Newk’s Eatery co-founder and CEO Chris Newcomb’s first go-around as a restaurant owner included plenty of trial-and-error and learning on the job. As co-founders of McAlister’s Deli in 1989, Newcomb and his dad and brother learned about everything from recipes to scheduling to training by doing. Along they way, they also learned to ask for help.
“We met a lot of really smart people and started asking questions,” he said. “You can always learn a lot from the people who have accomplished a lot.”
The lessons stuck, and when Newcomb left McAlister’s it had grown to more than 50 company owned and franchise locations, laying the groundwork for a chain that today boasts 341 eateries in 24 states, according to its website.
Newk’s Eatery is a fast-casual concept with a focus on people and evidence of the lessons learned the first time around.
“It had been a long run at McAlisters, there was a lot of fast growth and a lot of hard work. If you had the chance to do something over again and make it better, why not take that chance? When we sold, we got that second chance,” he said.
Newk’s opened the first restaurant in Jackson, Miss., in 2004, and it grew slowly and steadily. The chain and its franchisees operate 77 restaurants in 13 states, and they plan to open 21 new franchise stores and eight company-owned stores this year.
The restaurants do about 60% of their sales at lunch time and 40% at dinner. Newk’s doesn’t serve breakfast, largely because the first crew starts at about 7:30 a.m. and the morning is taken up with making the day’s food from scratch, he says. The chain also has a growing catering business, he says, as well as a popular grab-and-go section where customers can pick up house-made soups, pimento cheese, chicken salad and other made-fresh-daily specialties to take home.
“It’s a southern inspired menu, but it isn’t biscuits and gravy,” he said. The menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and pizzas includes 600-calorie options, as well as unexpected items like an Ahi Tuna Sandwich, Shrimp & Avocado Salad and Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese. “We want to keep pushing the envelope on the culinary side.”
I spoke with Newcomb recently to hear more about the chain’s mission and growth plans, and chat about fast-casual trends.
On the vision for Newk’s
We’ve branded it the second generation of fast-casual, because of all of the customization.
Basically, our vision was to be more innovative and creative. We do all we can from scratch. We wanted to simplify the process and upgrade the culinary focus and the ambiance, we wanted to offer more options.
With our made-from-scratch, in-house menu, we control the flavor profile, taste and quality. It’s a big thing for us and guests can tell the difference. We have a true open kitchen, so guests can feel what’s going on. They can see the sandwiches being made in a clean environment, with sparkling stainless steel and tile, and it raises the comfort level for guests.
And we have the round table in the dining room, with [condiments and toppings] including bread and butter pickles, roasted garlic, jalapenos, cheeses, oils and vinegars. It’s all part of the experience. We went more toward casual dining in the ambiance, with comfortable booths, chairs, tables and lighting.
And we do not offer WiFi. We view it as a place for guests to come in and relax and not be bombarded with WiFi. It’s a place for people to come in and relax and be with friends and enjoy the meal.
On growth plans
We’re adding 29 units this year, the goal is to end the year with 104 locations. We’ll add some new markets including Tampa, Fla., New Braunfels, Texas, and Columbia, S.C.
We’re trying to stay below the Mason-Dixon line. We’ve gotten interest from outside the area, but we have to build from our circle outward to get name recognition out there.
On fast-casual trends
The biggest trend I see is that everybody’s doing the same thing, trying to come up with a health-conscious menu that appeals to the millennials, but some are getting away from what got them there. They’re going more toward quickservice, they’re adding drive-throughs, and that gets away from the hospitality. They lose that warm body asking “how are you doing today?” They lose that guest interaction.
Here it’s almost like Cheers. Guests walk in and the cashiers, know what they want. Everybody knows your name.
On employment and real estate challenges
Our management turnover is almost non-existent. Each store employs an average of 40 to 45 employees and four to five managers. Turnover and the [tight labor market] hasn’t been an issue with us.
We’re relaxed, fun and interactive, and folks coming from casual dining like the hours. We serve alcohol but there’s no bar, the work schedule is five days a week with two days off and we pay an above-average wage for hourly employees. We started that many years ago, Dad ingrained in me the philosophy that we’re in the people business first. If you’re not taking care of that person on the front line, they won’t help and support you.
Real estate has been tough. We recently expanded our whole real estate team. Developers quit building after the ‘08 and ‘09 crash, and everyone’s fighting over the same 4,000-square-foot end caps. We’re coming up with some new options on free-standing footprints and build-to-suits.
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