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How Chicken Salad Chick became a fast-growing franchise

  • Stacy Brown was a recently divorced mother of three when she came up with an idea for a business making chicken salad at home and selling it door to door.
  • In an interview with Guy Raz’s “How I Built This” podcast, Brown told the emotional story of how close she came to losing everything, and how she put the company on a path to grow.
  • The brand now has more than 170 locations in 17 states and made more than $153 million in sales last year, the company told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Stacy Brown was a stay-at-home mother of three when the emotional and financial turmoil of a divorce pushed her to look for a way to provide for her kids.

As she explained in an interview with Guy Raz’s “How I Built This” podcast, she needed about $500 per month to support her family, so she turned to her lifelong appetite for chicken salad.

Her recipes were a hit, and before long she had turned a small project into a full-time job as the Chicken Salad Chick.

Progress wasn’t a straight line, however. Several major setbacks nearly ended the business before it truly got off the ground.

Here’s how Brown grew her brand from her home kitchen in Alabama in 2007 to a fast-growing restaurant franchise that told Business Insider it now has more than 170 locations across 17 states and sold more than $153 million last year.

Know your product, know your customer

Brown says her business idea arose fairly naturally when she considered how she could use her skills and experience to solve a problem that she knew many people shared.

“What have I perfected over these last years as a stay-at-home mom that people would value? Well, I knew that I was a good cook. And I happened to be obsessed with chicken salad,” she said.

A self-described chicken salad connoisseur, Brown incorporated all the best characteristics of the different versions of the Southern mainstay dish that she had enjoyed over the years.

She brought samples to friends and acquaintances at the hair salon and grocery store and took careful notes to further refine the recipe. Then, she stepped up production.

“I would be with the kids during the day. And when I would put them to bed, I would start cooking,” Brown said. Each morning before school, “we would go knocking on doors. They would sit in the car, and I would go knocking on a door with a basket.”

Refine your process

Sales were picking up, but soon Brown hit her first major roadblock: the local health inspector.

Selling homemade food wasn’t exactly legal, so Stacy teamed up with a family friend, Kevin Brown (whom she married in 2008) who helped her rent and renovate an 800-square-foot “shack” with a drive-thru window where The Chicken Salad Chick could operate as a legitimate business.

For the grand opening they cooked up 40 pounds of chicken salad and filled the small space with family and friends. There was just one problem that morning, she said, “there’s not a single customer.”

After a few hours of nervous waiting, a line began to form outside and the day’s product sold out in two hours. Apparently nobody wanted chicken salad for breakfast.

The very next day they made and sold double what they did on day one, and sales continued to grow. But somehow the business wasn’t making money.

“[Kevin] worked on our processes, and every day he would say, ‘Today we did this in six steps, tomorrow we’re going to do it in five,'” Brown recalled. “He turned us into a well-oiled machine.”

“We opened January 7 of 2008, and we were making money by 2009, and we opened two more restaurants in Auburn to pull the chaos away from that one little shack,” Brown added.

Soon customers from all over the Southeast were asking how they could join as franchisees of the beloved local business.

Choose your partnerships carefully

The process of becoming a franchise led to the second major roadblock: a bad deal.

In order to finance the expansion of the business, Kevin and Stacy partnered with another couple who had substantial franchising experience.

In exchange for their expertise and $400,000, the other couple demanded majority control of the business, which the Browns reluctantly agreed to.

Within four months, things came unglued.

“They had a very different vision for the brand of where it was going to go,” Brown said. “We knew that if they took the lead on that, it was going to be the end of the brand.”

In order to regain control of their business the other couple demanded the Browns pay them $1.3 million in just 30 days.

After weeks of pitching to anyone and everyone who would listen, the Browns were at the end of their rope. Then, after one last presentation at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce, the phone finally rang with good news.

They were less than 48 hours away from their deadline, and local entrepreneur Earlon McWhorter was ready to hand them a check.

McWhorter had built an empire of Lowe’s home improvement stores, and wanted to help Stacy and Kevin build their own.

“He was a self-made man from the ground up, and he understood that people had helped him in his career,” Brown said. “He appreciated that, and he was willing to help us out.”

That infusion of capital kicked off a rapid growth phase as the company expanded into neighboring states, and the company told Business Insider that it has tripled in size in the past few years to more than 170 locations across the Southeast.

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