GUY RAZ, HOST:
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STACY BROWN: We hit the ground running on what we called our southeastern fundraising tour and packed up coolers full of chicken salad to hand out to possible investors. And we pitched to anyone that would listen. In every single meeting that we had, we heard, you want us to invest this much money for a minority share of a business that does not have a single franchise open? Thanks, but no thanks - laughed out of the room.
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RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, how a stay-at-home mom went from selling homemade chicken salad to friends and neighbors to building one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in America. She calls it Chicken Salad Chick.
OK, so chicken salad? I've never really had strong thoughts on it either way - you know, totally solid lunchtime option. But if you live in most parts of the southern United States, then you know that chicken salad is much, much, more than just a solid option. It's like a lobster roll in Maine where it might seem like it's the same thing everywhere, but it's those small nuances, those delicate differences that fuel passionate debate over which lobster shack is the best lobster shack. And these are the kinds of debates Southerners have over chicken salad.
These are the kinds of debates Stacy Brown would have with her friends. And Stacy happened to make really great chicken salad. Now, today Chicken Salad Chick is one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in America. But at the beginning, it was a struggle just to make ends meet. But we'll get there. What you need to know for now is that Stacy grew up in Rome, Ga. She ended up at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where she eventually settled with her first husband. He worked full time while Stacy stayed home to raise the kids.
BROWN: But always knew I was going to start a business - always. But I also knew that you can't do everything at once. And it was my time to be a full-time mother. And it happened that the perfect storm for when I would start that business came in the shape of a divorce. And at that time, Carson (ph), my oldest, was 6, Jack (ph) was 3, and Lydia (ph) was 2.
RAZ: Wow. And you've got to figure this out.
BROWN: Yes, to know - OK, I have these three children. I've got to make ends meet. I have to support them. You know, divorce is a disaster. It's a financial disaster. It's an emotional disaster. But when you know you have small children to take care of, the instinct to take care of them first lets you push through that because you know you have to take care of these kids. So all that other emotional stuff really gets pushed to the back...
BROWN: ...Until you can get through this survival because there's really no time to sit down and cry.
RAZ: OK, so you are trying to figure out what to do. And what did you start to think?
BROWN: So when I was in school, dinnertimes in my home were really sacred times. My mother cooked every meal. And the four of us sat around the dinner table every night. And I remember that my father started conversations that revolved around what problems did you come across today? And our dinnertime conversations were about solutions. And how could we solve everyday problems? So I started to think ahead before dinnertime. What am I going to present tonight?
RAZ: To Dad.
BROWN: Yes. And that really was what started my entrepreneurial spirit, that question process of what problems can I solve? So when the divorce happened and I was in this situation, and all of a sudden, what do I have to offer the world? What am I an expert on? 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.
RAZ: Obsessed with chicken salad?
BROWN: Obsessed. So by obsessed, what I mean by that is first of all, I was obsessed with eating it, not making it. So every restaurant that I frequented, if they had a chicken salad on the menu, which everybody should note that anybody that serves lunch, there is chicken salad on the menu, which should've told somebody something.
BROWN: And I was so fascinated by how different it all was and who was going to have the best recipe. And I was always in search of the best recipe because as a Southern woman, if you find a great chicken salad, then you want to share that information with your friends. And you want to be able to tell people where to go get the gold because it is a Southern staple.
So it was just a silly little quest, you know, that just - if it was on a menu, then I ordered it. I had my hometown favorite. I had a favorite in Dalton, Ga., Columbus, Ga., Auburn, Ala., where I attended school, all the towns that I lived in. So I knew that I could cook. And I felt like I was a connoisseur of chicken salad.
RAZ: So you thought, hey, you know, let me try to make chicken salad and sell it?
BROWN: So if I could come up with a really good recipe, I could just make it from home, and I could sell it door to door. Then I could be with the kids just like I'd always been. And maybe it's going to be enough to make ends meet.
RAZ: What was your basic chicken salad recipe at that time?
BROWN: Well, when it started, I didn't have a recipe. You know, I had eaten a lot. I didn't have a recipe. So I thought, well, I loved the depth of flavor from my hometown favorite. I loved the texture from my Auburn favorite. I loved the moisture content from my Dalton favorite. If I could take what I love about all of these different recipes and put it in to make mine, maybe this is going to be the perfect recipe.
BROWN: So I start doing that. And it's just like a science experiment. And, oh, my gosh, I went through cooking whole chickens on the bone. I cooked chicken breast on the bone. I cooked boneless breasts. I cooked tenderloins. All different types of chicken would yield different amounts, which affects everything. It affects the recipe. It affects the food cost, all of it.
RAZ: Were you, like, roasting chickens and then mixing it up with mayonnaise and celery and some salt and spices, and that was basically it?
BROWN: So I boiled chicken.
RAZ: Wow. Whole chickens?
BROWN: Well, I started with whole chickens. I moved to breast on the bone. I did skinless breast. And I ended up with tenderloins. And I found that all-white meat tenderloins yield the most consistent product. And when you're doing things by weight, you need the most consistent end result. But when you said, what's in your chicken salad - so I had just this one recipe, right? Well, as I am making this recipe, I thought, you know, Elizabeth (ph) down the street - we had a conversation about chicken salad. And she loves fruits and nuts in hers. So I'm going to make one for her.
Now, Julie (ph) across the street, she loves spicy stuff. I'm going to make one for her. And then if I'm going to have one with fruits and nuts, a lot of people are allergic to nuts. So I'm going to make one with just fruit. So all of a sudden, I had different flavors. And I started making recipes. And I would package up little Tupperware containers of what I thought was a good recipe. And I would take these little Tupperware containers to people that I did business with in town.
RAZ: That you did business with for what?
BROWN: So - hairstylists and in grocery stores.
RAZ: Oh, I see. OK, I got you. Right.
BROWN: So anybody that I came across town, you know, that I would normally see. So I said, would you please just sample this and tell me what you think? And they would say, it's a little too dry; it's too soupy, too salty, little bland. And as I received this feedback, I'd go back to the kitchen. And I tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. And then one day, I handed this recipe to somebody, and I watched their reaction. It was something I had not seen yet.
And they closed their eyes. And their head went back. And they made just the strangest noise. It was just, oh, wow. And so that was a real reaction. I mean, that was impressive. So I took that recipe and continued to sample that recipe on neighbors and friends, anybody I came across and said, tell me what you think of this until I had a wide range of people that I had sampled this one recipe. But they all had the same response. So that told me that this was the recipe.
RAZ: So just out of curiosity - so from the time you separated from your husband to the time you got the recipe down ready to sell, roughly how long was that, like, a few months?
BROWN: I would say it was probably a few months.
RAZ: And while you were experimenting, making chicken salad, like, was anybody - any friends or people who cared about you - did anybody say, hey, you may want to just get a - you know, just get a day job? I mean...
RAZ: ...You're really good at making chicken salad. But this is not a sustainable way to make a living, selling chicken salad door to door. Like, did anybody say that to you, Or were people just kind of quiet?
BROWN: Yes. Now, my parents, they did not hold back with that. They said, now, Stacy, this is silly. You have got to go get a dependable job and support these kids. And I said, please just hang on; let me give this a try. Now, I had friends that told me later that they were saying that. They did not tell me to my face. They did say, oh, yeah. Good. Yeah, good luck.
BROWN: That sounds good.
RAZ: Did you sense that from them?
BROWN: No. I was so determined. I was blind as a bat. I was just going to make this work.
RAZ: So you are determined. You don't really care if people think you kind of, like, have lost your mind.
BROWN: Probably think I'm crazy.
BROWN: There - honestly, there probably were people telling me that I was crazy in a very soft Southern way.
RAZ: Is a soft Southern way, like, a little bit polite but a little bit passive-aggressive?
BROWN: Absolutely. It's an art.
BROWN: It is an art form.
RAZ: So I'm trying to imagine you making chicken salad. First of all, you had three kids. And I've got two little kids. They demand a lot of attention. And you are trying to make chicken salad and sell it. And so were you doing this, like, at night? Like, what were you doing?
BROWN: So I would be with the kids during the day. And when I would put them to bed, I would start cooking.
BROWN: And then we would get up in the morning. And I would start to panic because I had all this fresh product that I needed to sell quickly and put the kids in the car. And we would go knocking on doors. They would sit in the car. And I would go knocking on a door with a basket and ask them if they would like to buy some chicken salad.
RAZ: How much were you selling, like - was it, like, a quart of chicken or a pint or something?
BROWN: It was a pound.
RAZ: A pound, OK. And how much were you selling it for?
BROWN: I think it was $8. And I really thought that I was an aggressive sales person and that I was ingenious...
BROWN: And when I look back, I think they were thinking, oh, here comes that poor, pitiful woman. Here she comes...
BROWN: ...Pedaling that chicken salad. Lock the door and shut the blinds. Here she comes. But they bought it. And then they placed standing orders. And the word grew. And I needed a name because I knew I was going to sell it door to door. And I thought the key to my success was going to be a car magnet. I thought the only way people are going to find out what I do from my home is to put a car magnet on my car. And as I drive around town and I sit at red lights, people will be able to see what I do. So chicken salad has to be in the name. And I'm the chick that's going to bring it to you.
BROWN: So Chicken Salad Chick is catchy.
BROWN: So that became the name of the business. And at this point, I reach out to Kevin Brown, who had been a family friend for 10 years. And he was a computer software salesman. I knew he was very business-savvy. And I didn't really know what I was doing. I had come up with a good recipe. I had a name. But I needed help understanding really the ins and outs of running an effective business from home. So I reached out to Kevin. I said, please come help me. I don't know what I'm doing. And he agreed to come and consult with me.
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BROWN: So told him about my name, had him try the recipe. He was over the moon about the recipe. And Kevin said, you know, if you're going to have different flavors, you really need to differentiate them somehow. Like - I don't know - give them, like, girly names or something. And I was like, it's Chicken Salad Chick. It's all coming together. It's a theme.
And not only am I going to name them after chicks, but I'm going to name them after real chicks, chicks that have influenced who I am today - best friends since kindergarten, college roommate, mother, mother-in-law, aunts, friends, neighbors. They all eventually had namesakes. And these chicken salads came to life.
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BROWN: So I was delivering - Fancy Nancy, Fruity Fran, Classic Carol and Jazzy Julie were my flavors. I was delivering these around the neighborhood. And I thought, you know, the gateway to communities are hairstylists and teachers. If you can get a good product in the mouths of hairstylists and teachers, you will be connected to every family in town. So I went and put a large bowl of Classic Carol in my children's school in the teacher's lounge.
RAZ: Just, like, a giant bowl of chicken salad?
BROWN: Yes. I put business cards out. I put crackers around this giant bowl. And the phone started ringing off the hook.
RAZ: Because everybody was like, this is perfect. I can go home. I don't have to make dinner or lunches for my kids because there's going to be ready-made fresh chicken salad in the fridge.
BROWN: Made from scratch.
RAZ: Made from scratch.
BROWN: And that turns into me cooking longer hours. And I find myself crying a little bit (laughter) because it's starting to be overwhelming. And as fate would have it, the next phone call that came came from the Health Department.
RAZ: How did they find out about you?
BROWN: Well, I don't really know. It was an anonymous caller that called the Health Department.
RAZ: And said, this person is doing what?
BROWN: They said, this woman is cooking chicken salad out of her home, which was illegal.
RAZ: Is that for, like, food safety reasons?
BROWN: Yes, because you have to conduct business out of a kitchen that is inspected by the Health Department.
RAZ: Yes, right. OK. So you got this call from, like, an inspector at the Health Department. Were you freaked out? Were you scared?
BROWN: Well, it was a little depressing because I'd worked my tail off. It seemed to be working. People were ordering this chicken salad, you know? And all of a sudden, I'm shut down. I'm back to square one. I'm back to - now I've got to leave the kids and go get a 9-to-5 because what I was doing was illegal.
RAZ: (Laughter) Yeah.
BROWN: So it was a dark time. It was a dark day that - wow, this was working. This was really working. And it's all over. And people liked the chicken salad so much that they knew I had been shut down because I had to tell people, no. And they would call anyway. And they would go, hey, I'm friends with Elizabeth. She said if I told you, maybe you'd make me some chicken salad.
BROWN: I had to say, all right, everybody, no, I'm not bootlegging chicken salad. I'm not doing this. I'm not doing this. I'm done. I'm shut down.
RAZ: You were going to be making, like, the bathtub gin version of chicken salad.
BROWN: (Laughter) You could see me in the corner...
BROWN: ...Of an elementary school parking lot...
BROWN: ...With my hatch open (laughter).
RAZ: Hocking chicken salad. And so you were finished. Your business was done.
BROWN: It was done. I was told, shut down immediately.
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RAZ: When we come back, how Stacy found a totally legal way to keep making chicken salad and grow her business well beyond her neighborhood. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. So it's 2007, and Stacy's homemade chicken salad operation has been shut down by the Health Department. But just when she's about to give up, her business partner Kevin comes up with an idea.
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BROWN: He said, you know, you've gotten a lot of attention here in this neighborhood. I bet that we could find you a little takeout spot - just something small - and you could give this a go. And it would pay your bills. And I'll help you do it. And we decided to partner on paper. So I was 51 percent. He was 49. And we were going to open up a little takeout spot. So there was a drive-through window in this tiny, little 800-square-foot shack. And that was going to be it.
RAZ: That was going to be Chicken Salad Chick. How much was your rent, by the way?
BROWN: Eight hundred dollars.
RAZ: Pretty good price for a business. And what was Kevin's motivation to help you? I mean, he had a full-time job. Like, did he really believe in the business?
BROWN: Yes. He was inspired by this crazy reaction that was happening in town. And then it's exciting to start a business. And we had been family friends. And whenever all the families got together, he and I always had a meeting of the minds of what was going to be the next greatest big thing. So we already had that connection. And then all of a sudden, we're going to start this little chicken salad business together.
BROWN: But now this is 2007, right before the huge recession.
BROWN: He's still selling software. And his job gets eliminated.
BROWN: So he was pretty devastated with that because he had an ex-wife and a daughter to support. And he said, you know, not to worry. I'm going to really put all my effort into helping you start this chicken salad business. And then when it gets up and off its feet, I'll go get a real job. And I have never let him forget that he said that (laughter).
RAZ: So just to paint the picture for me, you guys are working out of an 800-square-foot, like, stand with a drive-through window. And did you install a commercial oven in there and, like, a commercial sink? And did you have to do all that stuff?
BROWN: So we are building this little thing from scratch, and neither one of us had any money. We could not hire a contractor to come build this thing. So we were going to Home Depot, and we were buying flooring. We were laying the flooring. We were buying paint. We were painting the walls. We were hanging drywall.
BROWN: And thankfully, I had wonderful parents, and they would come from Rome, Ga., and they would stay at my little place and keep the kids while Kevin and I built this restaurant.
BROWN: And this was going to be such a tiny, little thing. We didn't need commercial equipment. We just needed residential because this is not that big a deal.
BROWN: So everything was absolutely homespun. And we opened finally January 7 of 2008. So recession is here.
RAZ: Is there, yeah. And did you - so by this point, you're incorporated. You've created an LLC. Like, you've done all that stuff. You are a bona fide business now. You're legit.
BROWN: We're legit.
RAZ: You're legit. OK. And the county health inspectors are, like, yep, fine, you're legit. You open the doors. And on Day 1 were your former customers, like, lining out the door waiting for chicken salad?
BROWN: So on Day 1, we cooked 40 pounds of chicken salad. So you could have it as a scoop, a sandwich, or you could buy a pound. You would choose your flavors of chicken salad. We would complement those with our made-from-scratch side salads. And then every lunch got a cookie because my view is that you don't really know you're full until you have one little bite of sweet that says you're done and happy.
RAZ: So that first day, you make 40 pounds of chicken salad. And...
BROWN: And we open up the doors, and all of our family and friends came to support us. And all these well-wishers and flowers and balloons and plants are being delivered. And the walls are lined with all family and friends. And you can see that in the middle of the room, there's not a single customer. No one shows up.
There's just such a deep sense - this heaviness. It's the elephant in the room. I could just feel everyone's thoughts. Like, I mean, how could she think this was going to work? It was so heavy. And I thought, what have I done? What have I done? I've just put every penny to my name into a business that only serves lunch, only serves takeout and only sells chicken salad. We could not have made it...
BROWN: ...Any more difficult for you to be a guest. You had to fit into a...
BROWN: ...Very slim...
BROWN: ...Demographic to be our guest.
BROWN: So, you know, I'm thinking, how stupid; how stupid. How could I have done this? And the first guest walked in the door. And everybody in the room just attacked her like she was the millionth customer, you know...
BROWN: ...That she - but she was the only customer (laughter).
RAZ: Like, people just ran up to her and said, hello, how are you; can we help you? Come right this way, right this way - like that kind of...
BROWN: Oh, it was like, oh, hi, hi. And you're just, oh, thank you. Thank you. I mean, it was just - we just mauled her.
BROWN: And people were - you know, it's the South. Everybody was hugging her...
BROWN: ...And thanking her.
RAZ: Wow. And she's, like, what did I do? I just showed up for some chicken salad.
BROWN: I know. And guess what? She's never shown back up.
RAZ: Oh, wow (laughter). OK. Well, I hope she's listening.
BROWN: We scarred that woman.
RAZ: So she shows up for the chicken - for chicken salad. And then what?
BROWN: So she is stunned by all of the attention that she's getting. She orders her lunch. She leaves. And then people start coming. And a line forms. The line goes out the door, down the sidewalk. And we sell out in two hours.
RAZ: Wow. What do you attribute that to? I mean, you opened up, and there were no customers. And it just took a couple hours?
BROWN: It just took lunchtime.
RAZ: Oh, right (laughter).
BROWN: It was just (laughter)...
RAZ: Fair enough.
BROWN: We opened up at 10 o'clock in the morning.
RAZ: Oh, nice.
BROWN: People don't want lunch at 10 o'clock in the morning.
RAZ: Nobody wants the chicken salad until noon.
BROWN: Yes. I just wanted people to be there. And so Kevin and I looked at each other and said, well, let's make some more. So we made 80 pounds the second day. And here was a surreal moment, a realization - every one of those faces that we saw on the first day was there on the second. And they brought a friend. And we sold out in two hours again with twice the amount of chicken salad. And very quickly, it turned into what I always said looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
RAZ: (Laughter) In that 800-square-foot...
BROWN: In an 800-square-foot building. And I'm thinking, OK, people are liking this. And they wanted everything we had to cook. We could not make it fast enough. We were running out of food, but we weren't making a dime.
RAZ: My assumption would be that you guys were crushing it. You were making money hand over fist.
BROWN: And we weren't.
RAZ: And you weren't. Well, why?
BROWN: Well, we didn't know how much money we were spending on inventory. We didn't know how to project how much we needed to cook. And our waste - we'd have waste of one item and then not enough of others.
BROWN: So I remember very clearly this day. We were running out of food, and Kevin and I had busted out the back door. We run down to the production kitchen to grab more broccoli salad, more grape salad. We're out. We come back down to the service kitchen, and he turns around and barricades himself against the door. He said, Stacy, stop. I said, what? He said, this isn't working. We are not making any money, and nobody is going to work this hard. We're working our tails off, and we're not making any money. It's not going to work. And I said, get out of the way. I've got to feed these people.
BROWN: So he knew then she's not going to give up. So he went in there, and he 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; today we did it in five; tomorrow we're going to do it in four. And he turned us into a well-oiled machine. And it didn't take him very long in the grand scheme of things. So we opened January 7 of 2008, and we were making money by 2009.
BROWN: And we opened two more restaurants in Auburn to pull the chaos away from that one little shack.
RAZ: But I have to imagine you were working like crazy, like, morning till night.
BROWN: So, you know, the reason that I wanted to do this was so that the children would have that stability. So it would not make sense if I said, to heck with all that; I'm going to go open a restaurant that's going to have me working all hours of the night.
BROWN: And when we opened the restaurant, we said, we are going to run a restaurant. The restaurant is not going to run us. So the first thing we did that was smart was we primarily served lunch. So we're not going to be there at 4 o'clock in the morning preparing breakfast, and we're not going to be there at 2 o'clock in the morning closing down a bar. And then Kevin made the commitment that he said, I'll take the later hours. You take the earlier hours so that you can be home with the kids for the majority of the day. And he held true to that commitment. And we got married.
RAZ: Woah, wait. You just buried the lead.
BROWN: (Laughter) What?
RAZ: During that time, you were - the two of you were both single parents, and you were working together, so I guess you start to fall in love, right?
BROWN: Yes. I mean, crisis bonds you.
RAZ: Yeah (laughter), I guess so.
BROWN: Yeah, we were in the fire.
BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah. I guess you could say we fell in love over chicken salad.
RAZ: Yeah (laughter). So in that first year, you open up a business, and you also get married to each other.
BROWN: Yes. So in November of 2008, we closed the restaurant. We hung a sign on the door that said, the chick and the rooster have gone to get married.
BROWN: And we flew to Jamaica. We got married. We stayed there for four days, and we came back to the fire of the restaurants and a blended family.
RAZ: So now there were four kids.
BROWN: So Kevin had a daughter, Olivia - about 2 at that time. And so we came back to I'll say three restaurants, four children, and the cat and the dog ran away.
BROWN: It was - my mother says it was a festive life.
RAZ: So this business really started to take off in Auburn, right? I mean, who was coming? I mean, was it college students? Was it the sort of lunchtime crowd? Was it just - was it everybody?
BROWN: Well, OK. So when we opened the restaurant, I had no clue that naming it Chicken Salad Chick might deter men. And I found out once we opened the restaurant we became known as a chicky place. You know, this was a place for women. I had no clue. You know, good food's good food, right?
BROWN: So then it was really lots of fun to observe male behavior in the Chicken Salad Chick. So I had, you know, these names of the chicken salads - Sassy Scotty, Fancy Nancy, Fruity Fran, Nutty Nana - all these names. Well, the men would come up to the counter, and they would say, just give me the one with the fruits and the nuts.
BROWN: And I would say, well, that's Fancy Nancy. Is that the one that you would like, Fancy Nancy? They'd say, don't make me say the stupid names. Can't you just number them?
RAZ: (Laughter) But they came in the door.
BROWN: Oh, they came in the door. So the first time they would come in, they'd come in with a girlfriend or a wife. And they'd elbow her, and they'd say, you order because they didn't want to have to say the names.
BROWN: And once they ate it, the girlfriends and wives didn't have to come anymore. They were coming for the food. And they didn't care about saying the names. They were all in.
RAZ: So as you grew and as you had more and more customers coming through the door, how did you finance the second and the third locations?
BROWN: Through the revenue of the first restaurant.
RAZ: Wow. So the cash flow was able to help you open up those other locations.
BROWN: Yes. And - because, believe me; every bank laughed us out of those offices.
RAZ: You could not get a loan to open up...
RAZ: I mena, you had this incredibly successful business, and the banks said, no way?
BROWN: Right. They said you had to be in business for over two years, you know, with a steady income to show that this was a sustainable business.
RAZ: So the banks would not give you any money.
RAZ: But wasn't this also around the time where you started to think about the idea of possibly franchising?
BROWN: Yes. So we were in this college town, and all of the students would come, and they would bring their families to Chicken Salad Chick because it was a unique place to Auburn. And the moms and dads of these students would say, wow, this is awesome. What do I have to do to get one of these in Little Rock, Ark.? What do I have to do to get one of these in Virginia?
Because we were running these three restaurants and, you know, still in somewhat survival mode, we would say, are you kidding? Like, we can barely breathe. Franchise? Are you kidding? I mean, I would joke around and say, put on an apron and help out in the kitchen because I can't do any more. But, you know, we got tired of saying no.
So we said, let's just put your name on a list, and if we ever get to it, we'll give you a call. And that list quickly grew to over a hundred people that wanted franchises. And by 2010, we were starting to even write the documents to franchise the concept and then found ourselves in the position of how are we going to run a franchise company? We have three restaurants that it's taking every bit of every effort that we can muster.
BROWN: We need to partner.
RAZ: So how did you start to look for a partner?
BROWN: Well, we wanted to partner with people that had franchising experience because we had none. And a couple - husband and wife - was introduced to us. I think this was 2012. And the husband had franchising experience with major brands, so that was very encouraging.
But there was a little issue with how they wanted to partner. They wanted 51 percent of the business. And Kevin was, you know, completely no. That's not going to happen. But, you know, I rationalized it out by saying, we really didn't have plans of getting into the franchising business, and so our exit strategy is probably going to be to sell out to these people anyway one day. So what's the harm in selling them 51 percent because they're going to take the lead on the franchising part of this anyway?
RAZ: And they were also presumably going to put some cash up.
BROWN: Oh, yes.
BROWN: Which for us was exciting - that we had worked this hard, and all of a sudden we were going to have a little realization of, you know, some success.
RAZ: So you took the deal.
BROWN: So we took the deal.
BROWN: And if you had sound effects, it would go wah-wah-wah (ph).
BROWN: Very quickly it went downhill.
BROWN: They had a very different vision for the brand of where it was going to go. And we were not comfortable with that. It was not a good working relationship. And we knew that if they took the lead on that, it was going to be the end of the brand.
RAZ: So what did you do?
BROWN: So we had a meeting with Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so. And Kevin said, we need to dissolve this partnership because it's clearly not working. And the husband said, well, kids, this is not a partnership. We own 51 percent of this business, and we can fire you with just cause and take your shares anytime we want.
BROWN: Yeah. Wow. I felt like the blood left my body. Like, we have been purchased by sharks. I can't believe this. How could we have been this wrong? And thankfully, at that time, we had a board of directors, and we took this situation to our board of directors. And they said, Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so, you need to give the Browns the chance to buy you out because they're the founders of the business. And they said, OK. We'll do that. And they said, here's our price, which was three times the amount that they had purchased four months earlier.
BROWN: And not only is - this is our price, but you have 30 days to get it to us.
RAZ: How much were they asking for?
BROWN: 1.3 million. And keep in mind that at this point, we didn't have a single franchise open. So Kevin and I determined to make this work. We hit the ground running on what we called - was our southeastern fundraising tour.
BROWN: He put together his best presentation, his best pitch, and I packed up coolers full of chicken salad to hand out to possible investors. And we'd pitch to anyone that would listen. Anybody that had a friend that could be interested, please come and listen to us. So we traveled and held meetings in hotel conference rooms, chamber of commerce conference rooms.
And every single meeting that we had, we heard, you want us to invest this much money for a minority share of a business that does not have a single franchise open? Thanks, but no thanks - laughed out of the room. And this whole time, that 30-day clock is ticking away. So with two days left on that 30-day clock, Kevin is telling me - we were sitting on the back porch - he said, you have got to get a grip on reality. This is the end. It was a good thing, but it is the end. And we'll figure out something else. And I was not willing to face that. Well, we go to work into our tension-filled office, and a lady in the office slid me a piece of paper. And on that piece of paper were the names of five people. And she said, call these people. It's all I've got, but give them a try.
RAZ: Who was that lady in the office?
BROWN: Her name was Claudia Isaac (ph), and she was our receptionist.
RAZ: So she said, call these people; they might help.
BROWN: Yes. So I called those gentlemen, and I begged. I begged with no shame. And I said, I know it sounds crazy, but will you please just come listen to what we have to say? And they agreed. So we went to a conference room at the Chamber of Commerce in Auburn. Kevin gave them his best four-hour pitch, and we took them to lunch at Chicken Salad Chick. I packed them up full of coolers of chicken salad, we put them in their cars, and we said goodbye to our last chance. And that was going to be it.
And very quietly, Kevin and I got in our car. We were driving back to the office knowing that it was over. And Kevin's phone rang. And one of the gentleman in that meeting - his name was Erlan McQuarter (ph) - and he said, can you two come back to the restaurant? And we said sure. And we whipped the car around. We get back to the restaurant, and we sit in a booth with this very kind gentleman. And he said, I believe in the two of you. And this is a good thing. And I don't want to see it die. And I will write you a check for every penny that you need.
BROWN: And I'm sure he thought I was having a stroke because I absolutely (laughter) - I was falling apart. Tears are flowing down my cheeks (laughter), and I'm stunned. And Kevin is nodding and saying, yes, sir, yes, sir. And he became the most wonderful partner we ever could have asked for.
RAZ: And he was just - I mean, was he - what was his profession? What was his background?
BROWN: So his background was in construction. He opened and constructed over 300 Lowe's. Are you familiar with Lowe's?
RAZ: Oh, sure, of course.
BROWN: Yes. So he was a self-made man from the ground up. And he understood that people had helped him in his career. And he appreciated that. And he was willing to help us out.
RAZ: Yeah. So you - you're back on your feet. And at that point, were you able to start selling franchises?
BROWN: Yes. So Erlan infused capital into the business. We got into a great office building. And we were able to hire the most wonderful, passionate people to build the infrastructure that could support opening franchises effectively.
RAZ: Where was the first location?
BROWN: So the very first franchise location was Montgomery, Ala.
RAZ: And how did it do there?
BROWN: It did wonderful. They came at us like we were not prepared.
RAZ: So the expansion started in Alabama. And when did you have a - your first location outside of Alabama?
BROWN: Well, the third location was Columbus, Ga.
RAZ: So you guys were - I mean, this is, like, big-time. Like, you're starting to - you can start to see where this is heading.
RAZ: Well, it must have been incredibly exciting.
BROWN: Oh, my gosh, it was amazing. And as we're building our infrastructure, we are selling and opening more restaurants, and everybody is happy.
RAZ: Amazing - end of story.
BROWN: I wish. So, no, it didn't end there. So after we had a number of owners and we were on fire and the line to sell restaurants was long, Kevin said, we need to have a conference. We are legit. We need to get all these owners together and celebrate and make a plan for future growth. And we need to get together. So we held our first conference in Destin, Fla.
And while we're there, in between putting on these segments and these classes, Kevin - which - this is not like him at all - was having to lay down in pain. And we thought he had gallbladder problems. And he said, I'm just going to go to the doctor when we get home, but let's get through this conference. So we got through the conference, he goes to the doctor. And so at age 38, Kevin was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. And it had metastasized to his liver. So it was the beginning of another fight.
RAZ: Wow, I can't even imagine. I just can't imagine what that was like.
BROWN: Well, he was the toughest man I have ever known in my life. And it took him about three days from the time that he got the news to process what was happening to him. And then he came out with a new purpose and a new mission. And his purpose became helping other people with this disease that could not fight for themselves because he was a fighter. And that was the beginning of the Chicken Salad Chick Foundation. And this became a new part of our mission. And he went at that full force. I mean, he had stage 4 colon cancer. He was taking chemotherapy, but he didn't miss a day of work.
BROWN: If he could stand up, he was at work. And he fought and fought for this foundation. And he said, we've got to make an impact on research fast. And he came up with the idea to hold a concert in Jordan-Hare Stadium, which is our football stadium on Auburn's campus. And he said not only are we going to hold a concert in Jordan-Hare, but we are going to have Kenny Chesney headline it.
RAZ: Like, one of the biggest...
BROWN: The only...
RAZ: ...Yeah, right.
BROWN: ...The biggest name in country music. The only person that could fill that stadium would be Kenny Chesney. And he got Kenny Chesney. And he got Jordan-Hare stadium. Unfortunately, he passed away before the concert. He passed away November 21 of 2015, and the concert was in April. But on that night in April, 50,000 people walked in to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a Kenny Chesney concert. And it was the most amazing, unbelievable night you could imagine.
RAZ: Wow. Amazing.
BROWN: He was just such a tremendous person and a tremendous presence. And so now I have the honor of picking up the fight in his name.
RAZ: And he not only left the legacy - the foundation but the legacy of this business that's growing.
RAZ: I mean, really, really growing. I mean, you guys - how many locations does this Chicken Salad Chick now have?
BROWN: So we have 85 locations now.
RAZ: And what - I mean, what's the trajectory? Does it - is there a certain point where it stops growing, or are you just planning on opening and opening and opening and opening?
BROWN: Well, our goal is to be America's favorite place for chicken salad, so that gives us a lot of ground to cover. So we can't wait to see how the rest of the country receives us. We're very excited to bring the taste of the South to the entire country.
RAZ: I think that, in 2017, your company was, like, number 37 out of 5,000 of the fastest-growing businesses in the country, according to Inc or Fortune or Forbes - one of those magazines. That's unbelievable. It's insane.
BROWN: It's crazy. And it's chicken salad.
BROWN: And it always tickled me when I would hear people - like, investor-type people say, really? Just chicken salad? You think that's going to work? A whole restaurant off of just chicken salad? And I was like, really, pizza? You think a restaurant would work off of just pizza? Or burgers - you think that would work? What's the difference?
RAZ: Do you have a sense of how many people are employed by Chicken Salad Chick today? It's got to be hundreds.
BROWN: I'm thinking it's, like, 1,200, 1,500.
RAZ: And I've seen reports of revenue figures from 2016. And I - do you guys - do you talk about your revenue at all? Is that private?
BROWN: We do. I mean, it's out there. And whenever I speak at the university to classes - our students, you know, are so attached to their phones, and it's hard to get their heads up off of their phones sometimes. But it's so funny - the one thing that raises heads of the students are when I say, remember about what you're capable of when your passion is involved, because this was a business that only needed to make $500 a month to make ends meet - is now making $75 million a year.
RAZ: Wow. How much of this - of the success of this enterprise do you think has to do with the skills that you and Kevin brought to it, and how much of it was just luck?
BROWN: Luck - I don't know. It's been too hard for me to say it was luck (laughter). We worked really hard. That would - that's hard to accept - luck. I don't think it's luck. I think we have paid our dues. I think we were good learners. I think we also knew that we weren't it. Like, I know what I'm good at, and I know what I'm not so great at. And every part of the business deserves to have an expert in their field for it to all work 100 percent on all cylinders. So Kevin and I very early had to understand what we were great at and what we were not great at. You know, you don't have to be a rocket scientist. You don't have to have millions of dollars. You just have to have passion and ***
BROWN: *** drive and the will to get up and go. And when life knocks you down, you just keep getting up.
RAZ: Stacy Brown, founder of Chicken Salad Chick. To this day, Stacy has stuck by her motto that she runs the business. The business doesn't run her. So every Sunday, all employees get the day off to do whatever it is they want to do.
I keep thinking about how you'd boil the chicken. That's just mind-blowing because I always roast an entire chicken and then pick all the meat out and then make some mayonnaise and add some Dijon mustard, some green onions, celery - there you go. You know, salt. Like, I've got my chicken salad. You've blown my mind.
BROWN: And see - you just described another whole recipe.
BROWN: Probably perfect for you, but you haven't tried mine yet.
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RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building. But first, a quick thanks to one of our sponsors, TD Ameritrade. People who set defined financial goals are more likely to achieve them. And TD Ameritrade can help you craft a plan that's aligned with your specific objectives. So tell TD Ameritrade about your goals, and then you can start building towards something beautiful together. To schedule a complimentary goal-planning session, visit tdameritrade.com/podcast.
Hey, thanks so much for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today's story starts with beer, which, if you've ever brewed it yourself, you know it takes just four ingredients.
DANIEL KURZROCK: You've got your water. You've got your hops, which everyone knows about. And you've got your yeast, which is kind of where the magic happens. But one of the...
RAZ: This is Dan Kurzrock, and Dan used to brew his own beer in college.
KURZROCK: ...The most important ingredient is actually grain - malted barley. And you take water, and you mix it in with the grain, kind of like making a batch of oatmeal.
RAZ: And oatmeal is the key word here because when Dan and his friends were making their own beer, they noticed that all the leftover piles of wet barley - well, it smelled kind of like breakfast.
KURZROCK: It smelled like bread. It was very fragrant. But none of the brewing books told us what to do with this grain, so we would put it in the dumpster.
RAZ: All of this is happening around 2009, 2010. And a few years later, Dan was in the Bay Area, where craft breweries were booming. And he started to notice that a lot of those breweries, just like him, were churning out huge mounds of leftover spent grain.
KURZROCK: It smelled like food. It looked like food. And so it was really pretty low-hanging fruit to think, OK, well, maybe we can make food products out of this.
RAZ: Now, luckily for Dan, he had a friend named Jordan who had worked in the food business. And so they teamed up and called a bunch of small breweries in the Bay Area. And they started to drive around with these big, plastic tubs to pick up all of this used grain.
KURZROCK: Yeah, I dropped my back a few times doing this. And then we got dollies and - yeah, it was heavy.
RAZ: So anyway, they take those heavy tubs of barley to Jordan's parents' house and just experiment.
KURZROCK: So I took my now mother-in-law's recipe for loose granola. It had oats in it. It had flax, honey, cinnamon...
RAZ: So they went back and forth with the recipe. And eventually, they decided to turn the granola into snack bars.
KURZROCK: ...Low sugar, high fiber, with a great eating experience - it's not a mush bar. It kind of eats like a Rice Krispies Treat.
RAZ: Dan and Jordan, of course, tested the snack bars on friends and at farmers markets. And some of the feedback - it was not so great.
KURZROCK: People found the bars to be a bit dry and to be a bit pokey.
RAZ: Wait, pokey?
KURZROCK: Pokey, yeah. So the grain is quite sharp, and so it would get stuck in people's teeth. And one of the mouthfeel descriptors that we got pretty consistently was pokey.
RAZ: So to eliminate the pokiness, Dan and Jordan decided to grind the beer grain into more of a flour.
KURZROCK: And then from there, that really solved the texture issue, so we did launch. You know, now we have a great product that's selling really well. We've got another one on the way.
RAZ: The snack bars are now on sale in regional chains in many parts of the U.S. and on Amazon. Now, they're not profitable, but Dan and Jordan have both quit their day jobs, and they're paying themselves a small salary.
KURZROCK: You know, I'm not buying a house anytime soon unless they take a down payment in, you know nutrition bars. Let me know if you know any realtors that'll do that.
RAZ: Dan and Jordan's company is called Regrained. And by the way, Regrained snack bars do not taste like beer, but they do have beery (ph) names like Chocolate Coffee Stout and Honey Cinnamon IPA. If you want to find out more about Regrained or hear previous episodes of our show, head to our new podcast page, howibuiltthis.npr.org. And, of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're up to.
And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe to our program at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review. You can also write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to send a tweet, it's @howibuiltthis.
Our show was produced this week by Rund Abdelfatah, with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Nour Coudsi, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant, and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is J.C. Howard. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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