based Technomic Inc. reported that while restaurant chains in its Top 500 survey registered an overall 3.5-percent annual sales increase for 2013, limited-service chicken chains saw sales grow 5.1 percent. That surpassed the sales bump of 3.9 percent for all the limited-service restaurants.

Rothschild, who has held management positions in casual dining ranging from chief operating officer at Hooters to franchise development for Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the growing brand.

What are some key statistics around Slim Chickens?

We’re about 3,000 square feet. Our average check is about $8. We seat about 120 to 140 [customers], depending on the size of the patio. We do about 45 percent of our business through the drive thru. We have two restaurants that don’t have drive thrus. One is an end cap and the other is a foodservice outlet on the University of Arkansas campus.

What is the concept’s history?

Tom Gordon and Greg Smart, our founders, about 12 years ago wanted to open a chicken tender concept. Nobody was doing it up here in Fayetteville, Ark. They saw a consumer demand for a kind of Memphis-style, blues-y atmosphere with fresh, never-frozen chicken tenders and chicken wings and homemade sauces and fried items. They experimented for a year-plus on getting the product right and opened the first restaurant 11 years ago this past February.

What is the focus of the menu?

We have wings, tenders, sandwiches, wraps, salads, desserts and fried appetizers. Our top-seller is the three-tender chicken plate, with sauce, fries and Texas toast. Side item choices are macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, French fries and potato salad. Most people get the fries. Our No. 2 selling item is our five-piece tenders. The three-piece and five-piece [combinations] are the real workhorse for the brand. Sauces include ranch, cayenne ranch, gravy and hot-medium-mild sauces.

How many of your restaurants are company-owned?

The one that opens in June will be No. 9 for corporate. The other five are franchised. We just started franchising 13 months ago.

What type of franchisees are you seeking?

We are looking for multi-unit operators, preferably somebody who has already been in QSR or casual dining. We know that fast casual is emerging, so we are looking for folks who have been in the restaurant business and are looking to multiple locations.

What are build-out costs?

Not including land, the total cost to develop [with furniture, fixtures and equipment]… is somewhere between $850,000 to $1.1 million.

What kind of locations are you looking for?

Our preference is about an acre site that has about 45 to 50 car parks and has the ability for drive thru. We also look for secondary spaces. That might be a conversion of an existing QSR location that has about a 3,000-square-foot footprint. We’ve done a few of those and they work very well.

This segment is seeing a growing number of players, such as Raising Cane’s, Wingstop and Zaxby’s. What differentiates Slim Chickens?

Our atmosphere is a Memphis-Delta-Blues atmosphere. It does not feel like fast food. It’s a very casual setting. The majority of our products are homemade in the restaurant. We do not walk away from the fact that Zaxby’s, Cane’s and PDQ and Chick-fil-A are all formidable competitors. But our service, our hospitality makes us very unique.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless