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Emerging Brands

Chicken Salad Chick revisits its scrappy roots to survive the coronavirus crisis

The fast-casual chain is adding pop-up drive-thrus and seeing success with bulk preorders of its chicken salad.
Chicken Salad Chick
Photo courtesy of Chicken Salad Chick

The year started out pretty great for Chicken Salad Chick.

The Auburn, Ala.-based fast-casual chicken salad concept ended 2019 with 144 units and was celebrating its 16th straight quarter of same-store sales growth early this year. It had already opened 11 new stores and was on pace for a total of 50 new units for 2020.

And then the coronavirus hit, forcing the chain to temporarily close 10 stores, rethink its expansion timeline and create a plan to stay afloat during this crisis.

About 30% of Chicken Salad Chick’s stores are company-owned; the rest are franchised. Both the company and most of the franchisees have applied for and received Paycheck Protection Plan loans, CEO Scott Deviney told Restaurant Business. The company has deferred some royalty payments and advertising fees for franchisees.

To get through this crisis, the brand—which began when founder Stacy Brown started selling her chicken salad door-to-door—is revisiting its scrappy roots.

About 40% of its stores currently have drive-thrus. But it is supplementing those with “pop-up drive-thrus” at strip mall locations.

The chain is putting up tents at largely shuttered strip malls, outfitting workers with iPads and taking orders in parking lots.

“That has helped us incrementally,” Deviney said. “It has really helped those marginal restaurants.”

The other thing that has helped the chain is bulk sales of its chicken salad. The restaurant has always sold its chicken salad to-go in half-pound and 1-pound Quick Chick packs, an offering that had previously made up about a quarter of sales.

Now, the restaurant is preselling those to-go offerings and delivering large orders—sometimes several hundred pounds of chicken salad—to a central location, like a parking lot or a neighborhood association.

“Everything is bagged individually with a name,” Deviney said. “It’s a quick and easy process. It’s really helped the restaurants because they’re busy and can give hours to their employees.”

Over the past two weeks, the chain’s sales have grown by 16%. It has sold more than $845,000 worth of Quick Chick packs alone, according to company figures.

The chain, which has stores in 16 states and was purchased in 2019 by private-equity firm Brentwood Associates, plans to reopen its dining rooms as allowed by state and local governments. There are about 25 Chicken Salad Chicks in Georgia, which will allow restaurants to reopen dining rooms Monday.

“Georgia will be the first to open,” he said. “We’ve been working on making sure we know the guidelines as best as we can.”

Dining rooms will operate at 50% capacity, he said, and all menus will be disposable. Employees have masks and gloves.

Franchisees receive a daily marketing email with sales ideas and social media guidance, as well as updates on reopening plans, he said.

The chain still hopes to open new units during the back half of 2020, with plans for a total of 50 units in 2021, which will include some that were pushed back from this year.  

“We still have lots of franchise owners that are ready to open in spite of all this,” Deviney said. “We have a few who’ve done well and said they’re ready to open. If we could get to 30 this year, we’d be ecstatic. It’d be hard to do, but we’d be excited if we could.”

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