For more than 35 years, Jim ‘N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q has cultivated a following with its meticulously crafted slow-cooked barbecue, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise the brand is using a similar, patient approach ahead of one of the largest growth pushes in brand history.
CEO Larry Ryback, formerly leader of Cotton Patch Cafe and Tijuana Flats, says the company spent the past year and a half building the right team to support expansion. That includes Vice President of Development Perry Jones, who joined the chain in August after executive experience with Tijuana Flats and Pie Five, and VP of Information Technology Billy Koehler, who previously worked at Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A. Jim ‘N Nick’s also added regional field support, strengthened management, and streamlined operations.
Even before all those moves took shape, the restaurant was purchased by Roark Capital in July 2017, becoming the private equity firm’s 60th multi-unit company and 20th restaurant brand at the time. Roark also has strategic investments in Inspire Brands and FOCUS Brands, The Cheesecake Factory, and Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. The firm oversees $33 billion in assets and has acquired 95 franchise/multi-location brands that generate $54 billion in revenues across 64,000 locations.
Ryback believes bolstered leadership and an experienced ownership group will help Jim ‘N Nick’s open as many as 30 company-run stores in the next three years.
“We’ve got the right team,” the CEO says. “There’s been a number of efforts to try to get the company in the position where we could grow in a healthy way because that’s ultimately what matters most.”
The chain has 38 locations, including 14 in Alabama, 11 in Georgia, two in North Carolina, three in South Carolina, and one each in Colorado and Florida. Growth will start in markets where Jim ‘N Nick’s has already built brand equity, like Birmingham, Alabama, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Charleston, South Carolina. That will account for most of the effort in the next two years. In year three, the chain will penetrate new areas, although the company has not yet determined where those may be.
Ryback says Jim ‘N Nick’s doesn’t want to “get too far out over our skis” when it comes to expansion. Five restaurants are projected to open between now and the end of 2022, and after that, the chain will try to ramp up to 10 in 2023 and open as many as 15 in 2024.
“All of that depends on how well we do the first five,” the CEO notes. “ … We think there’s plenty of white space. There’s plenty of opportunity for growth.”
Typically, Jim ‘N Nick’s stores are 5,500 square feet, including a 750-square-foot patio. However, the brand is working on a newer prototype that would slim the box to be between 4,000 to 4,500 square feet, with a similarly sized patio. The chain will also look to build more off-premises focused locations— between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet—after experiencing success with the format in Niceville, Florida. Ryback thinks there’s opportunity to do more of that style in smaller markets that perhaps couldn’t support a full-sized restaurant.
Each building type—including the casual-dining versions—facilitate drive-thru, carryout, and third-party delivery. Prior to COVID, sales were split 50/50 between off-premises and dine-in, but now two-thirds of business come outside the four walls. Because drive-thru requires more space, the chain will likely look more into suburban locales, but Ryback says that doesn’t mean the brand will disregard urban opportunities.
“One of the things that makes Jim ‘N Nick’s unique and exciting to grow is that we have multi-revenue channels, which is not something that you see every day,” the restaurant leader says.” And in casual dining, most casual diners don’t have drive-thru and most are just trying to build their off-premise business where it’s been part of Jim ‘N Nick’s’ DNA for decades.”
“[The drive-thru] is something that we’ve had for over two decades,” he continues. “We had the benefit of that amount of time to fine tune our menu and our ability to execute that channel [drive-thru] in addition to traditional takeout and dining. And then about a year ago we layered in third-party delivery. It’s been a part of the brand forever, and we continue to strive to get better at it every day.”
In addition to finding the proper real estate, Ryback also understands the need for high-quality management to run each store efficiently, and Jim ‘N Nick’s is already making the requisite investments. The company recently rolled out a managing partner program in which general managers are able to earn a “top-tier” premium salary, see their bonus potential increase by 25 percent, and contribute to long-term incentives through the performance of their restaurant. Other notable perks include car and dining allowances.
For hourly workers, Jim’ N Nicks offers up to $20 per hour for various positions including dishwashers, pit masters, cooks, servers, and cashiers.
The push for benefits comes amid a lengthy job crunch throughout the restaurant industry. The U.S. saw a record 10.9 million job openings to end August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with a good portion represented by accommodation and food services. Full-service brands are working with 6.2 fewer employees in the back of the house and 2.8 fewer in the front of the house compared to 2019, according to Black Box Workforce Intelligence.
While the managing partner program is only 60 days old, Ryback says it has already created much interest internally and externally.
“We’ve been fortunate through this labor crunch and the pandemic to have really low management turnover, and I attribute that to the culture of the company,” Ryback says. “I think Jim ‘N Nicks has always been a company that genuinely cares about people and genuinely treat people with respect and genuinely wants to help people grow and achieve everything that they want to achieve in their careers. I think because of that we’ve been fortunate with management turnover.”
To ensure growth is effective and responsible, Jim ‘N Nicks will check all the boxes that any other restaurant would when entering a new neighborhood, but Ryback and his team also recognize that execution comes down to hiring, training, and paying better than average.
As long as the brand sticks to those values, expansion will continue as scheduled, the CEO notes.
“We feel we’ve got the brand where we want, the operations of the company where we want, our financial performance [where we want], and most importantly, the team,” Ryback says.