After working with larger national restaurant chains, Eggs Up Grill’s new chief executive officer, Ricky Richardson, was looking for a change. He wanted to join a smaller company on the cusp of growth, one where he could leverage his skills from the ground up. The Pawleys Island, South Carolina-based breakfast chain felt like the perfect fit.
From North Georgia to the Carolina beaches, Eggs Up has built brand awareness over the past two decades. And for a smaller chain, the brand isn’t short on guest affinity.
“With 20 years worth of success and high brand awareness, we feel like there’s a lot of strong reception from guests and anticipation from guests,” says Richardson, who took the job last July. Richardson’s background includes more than two decades with TGI Fridays, where he most recently served as president and chief operating officer of Fridays USA, overseeing more than 500 restaurants. In addition to other senior management roles at the casual chain, Richardson headed up operations for Carlson Restaurant Group Worldwide’s acquisition of California-based fast casual Pick Up Stix. Earlier he directed all operations for the Florida franchisee of Black-eyed Pea, spending the first 11 years of his career at the Southern concept.
Richardson’s hire signaled the start of an aggressive growth plan under new ownership for Eggs Up Grill. In March 2018, the company was acquired from Skip Corn and founder Chris Skodras by WJ Partners, a private investment firm with a history of rapidly scaling multi-unit concepts, such as Pure Barre, a boutique fitness concept with nearly 500 locations. There were 27 locations at the time.
Today, Eggs Up has 32 restaurants. So far this year, two new locations have opened with another 10 planned by year’s end. Nine locations are confirmed for 2020. The company had sales of $22.5 million last year and average checks of $10.
Eggs Up operates on a 100 percent franchised model. That pipeline won’t change, Richardson says. About half of the new stores will be opened by new franchisees and the other half by existing operators. The balance between bringing new people into the system and helping existing franchisees expand is important, Richardson says.
“We put a big focus around the culture in the onboarding so [new franchisees] really understand what the brand is about and what it takes to be successful,” he says. “The other half would be developed by existing franchisees that already have brand and operational expertise, which helps that growth to be much more manageable. And it gives us confidence we can do it successfully.”
Eggs Up will enter two new states—Tennessee and Florida—in 2019. The expansion into new markets is exciting, Richardson says, but the company hasn’t forgotten about its core presence. About 75 percent of future openings will occur in markets where Eggs Up already has a presence.
Large Southern cities aren’t the focus of growth, Richardson says. Instead, the company’s sweet spot is markets where the population is around 100,000 people. Some of these include Charleston, Greenville, and Spartanburg, South Carolina.
“Our capabilities of providing great support for our franchisees and the focus is on the Southeast,” Richardson says. “National growth is not what we’re looking for right now. It’s in the Southeastern markets that we know well where we can see what our franchise partners know and leverage the brand awareness that’s already in place.”
It’s easier to capture the attention of new customers in cities of that size while maintaining a strong connection to the community. Development costs make more sense, too.
Richardson says breakfast concepts are experiencing elevated competition from new brands and other chains looking to expand, like Eggs Up. While the threat of sharing a market without another breakfast spot could stress out a company, Richardson says, it doesn’t deter his company.
Unlike other major breakfast restaurants, Richardson feels Eggs Up still has a mom-and-pop neighborhood feel. One of the company’s mottos is “Neighbors serving neighbors.” Many franchisees join the company after dining at the restaurant with little to no experience in the industry. The connection between the operator and the community allows the restaurant to capitalize on those relationships, Richardson says.
“There are big benefits from having the brand connection,” Richardson says. “That personal connection makes a huge difference. It builds on that credibility that a brand affinity has and makes it more personal and more authentic to those communities.”
In order to help support its franchisees, Richardson says, the company has heavily invested in technology, real estate, and training programs over the past year. These investments will help put Eggs Up in a good place so it’s able to support the brand as it grows over the next few years.
One of the major investments the brand has made comes in the form of the first company restaurant, which will open on July 1 in Spartanburg. The restaurant features a second kitchen, nicknamed the innovation kitchen, which will aid product development previously done at franchise locations.
The design of the corporate store features Eggs Up’s new prototype. With a fresh layout and design elements, this location creates more of a welcoming ambience for guests. Franchisees and customers will see a restaurant with more personality and a new energy, Richardson says.
A remodeling plan hasn’t been announced yet. “Our first franchise just had his 10-year anniversary, and he wanted to remodel his restaurant,” Richardson says. “So we’re using some of the color schemes and the new décor and artwork in the restaurant.”
Richardson believes other operators will incorporate new elements into their stores over the next year or two.
Along with a design facelift, the restaurant’s kitchen layout was reworked extensively. Founder Chris Skodras spent the last year figuring how to optimize operations. The new kitchen design will be featured in the company store and all upcoming locations starting this fall.
At the corporate restaurant’s innovation kitchen, new franchisees can train in the actual space and footprint their restaurants will have.
“To be able to train in the operating restaurant it’ll give them a chance to work on their skills and capabilities in a test environment,” Richardson says.
Revamping the menu
The Eggs Up menu once listed more than 70 menu items. As the rest of the company is refreshed, it was natural for the menu to change as well. Now, the menu has about 50 items with additional chances for guest customization.
A lot of the items that were removed weren’t moving, Richardson says. “Anytime you have items that aren’t selling at a high rate, you don’t make those very often,” he says. “So your execution is not always as great and consistent as you would like it to be. We wanted to make sure that we were taking items that weren’t selling out. That will also help us get more velocity on existing menu items.”
Six new menu items were added, including breakfast wraps, a breakfast burger, benedict dishes, and build-your-own omelets. More seasonal specials, like Red Velvet Waffles, Pumpkin Spice Pancakes, and new Southern Biscuits, are expected to roll out over the next year.