As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Deviney.
Scott Deviney serves as the president and CEO of Chicken Salad Chick, the nation’s only southern inspired, fast casual chicken salad restaurant concept. Prior to joining the Chick Family five years ago, Scott honed his franchise experience owning 24 Wendy’s franchises in Atlanta and, before that, built an impressive track record of success in various roles in banking. Throughout his tenure at Chicken Salad Chick, Scott has grown the brand from 32 restaurants across six states to over 170 locations in 17 states, with significant average unit volume increases up 36% since 2015.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated from the University of Georgia in the mid-1990s and subsequently spent 13 years in various roles in banking, including five years in the restaurant space. Early in my career, I spent some time in New York working with large corporations before moving back to Georgia to help form a food and beverage group for the bank in Atlanta, which is when I began calling on restaurant franchisees and franchisors.
At the time, well-known restaurant franchises like Burger King and Pizza Hut were selling blocks of restaurants to create large multi-unit franchisees. I financed many of the deals for these brands and that’s how I really learned the ins-and-outs of the industry. I quickly fell in love with the business model and the unique franchisee-franchisor relationship, and eventually left banking in 2008 to become a franchisee myself. I purchased 24 existing Wendy’s restaurants in the Atlanta area in 2008 and 2009, and ran that business for the next six years until I was introduced to Chicken Salad Chick.
In 2014, I was approached by a friend who wanted me to partner up with him to become a franchisee of this 15-unit brand that specialized in chicken salad. I had never heard of the chain and at the time was in the process of selling my 24 Wendy’s restaurants, so I was phasing out of that role. But, after a few conversations, I became intrigued by the concept. Somewhere along the way, I learned that Kevin Brown, Chicken Salad Chick’s co-founder, had developed cancer and was open to the idea of selling the business to focus on his health and personal life, and I was interested in buying.
I eventually went to Auburn, Alabama to meet with Kevin and Stacy Brown, and discuss what the future could look like for the brand. At the end of the conversation, we agreed to pursue a transaction and signed the non-disclosure agreement. I started building out a model and working on the transaction with private equity firm, Eagle Merchant Partners. We closed on the acquisition May 1, 2015, and the rest is history!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A while back, we were working on tweaking some menu items. During this process, we tested a certain product we thought would be a success, especially for groups eating together. The product turned out to be a big flop and we backed off the test immediately, deciding to not roll out the product to the entire system. This moment taught me to stay true to the brand’s segment by keeping things complementary to the core product and not straying too far from that vision.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been so fortunate in my life to have many positive influences. Starting with my family as the cornerstone, first with my parents and later my wife and kids. My wife, Kristy, is a great sounding board for me, my biggest cheerleader, and my harshest critic!
Professionally, I’ve had many influences but together Stockton Croft, from Eagle Merchant Partners, and Russ Umphenour, our former Chairman at Chicken Salad Chick, were both great positive influences for me as we started our journey on this brand. They were patient, encouraging, and smart about our growth and our path to success. Early in my tenure, we needed to make some menu changes but disagreed on the process. Stockton wanted to make quick changes to adapt to consumer demand but I wanted to gather data and do customer reviews first. We ultimately came to the same answer but our credibility was better for the process.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our purpose at Chicken Salad Chick is to spread joy, enrich lives and serve others. That sentiment really grew at the foundation of the brand’s beginnings. In 2007, our founder Stacy Brown was newly divorced and trying to make ends meet. Determined to provide for her three young children, she started making her homemade chicken salad in bulk and selling it door-to-door. Within two months of launching her delivery service, Stacy’s love of chicken salad had become a thriving entrepreneurial business. In 2008, Stacy sought the business expertise of family friend, Kevin Brown, and they partnered (and later married) to turn the concept into a takeout-only restaurant. The first Chicken Salad Chick location opened in Auburn that same year and within two hours the restaurant completely sold out of chicken salad.
The business began with Stacy chasing an entrepreneurial dream, wanting to provide for her family, and serving up delicious homemade food to her community. Once she discovered that there was a market for the concept, she and Kevin wanted to see how far the brand could go. Stacy and Kevin expanded Chicken Salad Chick to three restaurants throughout Auburn and began franchising in 2012.
By the time I came into the brand in 2015, Stacy and Kevin already laid the groundwork to position Chicken Salad Chick for accelerated growth. There were 32 restaurants in six states, as well as an established network of franchise owners that had a true desire to build the brand alongside us. We saw it as our opportunity to take all that Stacy and Kevin had done organically and put the right people and systems in place to take the brand to the next level.
Today, the brand has grown to more than 170 restaurants in 17 states, all selling Stacy’s original chicken salad recipes, affectionately named after “the Chicks” in Stacy’s life. Stacy’s scrappiness and tenaciousness early on have remained a part of our brand’s DNA throughout the journey, and we’ve stayed true to our purpose, handpicking each franchise owner we welcome to the brand, carefully growing in markets that resonate with our core values and serving made-from-scratch, southern-inspired food to communities we genuinely care about.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
There’s no doubt about it — this pandemic has been the most difficult time any of us in the restaurant industry have had to face. COVID-19 came with no playbook and we were all faced with the same dilemma at the same time. All we knew was that we had to stick together and move as fast as possible to navigate through this unprecedented time.
I believe that the best leaders surround themselves with a strong team and know when to leverage them. We’re fortunate to have a tremendously talented team at Chicken Salad Chick, with each individual bringing their own unique perspectives and experiences that contribute to the overall success of our brand. I’ve leaned on the Chicken Salad Chick executive team a lot during this pandemic. Early on, we would get on the phone every morning for an hour to an hour and a half, six days a week, to walk through everything. We ran through every scenario, looked at data, and worked tirelessly to figure out what we needed to do on the corporate side to help our franchise owners get through this challenging time successfully.
I also believe that great leaders utilize all of the resources available to them. One of the most valuable resources we have as a franchise is our network of franchise owners. As small business owners and operators, our franchise owners are the ones on the ground and have firsthand knowledge of what our guests and communities need from us. Over the past several months, our franchise owners have been our greatest innovators, coming up with various ideas that we ended up implementing system-wide, such as a community drop-off program, as well as giveback initiatives like “Feeding the Frontlines” and “Donate A Meal.” We made it our priority to really listen to our franchise owners when they had an idea because we wanted to keep an open dialogue going throughout all of this. I picked up the idea of keeping an open ear and mindset when I was a franchisee myself, knowing that some of the best ideas come from those living the experiences daily.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up was never an option, but I also knew our brand was strong enough to pull through. Being a franchisee of a very large brand at a time when the country was recovering from the 2008 recession opened my eyes to a lot of things that I still carry with me today. I saw all of the success you can maintain with hard work and adaptability, even in the most challenging of times. I also witnessed how corporate turnover and new policies can severely impact franchise owners and their ability to be successful. It’s because of those experiences as a franchisee that I always keep a “franchisee hat” on in my current role — to make sure our franchise owners are profitable. It’s crucial that our franchise owners feel supported and know that we are all in this together. Likewise, I try to keep the whole executive team in the franchisee mindset as well, reminding them that our franchise owners have invested capital and put their name to the business. If our franchise owners are happy and doing well, then we are all succeeding. They will also be more inclined to stay and grow with us or be an advocate for those that want to grow with us.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Aside from maintaining a positive attitude, the most critical role as a leader is to keep an open dialogue with your employees, teams and constituents. Transparency, as well as ensuring that our franchise owners feel supported, has always been paramount to us at Chicken Salad Chick. Fortunately, by the time we began to feel the impacts of this pandemic, we already had several avenues of communication established with our entire system, such as the “Scoop with Scott” calls I hold with our franchise owners each month, as well as ongoing marketing e-newsletters. We continued with these avenues once COVID-19 struck, we just upped the frequency. This allowed us to keep up morale and dip into some great ideas from our franchise owners, such as the initiative we now call “Quick Chick Drop-Offs.” Quick Chicks are prepackaged portions of our 12 chicken salad flavors and pimento cheese, which can typically be purchased for guests on-the-go. With mandated closures of restaurant dining rooms, our franchise owners began posting announcements to social media that they would be doing drop-offs of Quick Chicks at a local meeting place, such as a high school or conveniently located parking lot. Guests would call in their preorders and then could come meet our staff at the designated meeting place for pick-ups, which would be delivered directly to guests in their vehicles.
Additionally, with only about 40% of our locations featuring drive-thrus, a few of our owners got creative and implemented pop up drive-thrus outside of their restaurants to continue serving guests at a distance. While supporting sales, our franchise owners continued to prioritize their communities by setting up giveback initiatives such as “Feeding The Frontlines” and “Donate A Meal” ordering options. In total, we donated tens of thousands of free meals to healthcare workers and first responders such as nurses, doctors, medical technicians, EMTs, as well as police and fire departments, essential workers in grocery stores, and more.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
With uncertainty, naturally comes fear, so it’s important for leaders to show their teams that they’re in it with them — that they’re not alone. During difficult and challenging times, it’s all about celebrating the small “wins” and sharing positives, successes and silver linings when you can. Those things create hope and, in turn, sparks inspiration. It’s also important to anchor yourself and your teams in the culture, purpose and values that make your company what it is.
At Chicken Salad Chick, our corporate teams and franchise owners embody our united purpose of spreading joy, enriching lives and serving others, and they live it out each and every single day — even through a pandemic. We’re a very community-centric brand so, despite challenges faced, they banded together and quickly adapted to show up for their communities and serve them in the ways they needed. In turn, we constantly shared updates and success stories in daily e-newsletters, highlighting locations that had a phenomenal day in sales or implemented a unique strategy that was working in their market. It was fascinating to watch everyone inspiring one another.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I have always believed an in-person approach is the best way to deliver bad or difficult news, although that is not always possible. Whether or not in-person is an option, being honest and sincere is the best tactic. If we make a mistake with our guest, we apologize and quickly move to correct the mistake.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The world as we know it has changed drastically in a matter of months and there’s no telling when we’ll get back to “normal.” Although it’s hard to predict the future, it’s important to not accept the present as the new normal, but instead as a temporary normal that will evolve, which means you should be evolving too. A good baseline for future planning is looking back and analyzing what made your company successful before and then identifying areas where tweaks can be made to adjust to the present circumstances.
For example, 2019 was our most successful year yet in terms of grand openings and sales. We opened 40 new restaurants, including our first locations in Ohio and Illinois, and signed 26 franchise agreements to open 60 new restaurants over the next several years. Using the previous year as a blueprint for our growth strategy in 2020, we were on track to open 50 new restaurants this year and opened 11 before the mandated closures of restaurant dining rooms. Pivoting our focus to mobilizing and adapting our operations, we put our opening pipeline on hold until we felt we were ready to resume. We reignited our opening schedule in early June and have opened 11 new restaurants since that time. We’ve had to make a few adjustments in order to help keep our teams, franchise owners and guests safe, but we’re utilizing the processes that generated our previous success as a guide in the temporary normal we’re all experiencing now.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Having a purpose. There are plenty of themes around being nimble, changing quickly, and listening, but at the core you have to live your purpose and know there is something bigger than — in our case — chicken salad.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Many are either falsely over-confident or under-confident. For example, with drive-thrus in high-demand, some restaurant brands can fall victim to immediate success. While the situation is coincidentally profitable, it doesn’t push some brands to continue seeking out innovation and molding to future dilemmas.
- Moving away from the traits that made success possible. For restaurants, we must change and adapt to the guest, but we can’t move away from what made us successful. I think sometimes companies are so quick to change that they mistakenly move away from their core values. That is why it is important to keep a brand’s purpose top of mind at all times.
- Companies are so hungry for growth that they get ahead of the talent acquired or they get ahead of the brand awareness created in markets. Our model of concentric circle growth keeps us from outpacing our brand awareness while maintaining a healthy growth rate.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Since joining Chicken Salad Chick in 2015, I’ve deployed an intentional concentric circle growth strategy to optimize brand awareness and then leverage that awareness to successfully scale the brand from 32 restaurants to more than 170 today. Beyond the growth strategy, what’s been key to this success is the balanced mix of opening company stores alongside both new and existing franchise owners and having the right partners in place. This approach has allowed us to build up our opening pipeline and reach our goal of 50 openings a year pretty quickly. Today, about 20–30% of our 170+ restaurants are company-owned and 70–80% franchised. Like I mentioned before, keeping the mindset that the present is a temporary normal and utilizing our past successes as a blueprint, our growth strategy will remain the same, opening state-by-state and maintaining that mix while staying true to our purpose of spreading joy, enriching lives and serving others.
As of now, we’re proud of how we’ve navigated the pandemic as our fan base continues to grow. More people are aware of Chicken Salad Chick and the wonderful food we serve in our restaurants as a result of our grassroots marketing and delivery efforts. I have no doubt that the actions we have taken over the past several months will only help us as we continue on our quest to be America’s favorite place for chicken salad and support our greater goal to have 500 restaurants open by the end of 2025.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen — As mentioned, we maintained open dialogue with our teams and franchise owners and remained open to all ideas. You never know where the next big idea for your brand is coming from. Simultaneously, your employees are living the ins-and-outs of the business daily. They are fully aware of where operations can be improved and will give a leader insight into a perspective unattainable otherwise.
- Innovate — We would not have successfully navigated the pandemic if we remained stagnant. Our entire company stepped up to innovate, expanding our capabilities to continue serving our communities while social distancing. Although innovation is crucial in times of instability, I believe it is most essential when things are going right. We need to stay on our toes to constantly think of ways to improve our brand and best serve our guests.
- Remain Flexible — In a crisis, things will not go as planned. Therefore, create the framework for your plan while also having a plan B, C and even D in mind. Even as an idea begins to roll out, you may notice things that are successful and things that could use some improvement. As we discovered certain successes on a local level, we monitored ideas before implementing them systemwide to ensure optimum success across the board.
- Still Looking Ahead — COVID-19 set us back from our original development pipeline, but we continued to look ahead and are now rolling up our sleeves to push forward and continue development where we know our brand will resonate.
- Stay True to The Brand — It always comes back to spreading joy, enriching lives, and serving others. Our purpose launched Chicken Salad Chick’s success from the start and will continue to fuel our morale as we expand.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I think that sums up the team at Chicken Salad Chick. The company is bigger than any one person which has created our recipe for success. At Chicken Salad Chick, we practice a great combination of people working together towards a common goal to spread joy, enrich lives and serve others.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Guests can follow us on nearly any social media platform, listed below.
Instagram — @chickensaladchick
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/chickensaladchick/
Twitter — https://www.twitter.com/chickensaladchi