Restaurant on the Rise

Chicken and Southern business empires seem practically synonymous.  In the 1930s, Colonel Sanders began selling fried chicken from a roadside restaurant in Corbin, Ky. In the 1960s, Truett Cathy began selling chicken sandwiches in an Atlanta mall. Today, the food industry research firm Technomic ranks KFC No. 9 and Chick-fil-A No. 10 as the most popular fast food restaurants in America.

Stacy Brown is taking chicken salad to similar heights. Chicken Salad Chick, her tiny takeout-only restaurant that opened in Auburn in 2007, is spreading as fast as kudzu throughout the South.

Stacy and Kevin Brown own the two original locations in Auburn and Opelika.  Operating under Chicken Salad Chick Corporate is Simply Southern Restaurant Group, an Auburn-based franchising company with 80 Chicken Salad Chick restaurants slated to be open in the next five years. There are currently 13 franchises. The most recent opened in Midland, Ga. in January. Before that it was a second location for Tuscaloosa, and before that an opening in Mobile in December. Another 15 are slated to open in 2014.

“Our growth has been by demand; we never set out to be the biggest franchise business, ” Brown says. “We’ve gone from selling 20 pounds of chicken salad a day to 2, 200 pounds a day.”

Fifteen varieties of chicken salad are offered — from traditional to sweet and salty, savory to hot and spicy — with each variety named after someone close to the founders. You can try Classic Carol, Fancy Nancy, Nutty Nana, Olivia’s Old South or Luau Lydia, among others.

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About 80 percent of the customers are female, although plenty of men are regulars. Brown gets a kick out of hearing burly guys place orders for a “Fruity Fran” or a “Fancy Nancy.”

Fancy Nancy on a Croissant is among the favorites at Chicken Salad Chick.

It is clear that Brown, 39, was the inspiration for the whimsical company logo of a young fashionably dressed woman carrying a basket of chicken salad containers in the crook of her elbow.

Brown’s spacious corporate office projects just the right combination of professionalism and comfort. By her desk is a photo of her children splashing along the shore that looks like an advertisement for Ralph Lauren. If Brown weren’t so doggone nice, you’d hate her for stealing your fantasy life.

Her seemingly picture-perfect existence wasn’t always so idyllic. And just like Colonel Sanders and Truett Cathy, her own story is part of the company narrative.  After the breakup of her first marriage, the Rome, Ga. native (then Stacy Evans) was left alone to raise her three young children.

“It sounds like a fairy tale now, but it was really rough.  There was a lot of crying and I had these babies to care for.” She also had a communications degree from Auburn University, but wanted to find a way to support her family while remaining a stay-at-home mom. Eureka: chicken salad.

Like many a Southerner, Brown is discriminating when it comes to chicken salad and ordered it often in restaurants in search of the best. Using her neighbors as taste-testers, she perfected her recipe and started making batches in her Auburn kitchen, putting her kids to bed and working as late as 2 a.m. She soon had more orders than she could handle.

That’s when she got a call from “Stan” at the Lee County Health Department, telling her it was illegal to cook anything at home and sell it.

“The call was actually a blessing, ” Brown recalls. “It forced me to either give up and find a 9-to-5 office job or go open a restaurant.”

Enter Kevin Brown, a computer software salesman and family friend who Brown describes as having “a brilliant business brain.” Kevin determined that it was viable to open a small restaurant, which they did in Auburn in 2008. Customers wanted to eat in, so their landlord offered them his adjacent office space, which they renovated into a dining room.

“Without Kevin, I would have shut down on day two.” Their business relationship and friendship evolved into marriage, and they are raising four children ages 6 to 13. The youngest is Kevin’s from a previous marriage.

Kevin is president and CEO of the company, and he created the 600-page franchise guideline for their fast casual concept. Brown is founder and vice president of brand development. Also a partner is former Auburn University trustee Earlon McWhorter, who serves as vice president of market development.

At its company headquarters, Chicken Salad Chick hosts an annual field trip for Auburn University undergraduate students in management professor Dave Ketchen’s franchising class. Students get a behind-the-scenes look at the company, including a tour of the test kitchen, where they literally get a taste of what it’s like to be part of a fast-growth enterprise.

“Chicken Salad Chick has ambitious growth plans, but Stacy and company are attacking their plan the right way via franchising, ” says Ketchen. “By franchising, Chicken Salad Chick is letting their franchisees be responsible for footing most of the bills and for staffing their stores. This lets Chicken Salad Chick concentrate on developing new varieties and perfecting their business model.”

The evolution of the company is unusual, he adds. Many early-stage entrepreneurs would have been discouraged by losing their home-based business. “Stacy turned apparent defeat into a far greater opportunity. Over time, the Chicken Salad Chick empire might become closely associated with Alabama just like Chick-fil-A is tied closely with Georgia.”

Brown recently returned from the company’s first owner conference, where she heard positive feedback about the policy to limit hours of operation.  Chicken Salad Chick restaurants are not open on Sunday and most close at 6 p.m., although a few stay open until 7 p.m. Brown met the manager of the new Columbia, S.C. location, which opened in October. The woman told Brown that she has worked in restaurants all her life, and this would be the first time she’d spend Easter with her family.

Because Chicken Salad Chick was built on finding a way to both stay at home and pay the bills, Brown sees giving employees the opportunity to spend more time with their families as one of her greatest achievements.

“This was my first venture into the business world, so I created my own model, ” she says. “It started as a need for survival. I knew what I needed to do to keep my kids fed and the power on.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

text by Jessica Armstrong • photos by Cary Norton

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