The Lost Cajun, once one of the fastest-growing small chains in the country, finds itself in an unfamiliar spot at the outset of 2022: its new-store pipeline, which for the past several years has been consistently stocked with four or five new restaurants, is completely dry.
That said, the 24-unit casual-dining chain is in a much better place now than it was in April 2021, when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as revenues plummeted and restaurants closed amid the pandemic.
It emerged from that process in early December with its debts paid. Sales are approaching where they were in 2019. And founder Raymond “Griff” Griffin has a pile of fresh franchisee applications to go through.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Griffin said in an interview with Restaurant Business.
But there was a time early in the pandemic when that light was not so easy to see.
The Covington, La.-based concept had a lot stacked against it when dining rooms were forced to shut down in March 2020. Its big dining rooms and gregarious, experiential atmosphere were suddenly off limits. It had no to-go business to speak of. And tourists made up a large part of its clientele.
Like so many other restaurants, The Lost Cajun had to either adapt or disappear. For Griffin, survival was the only option.
“It’s my baby,” Griffin said. “I started this thing in 2010 with one 1-gallon pot of gumbo, and there’s no way I was gonna let it die.”
Keeping the company afloat took a combination of ingenuity and sacrifice. The Lost Cajun quickly launched an off-premise business, revamping its to-go packaging and signing up with multiple third-party delivery providers. It also started offering curbside pickup.
These changes, seemingly antithetical to the brand’s DNA, ended up being a big success. Today, off-premise makes up 30% to 35% of The Lost Cajun’s total business—well above what many of its casual-dining peers are doing.
“It opened up a whole new world for us,” Griffin said.
But the chain was still struggling. Griffin stopped taking a paycheck, and the corporate team, from CEO to office director, took 50% pay cuts to avoid layoffs. The company temporarily stopped collecting royalties from its troubled franchisees. Then came the bankruptcy filing.
Meanwhile, the chain lost some prospective operators who balked at the idea of opening a restaurant during a pandemic. Others closed or were on the brink of closing, according to its bankruptcy filing. It still managed to open four new stores, and will soon open two more, putting it at a total of 26—the same number it had at the end of 2019.
The Lost Cajun emerged from bankruptcy on Dec. 7, thanks in large part to capital provided by Griffin himself, and has landed “in a better place,” he said.
Though it did get some franchisee inquiries during the pandemic, Griffin’s focus at the time was on helping existing operators: Thus, the empty pipeline. But it likely won’t stay that way for long.
“I have ‘em on my desk,” Griffin said, flipping through a stack of nine applications from places like Florida, West Virginia and Colorado. “People are interested, and I will actively pursue it” now that volumes are returning to normal.
It will take about six months to line up new stores, at which point The Lost Cajun will officially be back in growth mode. It will remain selective about its operating partners, focusing on the Southern states where people are familiar with its Creole cuisine of gumbo, jambalaya, etoufee and fried seafood. In the coming years, Griffin has his sights set on dozens of stores across Georgia, Florida and Arkansas in particular.
“It’s still an attractive brand because we’re a unique brand,” Griffin said. “The big win is, we made it.”
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