Buzzworthy Brands is a weekly Restaurant Business feature highlighting innovative growth brands that operators should keep an eye on. A fresh Buzzworthy Brands profile will be published each Thursday.
The concept: Chick N Max
The details: A two-unit, quick-service chicken chain (with a third store opening next month) based in Wichita, Kan. The first location opened in January 2018. Stores are 2,200 to 2,800 square feet, preferably in an end cap with a drive-thru. (Drive-thru business currently makes up 30% of sales.)
The backstory: After mulling the concept for about a decade, industry veteran Max Sheets (who has held executive development posts with Lone Star Steakhouse, Ted’s Montana Grill, Smashburger and others) finally decided to launch it early last year.
Why it’s worth watching: The growing chain differentiates itself by offering fried as well as smoked chicken. It has seen its catering program grow, which has also led to sales growth for its large-format, family-style meal offerings. “As our catering has grown, more people have tried our product, so we’re seeing family meals go up,” Sheets said. He has spent nearly three decades working in restaurant development and plans to continue to grow Chick N Max, possibly through franchising.
HERE ARE FIVE GROWTH-MINDED QUESTIONS WITH MAX SHEETS, CHICK N MAX FOUNDER AND CEO:
Why start this concept and why now?
I’ve watched the chicken space become more and more and more popular. The data just tells us that chicken is becoming the protein of choice. I’ve been a part of fine dining, casual dining and QSR. Fast casual has become such a buzzword. I really thought I wanted this to be a finer QSR. QSR doesn’t have to be frozen food that gets dropped in a fryer. You can do things fresh.
There are so many fried chicken restaurants right now. What sets yours apart?
Not only do we have great fried chicken … but we put a smoker in all of our restaurants. We also offer a line of pulled smoked chicken and half chicken and quarter. Over the holidays, we do turkeys and prime rib. We do hams. We smoke with almond wood. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Central Valley of California. I was able to learn a lot about smoking chicken there. (Almond wood) gives a sweet, nutty flavor profile that really enhances our dry rub and our mop and it gives us that healthy niche. You can come in and not just eat fried foods, and that’s what really separates us from everyone else.
You mentioned that you’ve recently pivoted from focusing on chicken tenders to emphasizing your sandwiches. Explain that decision.
We all know the leader of this chicken thing is Chick-fil-A. They’re teaching everybody what good customer service looks like and how to execute fast. (Their sign says) “Home of the original chicken sandwich.” … Why am I worried about this tender craze? Sell sandwiches. We’ve pivoted to “legendary sandwiches.” We’ve lifted our ticket average. We’ve lifted our transactions. We’ll always have an incredible tender. But we’re really launching these new legendary sandwiches.
Even though Chick N Max is a small brand, you have your own, in-store radio network. How did Radio Max come to be?
The two things in life that really bring people together are food and music. Food and music are the two things that awaken our senses. Music is very important to me. I didn’t like what was streaming in. We licensed through BMI and ASCAP and I’ve put together all of our own playlists and worked with a production company. It’s put together an hour at a time. … It’s bluesy classic rock. There’s a local radio personality who has been on the air here 30-something years. I’ve known her since seventh grade. She does all of our outros. It gives us a chance to talk about catering, and we talk about Chick N Max. … It helps us on licensing fees. It helps separate us.
What’s your plan for Chick N Max’s future?
We’re on the cusp of being ready to start talking to potential joint venture partners. … We’ll franchise at some point. We’d love to be able to show that this brand has a national footprint. We plan to open three new stores in 2020. We’ll probably try a smaller market in Kansas. We’ve got to stay here for operational efficiency.