The New Orleans-born chain is doubling down on its marketing and franchising strategies with a push toward athlete partnerships.

In 2012, ESPN named Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux the “Best Sports Bar in North America,” and the Cajun-inspired chain has been building on that sentiment ever since. Founders Brandon Landry and Jack Warner, both walk-on players on Louisiana State University’s basketball team, evolved this concept from a somewhat disorganized college bar to a sprawling 80-unit franchise, with average-unit volumes of nearly $5 million. 

Private equity firm 10 Point Capital invested in Walk-On’s in 2020, allowing the company to nearly double in size and amp up to opening 20 to 25 new locations per year. This is the second round of funding Walk-On’s received, with the first coming from former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in 2015. 

The Brees partnership was notable because it fueled what has become an integral part of the Walk-On’s playbook. At first, Landry wasn’t looking for celebrity endorsements. But when Brees walked on, it attracted other athletes to the brand, including Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne. 

CEO Chris Dawson says franchisee partnerships like these double down on the way Walk-On’s approaches marketing and franchising initiatives, setting the standard for sports partnerships in franchising. 

“Our athletic partnerships are built on genuine relationships, forged over years of collaboration and a reputation for associating with well respected athletes,” Dawson says. “We’ve been able to leverage their influence to communicate our brand values to our audience and remain authentic to who we are … these partnerships enhance our credibility in the athletic space, but they also resonate with our core audience, which is important to us.” 

Continuing to redefine the sports dining experience through strategic marketing initiatives is Laurie Curtis, who joined the brand as CMO in December with more than 25 years of experience. Dawson believes these valuable partnerships with household-name sports stars will help her with her goal of elevating the Walk-On’s brand in the minds of sports fans and their families alike. 

With a host of franchisees who have found success with both the NFL and Walk-On’s, Dawson also believes this showcases the power of the brand’s franchise model and solidifies it as an attractive and unique investment opportunity for athletes looking to break into the full-service space. 

“Athletes are naturally drawn to us because of our atmosphere and affiliation with the sports world, which starts the relationship off in a great way. By franchising with us, they can capitalize on our proven business model and create hubs in their communities where sports fans and families can come together,” Dawson adds. “These consumers enjoy the quality of the food, a welcoming environment, and also they feel like they have a relationship with those sports partners, which builds a unique experience and allows for all parties to succeed.” 

Brees is a perfect example of someone who joined the Walk-On’s family and plugged into their community. As a former New Orleans Saints player, owning locations in the heart of NOLA has furthered his relationship with his fans and sports bar regulars alike. 

“Our brand has a strong emphasis on community involvement, and we find this resonates with athletes looking to make a positive impact beyond where they were in their sports career,” Dawson says. “Walk-On’s franchisees find more than a business opportunity … they find a platform with us to extend their legacy, keep themselves relevant, and continue to connect with their fans in meaningful ways.” 

It’s important to Dawson to make sure incoming franchisees understand how the brand caters to its guests and build relationships in a genuine way. He says it never feels like he has to sell a franchise to these celebrity athletes—they’re much more interested in the humanity side of things anyways, which makes the partnership a natural fit.

“We don’t say yes to everyone. They have to embody the Walk-On’s spirit and be passionate about the personality of our brand. We strive to create meaningful roles for our athlete partners, whether that’s through franchise ownership or other collaborative opportunities,” Dawson adds. “At the end of the day, we aim to leverage their talents to enhance our overall guest experience and drive success … but at the same time, we want our brand to be beneficial to them and the reputation they’ve worked hard to build over time.”

For those wondering what the Walk-On’s spirit encompasses, Dawson says it’s someone who embraces teamwork, perseverance, and genuinely loves to be around people. He compares the franchise model to a matchmaking program, and those characteristics are ultimately what gets people through the door. 


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In April, the brand elevated its partnership with athletes by awarding scholarships to college walk-ons. Newly retired Philadelphia Eagles center player Jason Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, Landry, and Dawson presented a $10,000 scholarship to a student at the University of Cincinnati. This marks the first of 13 scholarships in the works, as well as a collaboration with the Kelce brothers. 

“Our founder was a walk-on, so we want to continue to give back and be a partner in growing sports outside of our restaurant’s four walls,” Dawson says. “Awarding these scholarships are deeply rooted in our brand ethos and celebrating the underdog spirit. We’re offering a pathway for future generations of athletes to thrive and succeed … we’re proud to champion the heart of the underdog and provide opportunities for success both on and off the field, which showcases that we’re much more than just a restaurant.”

Moving into a future marked by a robust development pipeline, Dawson believes doubling down on these partnerships is an integral part of the brand’s identity and growth strategy. He’s always looking for ways to further engage the Walk-On’s community on a deeper level and expand its reach to new markets while setting the standard for what a sports-based brand should look like. 

“I’ll go back to authenticity. Securing more athletes in our franchisee network who share a passion for food and sports helps build more human relationships at a local level, both inside and outside the restaurant,” Dawson says. “We’re looking forward to exploring new avenues and ways to collaborate with our sports partners.”

Feature, Franchising, NextGen Casual, Walk-On's