Last month, when John Luckett opened a Slim Chickens restaurant in Cabot, the 11th for his development group, he had grounds to be especially happy -- he was back in his own hometown once again.
Luckett opened the restaurant in mid-July, the latest eatery in Dixie Chicken LLC.'s stable. The group operates 10 additional Slim Chickens restaurants throughout the state in towns like Sherwood, Clarksville and Arkadelphia. The group hopes to open as many as 20 new locations, all in Arkansas, at a rate of three to five new restaurants annually over the next five years or so.
The Cabot restaurant, at 300 S. Rockwood Drive, employs about 75 workers. The 2,400-square-foot building has outdoor seating and a drive-thru.
With extensive experience in the franchise restaurant business, Luckett said he was drawn to Fayetteville-based Slim Chickens by the company's simple menu made up of quality, great tasting products with a distinct Southern flare. He said Slim Chickens is an up and coming brand and he wanted to be part of its initial growth.
"Slim Chickens is something fresh and different," he said.
Luckett said opening the Cabot store has been exciting and he sometimes sees old friends and has the chance to personally deliver them their food when they show up for curbside pickup.
Slim Chickens competes in the fast-casual segment, where restaurants provide a slightly more formal dining experience compared with fast-food operations. While fast-casual restaurants don't have a wait staff, servers generally carry food to tables. Other aspects of the segment include a comfortable atmosphere, usually including music, big-screen TVs and appealing graphics.
Slim Chickens co-founder Tom Gordon said in a recent interview the company plans to open 10 to 15 new stores in the coming months and is on pace to grow by 20 to 30 restaurants annually. The company has 119 restaurants in the U.S. and of those, nine are corporate owned with the 10th scheduled to open in west Bentonville sometime this summer. Slim Chickens has 13 locations in the United Kingdom and two in Kuwait. Founded in 2003, Slim Chickens is privately owned.
Luckett said it hasn't been all smooth sailing with the covid-19 pandemic, an unexpected and challenging chapter to the development group's history. He said in the initial phases of the pandemic, he worried about how the operation would keep its Slim Chickens employees working. Then those employees became vital when Slim Chickens -- through its focus on drive-thru, delivery and curbside pickup -- brought customers back in strength.
"We were committed to them and they were committed to us," Luckett said of his workers.
The pandemic also slowed the development group's expansion plans but it didn't stop them. Luckett said everything --from labor to lumber costs to availability of tables -- has come with its own problems and challenges.
According to the American Restaurant Association, sales at the nation's restaurants was $659 billion in 2020, down $240 billion from expected revenue. The association said 110,000 restaurants either temporarily or permanently closed in 2020.
Staffing at restaurants for June was up in all 50 states when compared with the previous month but remained down in most states when compared with pre-covid numbers. For June, the industry added more than 194,000 jobs on a seasonably adjusted basis and has added more than 1 million jobs during the first part of 2021, the association said, citing U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
In Arkansas, eating and drinking establishments employed 92,500 people in June, 4.1% fewer than the 96,500 in February 2020, when covid-19 first reared its head the U.S. The June employment figure for Arkansas is the highest since February 2020 while April 2020 was the lowest month with 62,600 jobs.
Slim Chickens' Gordon said covid-19 complicated the company's expansion plans but overall the company has reacted well to the pandemic and its challenges.
He said staffing will be something the company struggles with in the near term since available workers are in high demand across the industry. That said, he added the brand and the working environment is attractive.
"We take good care of our people and pay well," Gordon said.