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Small Business

Small-Business Success Story: Chicken Salad Chick Shares a Taste of the South

Her obsession with chicken salad launched a fast-casual restaurant franchise.

Photo by Alex Martinez

Kiplinger's spoke with Stacy Brown (pictured above), 42, founder of the Auburn, Ala.-based restaurant franchise Chicken Salad Chick, about how she went from being a stay-at-home mom to running her own company. Here's an excerpt from our interview:

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What’s Chicken Salad Chick? We do chicken salad, and we are a “chicky” place. We have 65 restaurants from Texas to Florida to Virginia.

What’s the appeal? Chicken salad is comfort food. It makes you feel nostalgic and think of home. We serve 15 varieties named for the chicks in my life—women who have positively influenced me. Our “Olivia’s Old South” is named for my daughter, and the flavor reminds you of what many Southern grandmothers made, with the addition of sweet pickle and hard-boiled egg. We also serve soup, sandwiches, sides and desserts. To me, eating is a social activity, so our décor is designed to cultivate conversation.

You started at home? In 2007, I was a stay-at-home mom of three young children. After a divorce, I racked my brain: How would I support my family? I was obsessed with chicken salad and tasted it wherever I traveled. I thought, What if I could come up with a really good chicken salad, make it at home and deliver it? I went to work in my kitchen, tried the results on everyone I knew and tweaked the recipe until I had a hit. I sold it to neighbors and teachers at my children’s school, and within three weeks I had more business than I could handle.

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But there was a hitch? It was a blessing. In October 2007, the county health inspector told me that it was illegal to sell home-cooked food to the public and that I had to shut down. By then I had partnered with Kevin Brown, a family friend who was savvy about business, and we decided to open a restaurant. We leased a tiny shack for $800 a month and spent our own money to turn it into a take-out place. On opening day in January 2008, we made 40 pounds of chicken salad and sold out in two hours, and on the second day we sold twice as much in the same time. We never looked back. Kevin and I became best friends, and we married that year.

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How did you grow? We opened two more restaurants in Auburn to handle demand. Then we targeted other college towns. Visiting parents would ask, “What do we have to do to get one of these in Little Rock or Tuscaloosa?” Franchise requests poured in. We secured a local partner and investor and built our franchising infrastructure.

We got a lot of press, and many private-equity companies came knocking. We turned away all but one. Eagle Merchant Partners, of Atlanta, believed in what we do, valued our core values, respected what we had built and didn’t want to change it. We accepted their offer in May 2015. They bought majority ownership and infused more capital. In 2016, we had revenue of $12.4 million.

Your role now? Kevin passed away from cancer in 2015. I still have a share of ownership, and I’m financially secure. Now, I’m the company’s brand voice to make sure we stay true to who we are.

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What’s the goal? We want to be the best chicken salad in the nation. The cost to establish a franchise, depending on square footage, runs from $400,000 to $550,000 per restaurant. We hope to have 200 restaurants by 2020.

Are you sick of chicken salad? I was when I was the one cooking it. I probably didn’t eat it for a year and a half. When I got back to it, I thought, Darn, this is good. Really good.

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