That’s not bad for a restaurant concept Landry, along with LSU teammate Jack Warner, who has since moved on to other ventures, sketched a floor plan on the back of the napkin. They submitted the business plan to a professor and received a C in response. Six banks rejected a loan before the seventh took a chance.
For Taylor, it’s been an equally improbable journey. He arrived in 2010 when Walk-On’s had five corporate employees, including its two founders. Just this past calendar, the team added seven. There are now 45 corporate staff members for 33 restaurants.
The fact provides some insight into how Taylor and Walk-On’s are building this brand. “We didn’t want to be the type of franchisor who says, ‘let’s wait until the royalty stream comes in and then we can give you support. Hey, if you’re an early day franchisee, just kind of hold on tight and figure stuff out on your own,’” he says. “We really, really wanted our people to be successful.”
Doing so started with a healthy fear of failure. Landry’s biggest concern with franchising—an oft lamented scenario—was for Walk-On’s culture to slide as the unit count expanded. “Are they going to do it the way we’ve done it all these years and be consistent?” Taylor says.
The most effective remedy takes some time to mature, as it has for Walk-On’s. You start with the people, Taylor says, so you can train franchisees to embrace beliefs that live and breathe past the company manual. “Follow up and support them,” he says. “Get them the tools they need and have everything articulated, laid out 100 percent in front of them so there’s no guesswork.”
A typical Walk-On’s has six managers. There’s an operating partner with equity in the store who also serves as GM; an executive kitchen manager; and two support kitchen managers. They go to corporate and spend nine weeks in training before opening. One week is general training. The rest attach employees to the hip of someone who does their role in operating training stores.
Here’s where the structure element comes in, though. Walk-On’s has a dedicated culinary manager for every 20 locations. For every 10 restaurants, there’s an assigned operations coach.
“Our guys are in these franchise restaurants once or twice a month versus what’s normally once or twice a year in most franchises,” Taylor says. “They’re looking at food. Looking at culture. Making sure the place is right.”
Typically, a regional employee in a franchise system focuses on vendor relationships, buying practices, and making sure ground-level operators aren’t going rouge and straying from the latest corporate initiative. “And it’s a somewhat contentious relationship,” Taylor says. “We believe we’ve created a partnership for the franchisee and the operator who is looking forward to our team to come in. Side-by-side feedback.”
He admits this intimate process isn’t for everyone. But the fact Walk-On’s has been discerning to date, looking to culture fits instead of capital ones, has kept the brand humming along its principles. And in position to scale off its own base.
Walk-On’s 28 franchised locations are spread across 14 groups. Taylor says today’s growth is split pretty much evenly between current operators and incoming ones. Of the standing list, only three have not signed up for another store. Two of those are land-locked concerns, while the other was a one-store setup from the outset.