Walk-On’s founder Brandon Landry and CEO Chris Dawson are propelling the sports bar brand to new horizons while staying true to the NextGen Casual’s team player mentality and Louisiana roots. 

Chris Dawson talks about joining Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux like someone finding religion. Everyone loves an underdog story, and that’s one reason the sports bar intrigued Dawson—because he had never heard of the brand before. 

“When I looked at all the components that Brandon had put together, I could not believe or understand why, for somebody who had been in the hospitality industry, how did I not know about something as incredible as what Brandon founded,” says Dawson, who became CEO in June 2023. “I dug more into the story, and it attracted me to want to join the brand to share this news with more people.”

It all started when Brandon Landry and Jack Warner decided to earn their spots on the Louisiana State University basketball team, trying out without a scholarship or any guarantee in the late 1990s. “I played seven minutes my senior year, so I figured I probably wouldn’t go play in the NBA making money playing basketball,” Landry explains. But he didn’t think of it as a setback. Doodling on a plane napkin on the way home from a game, Landry and Warner began dreaming up a plan for a sports bar with upscale food made from scratch inspired by Louisiana and Cajun roots, with an extensive bar program featuring unique cocktails and beer selections, and, most importantly, a “walk-on mentality.”

Barely out of their teenage years, the duo pitched the idea in an entrepreneurship class at LSU, where a supportive professor helped them develop the concept and form a realistic business plan. In the meantime, Landry and Warner started working in different restaurants in the area, trying to get as much hands-on experience as possible in preparation for launching a concept of their own. “I didn’t grow up in the restaurant business, nor did he,” Landry admits. “He and I started waiting tables and grilling and frying, bartending, you name it—everything we possibly could over those few years.”

The next tricky part was securing funding. Banks turned the dreamy-eyed pair away at first, only seeing two kids and figuring they’d probably fail to pay back a loan. “Everybody loved the idea, but the restaurant business itself is risky and [especially] to young, inexperienced operators, that just wasn’t going to work,” he says. 

Brandon Landry and Chris Dawson stand underneath a basketball hoop.
Brandon Landry, left, earned his spot on the Louisiana State University basketball team as a walk-on, which inspired the name of his future sports bistreaux brand.

“Thinking about being a walk-on, it’s a player that plays for the true love of the game; you’re not rewarded a scholarship, you’re probably not going to see much playing time, but you’re an integral part of the team, and being a walk-on is knowing your role and understanding that just because you don’t play in the game, you can still help the team win,” Landry says. 

That mindset is what pushed them to keep trying until the seventh bank they approached said yes. “Lucky No. 7; an SBA banker out of Lafayette, Louisiana,” he continues. “I’ll never forget it.”

The first Walk-On’s opened over 20 years ago in September 2003 in a 9,500-square-foot space with 300 seats, and a menu with over 100 items. “We didn’t buy a franchise, we didn’t buy systems or processes … everything was thrown against the wall to see what sticks,” Landry says. “So we were not good operationally in the beginning. We were your prototypical college bar.”

The quality of food and consistency of service struggled in the beginning, and they quickly learned they needed to make improvements if they wanted any chance of paying back their debt. They began implementing changes to the system with the helpful advice of consultants, with the goal of trying to incrementally get 1 to 2 percent better. “All of a sudden 10 years in, you’re 20 percent better,” he says. 

While the “walk-on mentality” is at the core of the brand’s philosophy, its point of differentiation became attention to detail when it came to food. “People down here, they don’t eat to live, they literally live to eat,” Landry adds. “We just started really concentrating on the products we bought, how we produce them, and how we execute them … that was really a turning point for us.”

They opened a second Walk-On’s in 2008, then a third in 2011 in Lafayette, which became their highest-volume restaurant yet, garnering $7 million per year. But it was the next store in New Orleans that really changed the game, because that was the location where former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees walked in and decided he wanted to become a partner and invest in the emerging brand in 2015. 

“We weren’t actively searching for a celebrity or athlete,” Landry says. “He called me one day and of course growing up a Saints fan, I was pretty shocked that I’m on the phone with Drew Brees … he said, ‘If I were ever to create my own [sports bar], I don’t think I would change a thing. You’ve already done it. I love the story.’”

Brees joined the Saints after Hurricane Katrina hit, “and there’s a reason why they call him ‘Breesus Christ’—because he was kind of a savior, not only to the franchise, but to the city and what he did for that city after Katrina,” Landry says. “I think what Drew did at a pivotal time for us as we decided to grow is he gave us instant credibility.”

Brees’ investment in the parent company spurred interest from other athletes who lined up to be a part of the Walk-On’s brand, like NFL Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne, sports commentator Scott Van Pelt, and more. “These bigger names out there that have just fell in love with our brand by being a guest and being friends of ours, it really helped spark our growth and interest as we grow throughout the country,” Landry adds.

The interior of a Walk-On's sports bistreaux.
While international interest in Walk-On’s is growing, the brand is focused on filling out the rest of the U.S. and ensuring franchisees are happy and profitable first and foremost.

Entering a new era of growth

What started as the classic business dream on a napkin has evolved to more than 80 locations with a robust development pipeline and average-unit volumes of nearly $5 million. Since receiving an investment from private equity firm 10 Point Capital in 2020, the brand has almost doubled in size, and is on pace to open 20 to 25 new locations per year. 

“Walk-On’s will be a 500-plus unit brand. The next few years are about leadership and building a world-class infrastructure to support our franchisees as we scale,” shared Scott Pressly, Managing Director of 10 Point Capital, when Dawson was appointed as CEO. “Chris joining the brand underscores our commitment to investing in support of this growth.”

Formerly of Driven Brands, Dawson initially helped establish the Take 5 Oil Change brand before rising to his most recent role of multi-brand president, leading the more than 1,500-unit Paint & Collision vertical. Prior to that, he was a CiCi’s Pizza franchisee, then the director of new unit growth at Denny’s.

“I love to entertain people inside my home and inside restaurants, so to be back in the hospitality world and have access to be able to take care of so many people across the world—it’s been in my blood and my DNA, and I’m invigorated to be back in this industry,” Dawson says, adding his insights and learnings from the automotive world will translate to leading Walk-On’s because both lean so heavily into using data to drive decisions.

Dawson’s experience as a franchisee helps him think from a prospective owner’s perspective. Though, his current priority is building out the c-suite to support current and new franchise growth, including roles in marketing, IT, development, and finance. “Today, the most important aspect of my job is building out the right leadership team around me to ensure that we’re moving this business forward and properly and taking care of our franchisees to the best of our ability,” he says. 

Yet, he clarifies they won’t rush to fill positions with the wrong candidate. “We’re going to make sure that it’s somebody who understands our Walk-On’s culture is a franchisee-first mentality,” says Dawson, which also applies to prospective franchise owners.

“It’s the matchmaker program we’re trying to implement now. What we’ve seen over the years is there’s plenty of money and money guys out there, and there’s great operators out there, but they don’t always know each other,” adds Landry. “A big point of emphasis with our team right now is developing a matchmaker program that we can marry the two and form great partnerships so we can grow the right way.”

Dawson also plans on using guest insights to help value engineer the menu, which has gone from over 100 items to about 60 offerings. “We’re going to rely far more on consumer research and data, and we’re going to remove ourselves from the opinion-based business and use the data to educate us on what our guests want from us and provide that,” Dawson notes, “but under no circumstances will we ever sacrifice the quality or the roots of this menu and what got us to where we are today.”

Walk-On's buffalo chicken sandwich.
“We have prided ourselves on being a very food-forward concept. Sports bars don’t have the type of cuisine that we have, and that’s been a point of differentiation for us,” says Brandon Landry, founder of Walk-On’s.
Walk-On's beer.
Former NFL quarterback Drew Brees became an early partner in Walk-On’s in 2015 after visiting the New Orleans location and falling in love with the brand.
Walk-On's food spread.
The menu at Walk-On’s, which has been streamlined from over 100 items at the beginning to about 60 offerings, is designed to have something for everyone, from classic bar staples to Southern-inspired eats as well as healthier options.

Walk-On’s serves classic bar staples like boneless wings in a variety of sauces, and hand-battered fried pickle chips, but also more unique starter bites like waffle cheese fries with jack cheddar, bacon, and banana peppers; Boudin Balls, a fried spicy pork sausage and rice blend; and farm-raised fried alligator.

Guests wanting healthier options can order the seared ahi tuna salad features mixed greens with cabbage, tortilla strips, avocado, edamame, carrots, red onions, bell peppers, jalapenos, sweet chili glaze, and an Asian sesame vinaigrette; sweet chili Atlantic salmon with green beans; or the lemon butter chicken with grilled chicken breast, lemon butter, corn grits, and broccoli. Walk-On’s also pays homage to its Southern roots with dishes like chicken and sausage gumbo over rice; fried catfish; Bayou Pasta with crawfish cream sauce and fried shrimp; Cajun Ribeye with hand-cut 12-ounce blackened ribeye and garlic butter, loaded mashed potatoes, and green beans; and Crawfish Etouffee smothered in a butter roux over rice.

“We have prided ourselves on being a very food-forward concept,” Landry adds. “Sports bars don’t have the type of cuisine that we have, and that’s been a point of differentiation for us, so it’s a fine line. You have an understanding of what got you here, but also, as you welcome multiple franchisees out there, we’re making sure we’re supporting them the best way that we possibly can so they can be profitable.”

While international interest for the concept continues to grow, the team is focused on filling out the U.S. and ensuring franchisees are happy. “We’re always going to be open to all conversations. At the end of the day, our goal is to have a Walk-On’s available to anybody that wants to visit,” Dawson says. “But today, right now, we’re domestically focused. We have plenty of white space to fill in the upcoming months and years … we’ll open as many as we can, but we’ll do it in a manner that’s smart and healthy.” 

Chain Restaurants, Feature, Growth, NextGen Casual