The emerging chain is gearing up for a big 2020. And it's been years in the making.

Much has changed since ESPN crowned Walk-On’s the “Best Sports Bar in North America” nearly eight years ago. Heck, it doesn’t even identify as a sports bar anymore. At least not in name.

In December, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based brand staked claim to a new restaurant category—Sports Bistreaux. The chain formerly known as Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar became Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, dropping the “bar” and putting the focus on something that’s fueled one of the country’s fastest-growing full-service restaurants from the beginning.

“We’re different, man,” president Scott Taylor says. “And I think we’re different in a great way.”

Signage will flip over with Walk-On’s latest store in Conway, Arkansas, this January. All new openings will follow suit. The company’s five corporate stores plan to convert early in the New Year, with the 28 remaining franchises coming along in time.

But before diving into why Walk-On’s hit the branding switch to welcome a new decade, it’s worth recognizing 2019 as a pivotal turn in the company’s trajectory.

LOOKING BACK: Why The Lost Cajun was 2018’s Breakout Brand of the Year

When the chain, founded 2003 by former LSU basketball walk-on Brandon Landry, beat 12 finalists and emerged from 5,000 nominations to take ESPN’s accolade, Last In Concepts (as it was called then) ran three spots in addition to Walk-On’s: The Roux House, Happy’s Irish Pub, and Schlittz & Giggles. The honor, however, inspired management to sell the other brands. By 2015, the spotlight was entirely on the Louisiana-themed concept. That May, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, became co-owners of Walk-On’s, and the growth was on.

In the summer of 2016, with eight Louisiana locations in tow, Walk-On’s began to plot expansion outside of its home state, with Texas on deck.

Yet despite what’s happened since—adding 10 locations, or nearly a third of its entire footprint last year—Taylor calls 2019 a foundational run. That’s because, as he sat in his office come mid-December, Walk-On’s had 15 restaurants under construction—five more than it opened the previous 12 months combined. It puts the emerging brand in position to debut 20–25 locations in 2020. “Which is crazy,” Taylor says. And the pipeline is roughly 155 restaurants deep, meaning Walk-On’s should track expansion in the 25–30-store range for the foreseeable future, he adds.

The chain, FSR’s Breakout Brand of the Year for 2019, is also one of the highest-performing concepts in its category with average-unit volumes of $5.1 million on average checks of $31.

A Walk On's Waitress Pours A Beer For A Customer

Walk-On’s picked a good year to team up with LSU athletics.

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.”

READ MORE: Walk-On’s earns a spot on FSR’s Best Franchise Deals 

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.

A Plate Of Fried Shrimp Being Eaten

Even the company’s founder, Landry, is looking for sites to open a franchise. And in mid-November, Walk-Ons announced it inked a multi-unit deal with Mike Lester to bring six restaurants to the greater Tampa, Florida area. The deal was a score for the brand. Lester has more than 30 years of experience in the industry, most recently serving as CEO and co-owner of Walking Tall Brands, LLC and formerly as president of The Melting Pot Restaurants.

This all mixes an alluring future for Walk-On’s given about half of the expansion in 2020 will be new franchisees who have not opened a store yet. If it can continue inspiring further development from operators, the pace has the potential to skyrocket well before the next decade arrives.

Walk-On’s has restaurants in six states—Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina. South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia are coming onboard this year, as well as a “bunch” in Florida and Texas. Perhaps Kentucky. The chain’s target was always to grow from its center out so it could maintain tight supply chain connections.

“We haven’t sold a deal in California. We haven’t granted a franchise in New York,” Taylor says. “And not that we won’t at some point, but it would really have to be the right group that had the infrastructure. Because it’s a commitment on the franchise system to get the product there and everything else.”

“We try to do it the right way.”

A less sexy, but no less critical building block of 2019 involved Walk-On’s store design. In 2017 and 2018 the chain had architectural layouts it didn’t own. This past year, the company solidified three models, narrowed down to two, and then took ownership. Mainly, it’s a prototype built to grow. The size calls for 7,000 or so square feet. Past restaurants were 8,500. The original is 10,000.

Beyond what that accomplishes in cost savings, especially concerning prospective franchisees and others hoping to grow, it took a deep look at what guest areas needed to be in place, and what that looks like for the future.

The sports element remains intact, of course, from 70–80 TVs to pour-your-beer at the table. Now, though, there’s dedicated to-go areas as well as multiple settings for customers to engage with Walk-On’s across multiple occasions. Outdoor sections. Biergartens. Essentially, alternative spaces where guests can move around without going elsewhere.

For instance, if someone starts at a table for the big game, has a bunch of food, they can get up and walk to a lively biergarten to keep watching without feeling like they’re tied to the booth for hours. That keeps a customer in Walk-On’s for more than a meal, driving check up and inspiring repeat visits.

“And it also opens it up for us for someone else who wants to come in and eat,” says Taylor, addressing a table turn issue that continues to haunt sports-centric restaurants.

This brings us back to Walk-On’s name change. The concept was finding that its “bar” positioning wasn’t always as rosy as ESPN’s proclamation. To put it simply, it was giving off the wrong message at times.

Local businesses and community organizations, like schools, didn’t want a sponsor with “bar” in its name, Taylor says. The company inked a five-year “Tiger Partnership” with LSU to be its official sports restaurant in July (not a bad year to get that going). They wanted Walk-On’s to drop the bar in the arrangement, however.

A Restaurant Manager Trains An Employee In The Kitchen

And then there’s the notion that Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar as a label doesn’t really sell the food part effectively. “Walk-On’s” either resonates or it doesn’t, Taylor says, depending on someone’s affinity for college sports. “Bistreaux,” screams Louisiana, which is good. But then the next buzz word to reach the eye is “bar.”

Hence, the change to Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux—something Taylor says was unanimously agreed on by operators at the company’s June conference.

Notably, “sports” doesn’t confuse anybody and it quickens the pace to “Bistreaux,” a Louisiana spin on bistro. “That’s where we feel our white space is,” Taylor says. “Firstly, it’s not really a real word the way it’s spelled. We actually created Wikipedia’s definition to be that place where you can come with family, friends, your wife. Girls night out. Guys night out. Your mom’s tennis club. Everyone could co-exist at the same time in this place for great food and fun and have a taste of Louisiana.”

After Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, Taylor says, the word “Louisiana” conjures up vivid images of food. And that’s the positive memory bank Walk-On’s wants to tap into. “We’re trying to create our own niche,” Taylor says.

The company also recently went away from the big square white plates it used for years in favor of more earth tones to highlight food. New uniforms are coming as well.

“All just trying to continue to position ourselves. We want to embrace the sports heritage, which is absolutely a big part of our brand, but look, we’re a restaurant. We’re a great restaurant,” Taylor says.

Cajun cuisine historically has not been the easiest to replicate. As Taylor puts it, “everybody’s mama has their own recipe for it.” Things like Duck & Andouille Gumbo, Blackened Redfish, and Catfish Poboys. Walk-On’s culinary managers oversee the process constantly to make sure quality travels in a multi-unit system. Employees have to send in pictures so corporate can ensure it looks right, from plating to color. And the company regularly monitors guest feedback.

Getting it right all comes back to the culture point. Taylor says Walk-On’s will ask franchisees and employees what their “Walk-Ons story” was? It doesn’t need to involve sports. “It’s how did you handle ‘no,’” Taylor says. “When somebody said you weren’t big enough, fast enough, smart enough, what did you do? We look for people who say that ‘no’ was the warm up for the big year.”

That might just be the best way to sum up Walk-On’s in general.

The company borrows a strategy from author Jim Collins called, “The Hedgehog Concept.” It’s a concept that flows from understanding about the intersection of three circles: What are you deeply passionate about; what you can be the best in the world at; and what best drives your economic or resource engine.

Walk-On’s has a “hedgehog committee” made up of hourly team members and store managers who meet with executives. Before a new menu rollout or decision, the conversation flows up and down the ladder.

Taylor says this keeps the company “from getting isolated from where we forget what it’s like to actually be in that kitchen producing great food and understand you can’t throw a cog in the wheel that prevents things from moving on.”

Walk-On’s isn’t rushing to assign 50 new franchisees or open 100 restaurants. “We’re trying to build something like that,” Taylor says, referencing Chick-fil-A and its culture-heavy history. “Call it a lifestyle brand. … How do you differentiate yourself? It starts with your culture. When your culture is different and it’s unique and you own it. It’s not vanilla. That’s who we are.”

Chain Restaurants, Events, Feature, NextGen Casual, Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar