Stacy Brown turned an obsession with chicken salad into a $30 million business that will open its first St. Petersburg location later this year.
Fast casual restaurant Chicken Salad Chick is slated to open at 1221 4th St. N., the site of the former China City.
Nation’s Restaurant News named Chicken Salad Chick a brand to watch in 2019, and the company was No. 2,079 on the 2019 Inc. 5000, with $29.1 million in 2018 revenue and 194 percent growth over three years.
It was just over 12 years ago when Brown, newly divorced and with three young children, started making chicken salad in the kitchen of her home to sell to friends.
“What started out of my kitchen is now a company that operates in 144 communities in 16 states,” Brown told 200 attendees at Working Women of Tampa Bay’s 2020 kickoff lunch on Friday.
Brown traced her entrepreneurial spirit to her childhood, when family dinner conversations focused on problem solving.
In 2008, after her divorce, Brown remembered those conversations and decided to solve the problem of how to pay the bills by selling chicken salad to her friends.
The way she built her business would resonate with many entrepreneurs.
Minimum viable product. Brown’s chicken salad obsession was focused on eating the dish, not making it. Selling chicken salad to friends to earn money while staying home with her children required experimenting with dozens of recipes, asking for honest feedback, listening to that feedback and changing the recipe. She knew she had a winner when a friend tasted it, closed her eyes, and “weird noises came out.”
“Now, that was a reaction,” Brown said.
Social media. Brown wanted signage on the car she drove to deliver the chicken salad. “A car magnet was our social media,” so she paid $200 to a professional to develop a logo but wasn’t happy with it. Brown eventually found what she was looking for by flipping through clip art and adapting it.
She also named the different flavors of chicken salad that evolved after the friends who suggested the flavor, or as Brown said, “real chicks — women, strong women, who have made me who I am.”
Pivot. After Brown dropped off a bowl of chicken salad at her child’s school for the teachers, someone called the health department, which shut down the business because Brown was illegally making the food in her home kitchen. “This thing was working … and it was over, just like that,” Brown said.
She started over, working with Kevin Brown, a friend who became her business partner and later her husband, to open a take-out restaurant.
Hockey stick sales. The first day the take-out restaurant opened, Brown wondered if anyone would show up. They did, and she sold out of the 40 pounds of chicken salad she had prepared. She doubled that for the second day, to 80 pounds, and sold out again, and her small space “felt to me like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.”
Today, each Chicken Salad Chick sells 300 pounds of chicken salad daily.
Funding. Stacy and Kevin Brown brought in partners with franchise experience who took a 51 percent stake in the business. When it became clear the new majority owners had a different vision for the business, the Browns wanted to buy their partners out – but the partners wanted three times the amount they had paid to get into the business just four months earlier, and they wanted that payment in 30 days.
The Browns sought fundraising, pitching to anyone who would listen, and with 48 hours left to meet the deadline they found an angel backer, Earlon McWhorter, who gave them the full amount they needed for the buyout and kept investing as the company grew.
Eagle Merchant Partners, an Atlanta private equity firm, invested in the company in 2015 and named Scott Deviney as president and CEO.
In November 2019, Eagle sold the company to Brentwood Associates, a consumer-focused private equity firm.
“The first private equity group was geared for up to 100 restaurants and the next private equity firm is geared for up to 300 to 500,” Brown said.
There currently are four Chicken Salad Chick restaurants in Hillsborough County owned by franchisees Tammy and Brad Cochran. Franchise owners Paul and Linsay Rohr of Simply Southern Pinellas Group have restaurants in Palm Harbor and Seminole, and will open one on Jan. 20 in 12096 State Road 54 in Trinity. The opening date for the St. Petersburg location has not been announced.
Don’t fear change
There were other ups and downs in building Chicken Salad Chick, including the November 2015 death of Kevin Brown from cancer. The company started the Chicken Salad Chick Foundation and now every franchise owner impacts their own community through the foundation.
“Life happens to all of us. Every one of you has a story to tell. It doesn’t go according to plan ever … but let it in, reflect on it, and let it make you a stronger person,” Brown said.
While her father’s business conversations sparked her entrepreneurial spirit, the best business advice she received was from her mother, a child psychologist.
“Don’t fear change. Depend on it. When things are going great, take time to appreciate it, because things are going to change. When times are bad, don’t dwell in that and don’t let it paralyze you, because things are going to change,” Brown said. “When I embraced that advice, it changed my life.”
She described her own personal values, or “non-negotiables”: a positive perspective on life and a sense of humor, decision-making filtered through her core values, and using her gifts to help others. She urged the Working Women of Tampa Bay members to develop their own non-negotiables.
“When you do that, the tough decisions are no longer tough. It sounds like common sense, but when you do the exercise – writing them and putting them where you can see them – it helps keep things in perspective,” Brown said.